Travel agents should do their research before joining a consortium. // © 2016 iStock
It’s impossible to deny the power of a strong community.
At one time, groups were formed purely as a means for survival. The interests of its members were primal and straightforward — food, water and shelter — and the risks of going it alone usually didn’t end well.
The same elements of community still exist today (albeit, at much lower stakes), and travel advisors have found that joining together can improve both their work and personal lives. These agent communities may go by different names — co-ops, franchises, consortia or marketing organizations — but whatever they call themselves, it is clear that there is strength in numbers.
A consortium’s benefits are not purely financial, although many advisors will admit that membership, which typically includes booking incentives and group rate pricing, has had a major impact on their bottom line. There’s also a vast array of marketing programs, educational events and networking opportunities created specifically to enhance a relationship with a set of preferred suppliers.
“My hat is off to most of these groups,” said Joanie Ogg, co-founder of the National Association of Commissioned Travel Agents and co-owner of Ogg Marketing Group. “The old adage ‘The strong will survive’ seems very appropriate here. There are leaders in this arena who have set the bar high. They have changed up their games to adjust their business models and make their member agencies grow and prosper.”
But before joining one of these powerhouse networks, it is crucial for advisors to take the time to do their homework on each organization, she says, including taking a look at each preferred supplier list, the provided agent tools and more.
Then, she suggests agents make a list of the benefits and rank them on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being extremely important and 1 being somewhat important, giving a good benchmark of where each network aligns with their needs.
So whether you’re an industry newbie thinking of joining or a seasoned seller looking to change affiliation, here’s a guide to some of the key players in the game: the five largest agent networks based on the number of locations served — according to Travel Weekly’s 2016 Power List — along with a sampling of their newest offerings.
Vacation.com/Travel Leaders Network
Locations Served: 7,000
On Jan. 1, 2017, Vacation.com members will become affiliates of the all-new Travel Leaders Network (TLN), thanks to the consolidation of Vacation.com with franchise organizations Travel Leaders Associates and Results! Travel, all of which are entities of Travel Leaders Group (TLG).
TLN will be the largest travel agent network in the industry, with Stephen McGillivray, chief marketing officer for TLG, likening it to the deal that brought car rental companies Enterprise, National and Alamo together as Enterprising Holdings, or the massive consolidation of Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines back in 2008.
According to Steve Loucks, chief communication officer for TLG, the merger will bring together the best of all three organizations, giving agent members “added muscle.”
“Despite the size, which gives us strength and clout as an organization, the ability for us to really distinguish between our members and give them the attention they are due as individual members is not going away,” Loucks said. “We have incredible teams in place that work very closely with each member.”
MaryLyn Klein, vice president of agent development for host agency Ticket to Travel in San Jose, Calif., is a current Vacation.com member who believes the merger will increase business opportunities.
“Having a larger group will only benefit us,” she said. “As far as the supplier relationships are concerned, we are going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
How to Join: The online application for membership to the new TLN includes giving information on annual sales volume, corporate vs. leisure sales and travel agent affiliations with organizations such as Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA).
In the Toolbox — What's New? Once finalized, TLN will serve 35,000 agents worldwide and represent $17 billion in annual sales. And after the official launch, the marketing, educational and technology resources used by agents who are members of Vacation.com — including the popular Engagement marketing tool — will still be available to current and new members. Agent Snapshot, which helps advisors generate new leads from clients who visit Vacation.com through a search engine, will be renamed “Agent Profiler,” sourced instead from Travel Leader’s website.
Vacation.com’s extranet will also be consolidated with the franchise organizations into a new “Agent Universe” platform.
TravelSavers and NEST
Locations Served: 2,500+ (TravelSavers); 500+ (NEST)
TravelSavers, a family-run consortium under parent company American Marketing Group, Inc. (AMG), was founded more than 45 years ago. In addition to TravelSavers, AMG owns and operates the Network of Entrepreneurs Selling Travel (NEST), which caters to home-based agents, and is parent company to 16 additional travel brands.
The resources provided by AMG’s other brands — including the Travel Tix air-ticket fulfillment service and the after-hours Travel Helpline — are at members’ disposal, which is seen as a major selling point for the consortium.
“We are big enough to serve everyone’s needs and human enough to be a trusted partner, creating remarkable efficiencies and profits and — most of all — creating travel experiences that dreams are made of,” said Kathryn Mazza-Burney, executive vice president of sales for TravelSavers.
This human aspect was especially attractive to Billie Ruff, president of Billings, Mont.-based Travel Cafe, who says she has been approached by different consortia many times since starting her own agency in 1999. A large part of her decision in choosing TravelSavers, she says, had to do with the family behind it.
“I believe that the leadership of an organization is important to investigate,” Ruff said. “The Mazza family always has been and will continue to be leaders in our industry, and they are always a step ahead of the issues our industry faces. I believe they are visionary in their approach to the business and their members.”
How to Join: Membership to TravelSavers is invitation-only and location-based. Agents who are interested in affiliating will be reviewed based on location, business plan requirements and their commitment to top-of-the-line business ethics and policies. Home-based agents interested in joining NEST can fill out a Priority Consideration Application online.
In the Toolbox — What’s New? In October, TravelSavers launched a “reimagined” version of TripXpress, the consortium’s itinerary builder and booking platform. The tool allows agents to book more than 120,000 properties in 180 countries and set their own commission. Additionally, the new rollout will aggregate content from CruiseExpress, a cruise booking platform, and allows the option to add tours, excursions and transportation.
