Week in Review: Industry Events, First Looks at New Cruise Ships

Dream Vacations and Cruise One, Signature Travel Network, The Affluent Traveler Collection, Ensemble and Largay Travel have all recently concluded events.

On hand for the 2023 Dream Vacations and CruiseOne National Conference this week aboard Carnival Celebration, we learned about the travel agency network’s top 2023 achievements, trends and new initiatives for 2024 and beyond. Among the highlights:

  • The organization’s new Group application has helped group sales improved 30 percent over last year
  • Franchise owners and advisors will have access to new, customizable websites
  • Dream Vacations will be launching regional TV placements throughout the country, including Washington, D.C., California, Texas, Florida and Nashville, TN

Top travel advisors were recognized during an awards ceremony during the conference, as well. The Franchise of the Year Award—renamed the Bobbye Haupt Franchise of the Year Award in memory of a franchisee who passed away in September 2021—was given to GetAway Vaca, led by Anne Harpold and Sharon Grant.

At Signature Travel Network’s Annual Sales Conference in Las Vegas this week, the network unveiled to advisors its new Circles program. The “Circles” will comprise 10 style travels—including Accessible Travel, Exploration – Active, Expedition & Nature, Family, Food & Wine, Golf, LGBTQ+, Positive Impact, Rail, Solo and Wellness Travel—that current specialists and those looking to become specialists in that topic can join. The programs will officially launch in January 2024 and may expand to other Circles, potential sub-Circles of related travel and even destination-focused Circles.

Karryn Christopher, Signature EVP, marketing and preferred partnerships
Karryn Christopher, Signature EVP, marketing and preferred partnerships, spoke about the network's Circles in Las Vegas. (Photo by Matt Turner)

Luxury marketing group the Affluent Traveler Collection (ATC) is introducing new technology, training and marketing initiatives for its 300-plus affiliated agencies. One highlight? ATC will incorporate artificial intelligence (AI) into its social media platform Social Connect and booking engine tripXpress. The network is also developing AI strategies for content creation in its website platform and lead-generation solution, OnlineXpress. Advisors will also be able to accept cryptocurrency as payment via tripXpress.

With a theme of “Level Up,” Ensemble recently hosted its annual Horizons conference at the Paris Las Vegas. It also marked the first time the entire consortium has been together since an acquisition and rehaul of the brand. At the event, the network announced a new social impact program, Spark. Through this program, members can choose from over 2 million charitable causes to support. In addition, Ensemble announced a one-to-one matching program with an initial group of nine charities including Doctors Without Borders, World Central Kitchen, Make-a-Wish Foundation and others. Each agency will have its own dedicated page where they can choose from a range of activities to participate in, create their own branded giving campaigns and show their support for these organizations.

Lastly, Largay Travel's Vision Conference 2023 recently concluded in Southbridge, MA at the Southbridge Hotel & Conference Center. Topics such as the rise of sustainable and regenerative travel in travelers decision making, the changing ways in which clients are looking to be communicated with and inspired, as well as the new important metrics and strategies needed to help measure success were all discussed throughout the course of the event. Attendees also participated in Bingo Card networking and a nighttime Storytelling Under the Stars.

As far as an upcoming event, the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) is relaunching its annual signature event as “The ASTA Travel Advisor Conference.” Formerly known as ASTA Global Convention, The ASTA Travel Advisor Conference will maintain a clear focus on teaching attendees the elite business skills needed to take their agency to the next level. The ASTA Travel Advisor Conference 2024 will be held May 29-31 at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas, TX. Educational options will be tailored to advisor needs by “tracks” focusing on “Cultivating,” “Accelerating” and “Innovating” one’s travel business, intended for new entrants to the industry, existing travel advisors and experienced travel advisor leaders. 

Cruise Exec Move and New Ships

The Grid_Norwegian Aqua_Norwegian Cruise Line
 Norwegian Aqua will debut a hybrid rollercoaster and waterslide, the Aqua Slidecoaster. (Norwegian Cruise Line)

Dondra Ritzenthaler, who retired from her post as senior vice president sales, trade support and service for Celebrity Cruises in April, will be joining small-ship cruise line Azamara in May 2024. Carol Cabezas, who has been with the company since 2017, most recently serving as its president, will be leaving her role, effective immediately. At the same time, Azamara also announced the addition of Alain Ferzli as chief financial officer. He has more than 20 years of experience driving profitable growth in the cruise industry.

