Travel Impressions President Scott Wiseman says he is seeing a greater shift toward complete customization, which is an area savvy agents are well poised to capitalize upon. The company’s new booking portal on VAX makes it easier to self-manage group and FIT bookings, and, in terms of destinations, it’s expanding significantly in Africa, Asia and the Mediterranean. Travel Agent spoke with Wiseman for more on what's new.
What are some of the newest trends you are seeing with your customers?
We’re seeing a greater shift toward complete customization, which is an area where savvy agents are well poised to capitalize upon. As resort brands continue to expand in some of our top destinations, they’ve been able to offer a greater number of amenities and attractions to appeal to different types of travelers. The building boom means a lot of new resorts and concepts. This has fueled growth in the groups market, particularly among multigenerational groups where reciprocal rights between adjacent family and adults-only properties has been a huge selling point. This provides more choice to the customers, allowing them to choose their environment as well as their room categories, while still permitting them to spend their time together.
How have you modified your offerings to meet these trends?
Our new booking portal on VAX makes it easier for agents to self-manage group and FIT bookings, allowing them to achieve higher levels of customization without having to pick up the phone. A wide array of updates and changes can now be administered by travel advisors in an intuitive, user-friendly system that also provides flexible payment and surcharge options. Meanwhile, our new Groups Dashboard in VAX automates the group booking process, streamlining what used to be an arduous manual process that required speaking to a live representative in our Groups department. Also on that side, we’ve redefined what qualifies as a group by unlocking group benefits for bookings of at least five rooms. It eliminates the complication of syncing up 20 travelers; opens up better, more competitive options for a wider range of travelers; and strengthens their sell to travelers that might be reluctant to join. In many cases, what starts out as a small group can be expanded and, ultimately, exceed the traditional 10-room threshold as more passengers decide to join. These groups may never have materialized had we required 10 rooms out of the gate — and our new system makes it easy for agents to add rooms and flights later on. Getting the business on the books initially is key and this is an area where Flex Groups has made an impact.
What new destinations have you introduced this year? What was the reason?
In 2018, we expanded from 1,850 resorts and hotels in 200 destinations to more than 250,000 properties in over 1,300 destinations. This included a significant expansion throughout Africa, Asia and the Mediterranean. Our domestic portfolio has 275 new U.S. destinations overall now for a total that numbers upward of 1,300, without even counting distinct areas separately. This was all thanks to our integration with VAX and direct connectivity with major chains like Marriott, Hilton, and others, which led to a triple-digit growth in domestic bookings. After last year’s large-scale product expansion, we’ve been focusing more resources in 2019 to agent education. Through July 2019 to January 2020, we have a packed calendar of social media takeovers providing snapshots via #OnLocaTIon and more unique selling points via #WeekendLearning Series installments. Both campaign types feature some of the newest properties and developments to hit the market.
What are some of the challenges on the horizon for tourism in general?
One of the key challenges agents face today is info-related ... specifically the role travel advisors play in correcting false or misleading information given to the general public. As consumers are bombarded with misinformation and conflicting opinions in the digital age, travel agents’ expertise becomes even more critical. Helping our agent partners rise to the challenge is one of the primary responsibilities of our BDMs.
What is your focus on the U.S. travel agent for 2019/20?
Our Semester of Social is a big focus for the remainder of this year and into early 2020. Agent training is another major focus. During last year’s Best of the Best conference, we added a technology training curriculum to the format for the first time, a decision that was driven by our shift to VAX which began last fall. Since then, we’ve introduced a ton of enhancements, fixed some issues and added many of the features agents missed from our legacy booking engine. So while our technology support was initially focused on assisting agents with the transition to the new system, we’re now shifting emphasis onto features and helping our partners unlock some of the advanced capabilities in VAX, which is where the new portal really makes its impact felt.