Ensemble Celebrates 40 Years

Agent consortium debuts new products and tools, advises members to weather the economic storm ahead

By: By Deanna Ting

The Rat Pack entertains Montrose Travel staff // (c) 2008
Montrose Travel’s Jamie Hoff (third from left)
and Joe McClure (fifth from left)
are surrounded by members of The Rat Pack,
which entertained guests at the Ensemble Travel
Group Circle of Excellence Gala in Las Vegas.
(c) Gary Wildman/Wildman Photography

Given the current economic mood, it wasn’t surprising that there was a bit of a slightly subdued mood among the record number of Ensemble Travel Group members (approximately 900) gathered for the consortium’s fifth annual International Conference at the Red Rock Resort & Spa Las Vegas.

“We’re cautiously optimistic about the future,” Melinda Kelling, an agent with Sun City West, Ariz.-based Pickard Travel Service, Inc. told TravelAge West. “We weathered 9/11 and God willing, we can do it again. We will continue to give the best customer service we can provide to our clients.”

That didn’t mean there wasn’t plenty to celebrate. Now in its 40th year, Ensemble Travel Group is forging ahead and looking toward the future with a suite of new products and tools designed to keep its member agents afloat during the tough economic times ahead.

Ensemble Travel Group 2 // (c) 2008
Stephen Powell, Sonoma Travel Service;
Tina Powell, Sonoma Travel Service;
Joe Baptista, Acacia Travel;
Pamela Irwin, CTC, Ensemble Travel Group
western region business development director;
Carol Farnworth, Dimensions in Travel Inc.;
Jill Romano, Dimensions In Travel Inc.;
Ellen Posard, Sea 4 Sail
(c) Gary Wildman/Wildman Photography

President and CEO, Jack E. Mannix, CTC, opened the conference last Wednesday afternoon, ensuring a packed ballroom audience that “Ensemble members will survive and prosper.”

Both Mannix and his Canadian counterpart, Lindsay Pearlman, focused on the current financial situation, reminding members that travelers still need an agent’s expertise and that, with Ensemble’s new products and tools, they will become even more valuable to their clients.

It was a recurring message, echoed by various Ensemble directors and guest speaker Michael Treacy, who warned, “This is not going to be a depression, but there will be soft times.” The financial expert argued that it was still possible for agencies to see double-digit growth by focusing on offering superior customer value and having sound management.

Ensemble Travel Group 3 // (c) 2008
Jack Mannix honors Classic Vacations’ Greg
Bernd with the Tour Partner of the Year award
(c) Gary Wildman/Wildman Photography

Other industry executives offered similar advice. Presidents’ Panel participant Horst Schulze, president and CEO of West Paces Group, spoke passionately about customer service and retention: “It’s all about holding onto your customers. You have to have a top-line attitude. Go and get the business. Never give up on the chance to hold onto the customer.”

Still, it was hard to deny the impact of the current financial crisis on next year’s bookings.

Mannix later told a group of journalists, “[Next year], especially of late, has looked very slow. … If we can get through some elections and other economic challenges, we can salvage a half-decent 2009.”

Ensemble Travel Group 4 // (c) 2008
Suzanne Hall (Ensemble Travel Group),
Ed Fioravante (Las Vegas Convention & Visitors
Authority), Ericka Aviles (LVCVA),
Victor Fernandez (LVCVA), and
Jack Mannix (Ensemble Travel Group)
enjoy the Fremont Street Experience evening.
(c) Gary Wildman/Wildman Photography

To help agents weather the rough economy, Ensemble introduced a number of new products and technology services at the conference, the first of which brought a roar of applause and approval.

Agents cheered aloud when Mannix announced the debut of Ensemble Grand Journeys, an exclusive, all-inclusive and all-Ensemble-chartered product that agents can sell to clients. These trips will offer unique and commissionable activities — shore excursions included — best-in-class options, competitive pricing and on-site Ensemble Adventure Ambassadors to cater to each client’s specific needs and preferences.

“I think Ensemble hit the jackpot when they thought about [Ensemble Grand Journeys],” said Kelling. “The project is very innovative and it should sell fast. There are a lot of people out there who like to be considered "of a selected group" and the bragging rights that go with it are also an incentive for them to go.”     
The first Ensemble Grand Journey will take place aboard the Regent Seven Seas Navigator from Jan. 13-23, 2010 and sails from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. to St. Croix, Marigot Bay, Philipsburg, Gustavia, Spanish Town, Cayo Levantando and Grand Turk. Highlights of the voyage include appearances by celebrity chef Lynn Crawford and journalist Forrest Sawyer. Prices begin at $4,699 per person, not including shore excursions, and agents will receive a 16 percent commission on every booking. A total of 225 cabins out of 300 are available for member agents to book.

The new product is already generating plenty of buzz and even a few bookings. Susan Gannon, senior director marketing & development, cruise products, confirmed that two Ensemble Gran Journeys bookings were made within 24 hours of the announcement.

Another new product offering unveiled at the conference included Ensemble Inspired Journeys with a culinary twist. Thanks to a new, co-branded partnership with culinary tour operator Tour de Forks, Ensemble will offer its members five cuisine-oriented tours to Normandy/Brittany, Sicily and Southern India next year. 

“We’re really excited to be a new supplier and we’re looking forward to leading with agents,” Tour de Forks vice president, business development, Connie Walsh, CTC, told TravelAgeWest. “I’m a firm believer in the travel agent distribution channel.”

The new partnership is the five-year-old company’s first affiliation with a travel agency consortium. Commission for the new tours is 10 percent.

Other new supplier partnerships for Ensemble included Tripology (a software that provides targeted sales leads to agents), Variety Cruises, Air New Zealand, Echelon (a private jet membership program), Y’alla Tours USA, Alanka tours, Kinki Nippon Tourist Company, Liberty International Ltd. (a destination management company), New York Vacation Packages and Vanguard Travel Services (a Turkey-based destination management company).

To assist members in reaching consumers on the Web, Ensemble also debuted its brand-new Ensemble Client Suite technology. The online platform, which incorporates social networking capabilities such as blogs, forums, photos and personal Web pages, was designed and developed as an add-on to Ensemble Client Site, a service that helps members easily create and customize their own agency Web sites to reach consumers. Ensemble hopes the new technology will allow agencies to connect with their clients more closely online than ever before.

“The more profiled you are and the more someone understands you [from your agency Web site], the more you will grow,” explained Suzanne Hall, senior director marketing & development, land products.

Training for the new content management system is already taking place and John Jessy, senior director e-marketing & special products, expects to convert all 440 existing client sites with the new Client Suite by the end of 2009. While Client Site is free to members, the new Client Suite technology will cost members $35 per month.   

Another way Ensemble is helping its agents reach consumers is through its new financial targeting tool, which targets consumers more likely to purchase luxury travel. The new tool identifies potential customers’ income from both assets and wages up to $2 million and discretionary spending up to $1.2 million.

“When we partner with a preferred supplier [for marketing purposes], we can look at this data, which gives us a finer slice and dice to get the right customer,” said G. Carol Black, senior director, strategic marketing.

Looking ahead to next year, Mannix remained optimistic: “It’s going to be a bit of a struggle in 2009, but that doesn’t mean your business is going down,” he said.

Next year will also mark the return of the conference to Canada. The 2009 meeting will be held at The Fairmont Banff Springs in Calgary, Alberta, from Oct. 21-25.