Celebrity Cruises has revealed that the fifth ship in its Edge Series will be named Celebrity Xcel, making its debut in November 2025 in the Caribbean and sailing from Fort Lauderdale, FL. Like its sister ship Celebrity Ascent, Celebrity Xcel will offer The Retreat, a resort-within-a-resort area for suite guests; an expanded Rooftop Garden and Resort Deck with cantilevered float pools; a multi-level, multi-terraced Sunset Bar at the ship’s aft; a Daniel Boulud fine-dining restaurant; a redesigned Grand Plaza spanning three decks; and the return of the Magic Carpet, offering a chance to dine above the sea.

Norwegian Cruise Line also unveiled Norwegian Aqua, the first of the expanded Prima Plus Class set to debut in April 2025. Its inaugural voyages will sail to the Caribbean, departing from Port Canaveral, FL. What’s new? Norwegian Aqua will debut a hybrid rollercoaster and waterslide, the Aqua Slidecoaster. Complete with dual slides and a magnetic lift that propels guests through two courses, this experience will have three stories of twists and turns around the ship’s funnel. Elsewhere, the new Glow Court, a digital sports complex with an interactive LED floor, will offer a variety of interactive activities by day and transform into a nightclub in the evening.

Digging Into the Data

Speaking of cruises, an Allianz Partners USA survey revealed that most travel advisors say cruise bookings are driving the majority of their business, with more than a quarter responding that cruises make up more than 75 percent of their sales. Ocean cruises proved the most popular (81 percent) this past year, according to travel advisors, followed by river cruises (16 percent), expedition (2 percent) and themed cruises (1 percent). When surveyed on rising interest for cultural-related themed cruises that include immersion and exploration, 35 percent of travel advisors said they’ve seen more interest this year than in prior years.

Belgrade, Serbia
Europe’s recovery was mostly driven by Southern European and Mediterranean destinations, with Serbia (+15 percent) leading the way. (mareandmare/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

Looking towards Europe, the European Travel Commission’s quarterly report, “European Tourism Trends & Prospects,” found that following a summer of strong tourism demand, international tourist arrivals to Europe are only 3.2 percent below 2019 levels. While one in three destinations have reported an increase in arrivals over 2019 levels, geopolitical instability continues to have repercussions on Europe’s tourism outlook. The ongoing war in Ukraine still affects arrivals figures in Eastern Europe and the conflict in Israel poses risks going into the shoulder season, especially for destinations such as France, Türkiye and Romania, which are popular with Israeli travelers.

Good to know: In Israel, the Ministry of Tourism and other tourism industry leaders have launched several initiatives to help bring support and comfort to its people during this ongoing conflict. The Israel Ministry of Tourism, in partnership with the Israel Hotels Association and in cooperation with the National Emergency Management Authority, is providing housing in hotels and youth hostels for all those who have been displaced or evacuated. The ministry has already sourced tens of thousands of guestrooms and includes all meals.

Among the many other initiatives, the Israel Association of Travel Agencies and Consultants has been working continuously to ensure the safe return of Israelis on rescue flights, assisting citizens to find their way back to Israel in the wake of flight cancelations. The association has also advocated for fair flight cancelation policies besides keeping abreast of flight cancelations, schedule changes and rescue flights in real time.

Just Back

Origins Lodge
The wood-burning fireplace-heated hot tubs were very popular at Origins Lodge. (Origins Lodge )

Travel Agent’s sister publication Luxury Travel Advisor is just back from Costa Rica where it stayed at Origins Lodge, offering a sustainable, nature-focused and holistic approach to living. The property has just six lodges with king beds, rain showers and a large deck with a fireplace-heated hot tub, as well as a three-room villa. Guests can avail themselves of the resort’s horses to enjoy nearby trails, hikes to a waterfall and its wellness facilities, which includes a spa and yoga pavilion. The restaurant serves local cuisine with a French twist.

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