What the Agency Networks Are Up To

john lovellIn case you missed it, we're rounding up the top six features that will help you set your business strategies for 2015. For the latest travel industry news, trends and research, check out our new Owners and Managers page on Travel Agent Central. 

This past year was a solid one for the travel industry’s consortia and the outlook for 2015 is upbeat. Travel Leaders Group CEO Barry Liben perhaps summed it up best when he released his “State of the Travel Agency Industry” statement earlier this month, saying agents are stronger than ever. The statement was timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of when U.S. airlines first capped — and then cut — travel agency commissions, a development that did not, as many predicted, spell doom for travel agents.

“The naysayers have always been wrong about the travel agency industry’s supposed impending collapse — whether they thought it was coming about because of the advent of credit cards, the beginning of the computer reservations system, the dawn of the Internet or the cutting of commissions,” Liben said. “However, what they simply didn’t grasp is that no matter the ‘obstacle,’ the traveling public has always voted with their pocketbook.”

That sentiment is in line with Vacation.com President John Lovell’s assessment, which was part of his annual news conference last month in New York City. He told Travel Agent and other media in attendance that 2014 ended on a high note for Vacation.com and its 5,500 members, and that “after concluding with a solid 2014, we remain extremely bullish on the state of the leisure travel industry for 2015.” The new travel year has started with a boom thanks to a strong U.S. dollar and lower energy costs. Consumers are planning travel nine to 10 months in advance, proving that they are feeling confident about spending on travel in 2015, he said.

libbie riceFurthermore, Lovell explained that some Vacations.com partners turned the year with more than 60 percent of their revenue for 2015 already on the books, forecasting a strong year for leisure travel. Also, 84 percent of Vacation.com members feel personally optimistic about their business in 2015.

Likewise, with more than 80 percent of its independent agents participating, a Nexion survey released late last year was also upbeat, indicating that 2014 bookings to date were higher or equal to bookings at the same point in 2013.

Virtuoso has added its first agency members in Europe —16 in France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland and the UK. With the additions, Virtuoso has members in 25 countries, with 355 travel agencies and a combined sales force of nearly 9,000. 

It's also continued to forge new relationships; at press time, CEO Matthew Upchurch reported the network had inked a deal with Merrill Lynch. The agreement lays the groundwork for Virtuoso travel consultants to advise the financial firm's clients on how to spend their retirement years. The relationship is part of Merrill Lynch Clear, Merrill Lynch's approach to retirement planning that helps clients navigate retirement across seven life priorities, one of which is leisure travel. 

At Signature Travel Network’s annual sales meeting in November, President and CEO Alex Sharpe reported that “collectively, Signature now generates more than $6 billion in annual travel sales, a double-digit increase from last year,” adding that advance 2015 sales were growing at a faster rate than this time last year. “We are confident that [2015’s] results will exceed our ambitious expectations,” he said.

Ensemble Insights, an annual survey reflecting input from more than 500 Ensemble Travel Group agents, managers and owners in the U.S. and Canada, indicated that 2014 will, when the final numbers are tallied, prove to be a year of extraordinary growth for overall travel bookings, with 72 percent of respondents expecting an increase compared to 2013. 2015 promises an even stronger finish as 84 percent forecast an increase in travel sales when compared to 2014 booking levels.

“The results also indicate we’ve finally turned the corner and the economic downturn is behind us as nearly two-thirds indicated that business is returning to pre-recession — that is, prior to 2008 — levels based on their 2015 bookings to date. That’s great news and a long time in coming,” says Ensemble Co-president Libbie Rice.

tzell website

Tools and Technology

Earlier this month, Tzell Travel Group unveiled its luxury leisure travel website, Vacationsbytzell.com, which offers travelers enhanced, proprietary content on a variety of travel subjects of particular interest to the agency’s upscale clientele, along with improved usability and intuitive navigation tools and resources. Among the added features to the site are sections dedicated to celebration travel, LGBT travel, hotels/resorts/villas and concierge services. The site also includes Tzell Travel Group career opportunities, information on the NEXT program — an initiative geared toward recruiting, reeducating and retaining young professionals — and will feature a partner of the month, a blog, recurring offers and contests.

2015 will also be an important year for Vacation.com’s website — it will receive a complete makeover and is set to go live in spring, according to Lovell. The site will be geared toward consumers, making it easier for them to connect directly with agents through agent profiles.

The agent profiles or “snap shots” will highlight the destination strengths of each professional, be it Caribbean weddings or Alaskan wilderness trips. This will help the consumer connect with the correct agent and will make agents more visible to potential new clients. Vacation.com will help members create their agent profiles by providing editorial, photography and additional assistance.

Signature Travel Network reports it will develop a new proprietary itinerary management system for its agents. The app will streamline the communication process between consultant and client as the itinerary is created, developed and finalized. Signature “will be working with AXUS to provide a proprietary, licensed version of the AXUS Travel App that incorporates Signature’s in-depth hotel program content, cruise itinerary and ship profile content, and destination content,” says Karen Yeates, Signature’s executive vice president of information technologies.

A feature of Signature’s version of the app will be the automation of res card data from ClientBase into the application so consultants do not have to take an extra step to move client itinerary information into the application. Signature is also expanding its online marketing tools with the addition of the new adventure travel micro-site.

For its part, American Express Travel is “making investments in technology and partnerships that help our travel counselors continue to make great trips possible. We have the right partners and infrastructure in place to innovate and continue to be a leader in the travel industry,” says Yana Gutierrez, vice president, strategic partnerships and representative travel network. 

Destination Outlook

Vacation.com’s Lovell reports that top domestic destinations for 2015 include Alaska, Orlando and Las Vegas, while top international destinations include the Caribbean (by cruise), the Mediterranean (by cruise) and Cancun

Ensemble’s survey results indicate the top three emerging market segments are “family/multigenerational vacations,” “adventure” and “culture/history.” Members also ranked the top five “hottest” destinations for their clients in 2015 as: Italy/Sicily, Australia, Vietnam, New Zealand and Spain.

Results from a luxury travel survey by Travel Leaders Group anticipate very strong luxury travel bookings for 2015 and increased interest in Europe as the U.S. dollar strengthens. Top “up and coming” luxury experiences and destinations for 2015 include African safaris, United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Croatia, Vietnam and Cuba. Four of the top five international luxury travel destinations outside of North America are European destinations, led by European river cruises and followed by Italy, Mediterranean cruises and France.

Virtuoso’s Luxe Report predicts that river cruising will continue to grow in popularity. For the first time in five years it was the number-one trend in multigenerational travel. Adventure travel was another dominant trend, with travelers preferring adventures in Costa Rica and South Africa. Croatia topped the “Emerging Destination” list, while Iceland has risen in popularity. Cuba, Myanmar and Bhutan also did well in the emerging category.