Ensemble Travel Group
Locations Served: 850
Ensemble Travel Group is a member-owned cooperative with approximately half of its members based in Canada. Ensemble’s business model may be especially attractive to new agents who may not be able to afford to become shareholders immediately, thanks to the introduction of the Ensemble Affiliate Division, which provides a non-shareholder option. Once enrolled in this affiliate program, advisors will still have use of all marketing, trade and technological resources available to full members, with the opportunity to become shareholders later on.
“This option appeals nicely to agencies currently not affiliated with a consortium to test the waters, or for those who are doing their due diligence about what’s available in the marketplace that might better suit their needs,” said Lindsay Pearlman, co-president of Ensemble.
But seasoned sellers of travel, such as Ken Gagliano, president of Maitland, Fla.-based host agency Travel Planners International, see another benefit to membership: partnership.
“We were looking for a true home where we could be valued,” Gagliano said. “If you’re doing business with a company, it has to be a win-win for both companies. This membership is about sharing ideas, best practices and benefiting everyone as a whole.”
How to Join: Potential members must have been in business for a minimum of two years, have accreditation by either the Airlines Reporting Corporation, IATA or CLIA; and demonstrate a minimum level of preferred supplier sales. Once members, Ensemble agents must pay an annual membership fee, purchase a share of stock in the cooperative — unless they are in the aforementioned program — and attend the consortium’s annual international conference.
In the Toolbox — What’s New? Beginning early 2017, agents will have access to the University of Ensemble (U of E), a new educational tool that will function as a member’s “go-to source for all things related to training,” according to Pearlman. Benefits will include live and online training specialist and certification programs, webinars and a rewards program.
Locations Served: 736
Virtuoso advisors pride themselves on curating the finest in luxury travel. A name that’s recognizable to many consumers, Virtuoso serves 41 countries and is host to one of the biggest annual events in the industry: Virtuoso Travel Week. Often characterized as the “Fashion Week of Travel” by attendees, this year’s conference hosted more than 5,000 attendees who participated in 700 unique networking events.
“We are a global network of travel agencies,” said David Kolner, senior vice president of global member partnerships. “But it’s not just the volume — it’s the reach. These advisors have access to tricks, tools and advantages that no other agency would have. It gives you a deeper, broader product reach than you get from other companies, which I think is really emerging as a key benefit for our members.”
Shelby Donley, owner of Phoenix-based Camelback Odyssey Travel, believes her Virtuoso affiliation is “the single most important alliance” she has, citing the organization’s innovative technology and its lead-generation programs as especially beneficial.
Advisors who may be eyeing Virtuoso as a possible affiliate should have a “relentless obsession with detail,” Donley says.
“We’re presenting the best travel opportunity to the client, and that doesn’t always mean the most expensive,” she said. “We’re not package sellers; we’re doing ‘couture’ travel.”
How to Join: Membership to Virtuoso is invitation-only and works in two ways: Full-time employees or independent contractors can affiliate with a Virtuoso host agency, or individual agencies can receive membership independently. Individual agents interested in pairing with a Virtuoso host agency will need to complete an online survey in order to be matched with a member agency, while agencies looking to become members on their own will need to fill out an “Expression of Interest” form and answer questions about sales volume, provide professional references and more.
In the Toolbox — What’s New? The networking opportunities provided by Virtuoso Travel Week will soon be available to advisors who can’t make the annual Las Vegas event. Within the next month, the network will be announcing the dates and locations of a Travel Week world tour that invites advisors to “get that feeling of the global event” outside of Las Vegas, Kolner says.
“It’s an event you have to ‘feel,’” he said. “It’s not something you just attend. We definitely are becoming a larger organization, but I think the advantage to that is that there are more choices for people to really get an in-depth experience on exactly what they want to learn about at these events.”
Signature Travel Network
Locations Served: 505
Like Ensemble, Signature Travel Network is a member-owned cooperative. Members have use of customizable marketing, technology and educational tools that can feature their own brand and logos. It’s this sense of community that “puts the focus on the travel professionals, not the network” and sets Signature apart from the crowd, according to Alex Sharpe, president and CEO of the organization.
“Signature promotes transparency and connectedness among its members and preferred partners,” he said. “We always put the needs of our members first, which our preferred partners value.”
Tucson, Ariz.-based Bon Voyage Travel has been affiliated with a number of consortia over the years, but its president, Ryan Hansen, says he believes the ability to thrive as a stand-alone brand — while simultaneously learning from other members — was especially attractive when joining Signature 10 years ago.
“We want our customers and our clients to align with our brand,” Hansen said. “Signature is behind every member — they support and prop us up. As a co-op, each member benefits from the other’s successes, not just from a global standpoint, but financially as well.”
How to Join: To become a member of Signature, agents must first complete the Agency Owner form online and bring in at least $2 million in preferred supplier sales per year. There are no annual membership fees and no contracts, but members must engage with the network’s technology, marketing and educational tools; attend the annual owners and sales meeting; use ClientBase’s Res Card system; and be an active member of ASTA.
In the Toolbox — What’s New? Members who use ClientBase will now have the ability to market to prospective clients after an initial inquiry and before they are booked, according to Karen Yeates, executive vice president of information technologies for Signature. Additionally, a new email tool has launched that will retarget clients who didn’t open an original e-blast by using up to five different subject lines in the same campaign.