Signature Success

Signature’s annual conference reaches record numbers

By: Kenneth Shapiro

The theme of Signature Travel Network’s annual conference and trade show, held Jan. 13 at the Los Angeles Convention Center, was “connected.” And this year there were more agents than ever to connect with, as the event was the biggest in the organization’s history, with over 1,000 members and 500 suppliers in attendance.

Michelle Morgan CTC, president of Signature, told the gathering that not only was this the biggest conference, but the group had also hit all-time highs in its cruise and tour sales.

“Collectively, our network realized sales growth exceeding 22 percent in 2006, and advance sales for 2007 look even stronger,” said Morgan. “We are bullish regarding our future, and all trends point to a record 2007.”

Morgan also announced that Signature added 14 new member agencies representing 41 locations during 2006.

“Today our network includes 178 members, 300-plus locations in 25 states and over 1,000 consumer Web sites, collectively generating over $2.2 billion in annual travel sales,” she said. “Our goal is to continue to attract quality agencies to our network, while remaining true to our business principles and member requirements.”

Industry Trends

Signature’s executive vice president, Ignacio Maza, also took the stage to speak to the crowd regarding overall trends in the industry. He said that 2006 was a strong year, and that he expected 2007 to continue that trend.

Maza said expectations for the airline industry are the highest in a long time, with a $2 billion profit projected. He said he expected to see more fragmentation overseas, and in the U.S. more consolidation in the industry.

In the cruise industry, Maza cited strong numbers in the European market and softer numbers in the Caribbean. He also noted that the seven new ships coming online in 2007 represented only 5 percent growth overall in the industry, which could mean high demand for cabins on popular itineraries.

In terms of tour vacations, according to Maza, the major trend is toward finding new ways to make the product more interesting, more flexible and to provide clients with more freedom. In particular, family and group travel are growth areas for the industry.

Finally, in the hotel business, rates should be stabilizing after two years of dramatic increases. Maza said that while hotel rates might continue to rise, it should be less drastic than in previous years.

“And if there is one mantra in the hotel industry, it is that they refuse to become a commodity,” he said. “Every hotel company that you will meet with today is doing everything they can to differentiate and separate and distinguish their product.”

Maza went on to say that one of the most significant changes in Signature’s approach is the growth in its destination specialist program, which uses 66 companies in 90 countries.

“A lot of people say that the world is getting smaller, and frankly, for Signature, I disagree,” Maza said. “I think in the last couple of years we have proven that our world has, indeed, gotten bigger. And that’s primarily through our destination specialist program and our hotel program. Our destination specialists are our dream makers they are the people that are on-site, on-destination and that can do extraordinary things for us.”

According to Maza, Signature’s destination specialists can handle anything from airport transfers to cooking classes.

“Let’s face it, the world is changing by the hour, as we sit here, things are changing in Bangkok and Buenos Aires and what-have-you, and it is virtually impossible to know everything about everywhere,” he said. “That’s why we have these people that help us resonate all over the world with our customers.”

Maza then turned to the group’s successful hotel program, saying in the last 12 months it has added 200 hotels in 100 cities.

“Today we’re happy to say that we have 420 partner properties all over the world, which is unbelievable. We have coverage now in over 250 cities in 71 countries,” he said. “And it’s really a range of hotels, experiences and prices.”

New Developments

Also on the program, was Karen Yeates, vice president of Internet and Business Solutions, who recapped a number of the group’s recent accomplishments. One of the key developments was the launch of ClientConnection, Signature’s proprietary client database management system, which allows the network to consolidate all member client information with over 1.5 million segmented names. Yeates also said her team is negotiating with cruise suppliers to obtain real time cruise pricing, and show live fares in Signature’s Intranet and consumer Web sites.

Looking ahead, Yeates said her team is working to develop an online dynamic packaging technology that will enable its agents to combine air, car, hotel, cruise, tours and sightseeing components in one transaction.

Next, Filomena Andre, Signature’s vice president of sales and marketing, announced that the organization’s print and e-marketing campaigns in 2006 generated over 10 million consumer impressions. Andre also announced that in 2007 Signature will expand its Travel Magazine to a record eight editions, each reaching 500,000-plus households.

“Signature’s marketing approach has stayed consistent for 51 years,” stated Andre. “Our focus is on our members’ brand not Signature’s. Everything we do is built around the participating member.”

Moving to Las Vegas

Also speaking at the conference were Jan Swartz, of Princess Cruises/Cunard Line; Charlie Dunwoody and Janet Engel, of Holland America Line; and Vicki Freed, of Carnival Cruise Lines. Larry Pimentel, president and CEO of SeaDream Yacht Club, discussed trends and sales techniques for connecting to upscale clients, and Lalia Rach, dean of the Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University, received a standing ovation after her presentation on understanding customers’ generational differences.

After the general session, members moved to another hall for the conference’s trade show, which featured over 250 suppliers.

While past conferences have been held at the Century Plaza Hotel, the next meeting will leave Los Angeles altogether. It will be held instead at Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas on Dec. 8.

“We have become a nationwide force to be reckoned with,” said Tim Smith, president of Carefree Vacations/San Diego Travel Group and chairman of Signature’s board of directors. “Our members are thrilled to be part of Signature. We believe the best is yet to come.”