Signature’s CEO: Advisors Will Guide Us Back to Travel

Alex Sharpe, Signature Travel Network’s president and CEO, launched Signature Virtual Connections to a worldwide audience of 2,000 members and partners in August. The virtual program, all focused on selling travel in a COVID-19 world, is touted as the cornerstone of Signature’s recovery plan.

“We need to embrace the new travel landscape and consumer sentiment, with new approaches to selling travel,” said Sharpe during the event. “Unfortunately, we had to cancel our annual conference, which would have brought us all together in October — but rather than just move that same format to a virtual event, we decided to rethink our approach.”

This approach includes partner updates with advisors; destination presentations led by Ignacio Maza, executive vice president; virtual consumer events and more. They will be spread out from August through December; however, Karryn Christopher, EVP, marketing and preferred partnerships, told media that the virtual events may become a staple and Signature will continue to offer them as an additional form of networking post-COVID-19.

During the opening presentation, Sharpe shared that even in these difficult times, interest in joining Signature remains high. “Signature members have acquired new agencies and we have also welcomed new members that have converted from other consortia.” New members that joined in 2020 include Boca Raton Travel & Cruises, Cadillac Travel, Edgewood Travel, Elevations Travel, Prestige Travel, Stellar Travel, Travel of America, Unique Romance and Adventure Travel and Vista Travel Associates.

Similarly, while noting that Signature put an effort on working more with its existing supplier partners, it did bring on three new partners during the pandemic. They were: EmpireCLS Worldwide chauffeured services, which has operations in over 700 cities worldwide and owns much of its fleet to ensure quality; HVN Travel Group, which has a portfolio of over 175,000 residences worldwide (primarily in contemporary and premium market but with some five-star options, as well); and Memorable Belize, an expansion of the existing Signature partner Memorable Costa Rica. Clearly, the first two are attempting to offer more options for Signature advisors as their clients may be seeking more road trips or inquiring about stays in villas or private residences as a result of COVID-19.

At a press conference during Signature’s virtual conference, Sharpe addressed how the various agencies within the network are handling the COVID-19 setback. Those in the luxury sector are having somewhat less of a challenge than those handling mass-market travel, he said.

“The luxury folks are well positioned to pivot,” said Sharpe. “They have a rapport with their customers and an intimate knowledge of them. Those that are more of a cruise-only agency, that might have more of a call center setup versus a traditional travel agency, they’re going to have to work really hard to figure out how they can prove value to customers and at how they share information and position themselves as the experts.”

Sharpe said, a few months ago, an owner of a very successful agency within the network revealed that she wasn’t going to chase late 2020 business at this point. Instead, her sights are set on 2021. “I thought, ‘Wow, if you have the cash reserves to do that, what a phenomenal way to make sure that 2021 is your best year ever,’” said Sharpe. “She made the conscious decision that chasing a handful of domestic hotel bookings for the balance of this year wasn’t going to make a big enough difference. Even though she felt her advisors could sell domestic travel, they specialize in Europe. She wanted them to do what they were great at instead.”

Now more than ever, he added, agencies must charge service fees. Signature’s Nolan Burris has had one-on-one consultations with close to half of the network’s members around what kind of fee structure they should adopt. “Do you want to do packages? Do you want to have a menu? He’s got a bunch of examples because it’s not one size fits all,” said Sharpe, adding that once the agency decides which route to take, Burris will circle back and do a webinar or a Zoom call with them to set up the fee structure and to help them become more confident in selling their value.

Advisors have emailed Burris to thank him and to say, “I charged my first fee and the customer didn’t blink.”

“We’re not talking about transaction fees of $30, we’re talking about advising fees, such as $250 to [plan a trip]. But you’ve got to then back it up and bring the value,” said Sharpe.

Bottom line? The time agencies are taking to reevaluate the value they deliver to their customers will pay off when travel comes back. 

“I think we’re going to be in a much better position,” said Sharpe. “The profit per advisor and the profit per customer will be much greater coming out of this.”

Another truth that has evolved from this downturn?

“The value of a travel advisor has never been greater,” said Sharpe. He recalls attending an ILTM breakfast in Cannes when a travel advisor stood up and said, “We don’t get enough credit from all of you.” The advisor went on to say: “When things happened in Mexico and people were scared to go, advisors saved Mexico. When people wouldn’t go to Africa because of Ebola, travel advisors educated their clients on geography and made them understand and made them feel comfortable about going, and they brought travelers back. It was advisors that led the way.”

In that same manner, Sharpe said, travel advisors are constantly advising their clients on the realities of travel issues and therefore serve as a true advocate for destinations and the entire industry.

For that reason, the cruise industry is extremely loyal to the travel agent distribution channel, particularly in current times.

“They’re going to need the advocacy from the travel advisor community; that’s why you’re seeing the cruise lines go to such extensive efforts to support us,” said Sharpe. “Think about if you owned a company, who is giving someone a full refund and writing a check to the travel advisor for commission? Who’s going to say, ‘Even though we didn’t get the money, we know you did the work, so we’re going to pay the commission now and if you take this future travel credit and you get it rebooked next year, we’re going to pay commission again.’ It’s not because they’re nice people [and they are nice people], it’s because they need the travel advisor community.” 

“Thankfully they also recognize that the travel advisor community is going to need their resolute and innovative support to ensure we both make it through this together,” Sharpe added.

Plaza Travel Joins Frosch

Frosch International Travel, Inc. has purchased a 51 percent interest in Plaza Travel of Woodland Hills, CA. Plaza Travel has more than 100 advisors and had sales of over $80 million in 2019. Plaza Travel will retain its brand and no major operating changes are anticipated at the company, including a long-term commitment for Steve Orens, president of Plaza Travel, to remain as partner to run and grow the business. 

Steve Orens of Plaza Travel, with his wife at the Malibu Beach Inn.

The partnership gives Plaza Travel the opportunity to accelerate growth in the corporate, entertainment, leisure and independent contractor markets as well as pursue strategic acquisitions. Plaza Travel will benefit from access to innovative technologies and Frosch’s national and global infrastructure and platform. 

Frosch, co-headquartered in New York and Houston, generates more than $2.2 billion in annual travel spend; it has 2,200 employees in more than 40 locations globally. Frosch and Plaza Travel are part of Signature Travel Network.

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