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A virtual executive panel hosted today during Apple Leisure Group’s (ALG) Ascend conference tackled questions about COVID-19-era company changes, the role of travel advisors, tourism’s post-pandemic recovery and more.
Advisors wrote in questions in advance of the panel, which was moderated by Jim Tedesco, ALG's vice president of sales. Panelists included Alejandro Reynal, CEO and president of ALG; Ray Snisky, group president of ALG Vacations; Jacki Marks, executive vice president of travel agent vacations for ALG Vacations; Scott Wiseman, senior vice president and general manager of trade brands for ALG Vacations; Anderson Hernandez, senior vice president of contact centers and operations for ALG Vacations; and Mike Ehlers, vice president of groups for ALG Vacations.
During the hourlong discussion, Reynal doubled down on the importance of restoring travel confidence, while also highlighting the significance of ALG’s travel advisor partnerships.
“Travel agents are very important to us, and an important part of our business, and they will continue to be,” he said.
Specifically addressing travel advisors in the virtual audience, he added, “Your expert advice provides an amazing value to the passengers, and it’s important as we build back that traveler confidence. You are very much needed.”
Your expert advice provides an amazing value to the passengers, and it’s important as we build back that traveler confidence. You are very much needed.
Like most travel companies, ALG has faced more than its fair share of challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with some 400,000 reservations canceled that have affected more than 1 million passengers this year. (Nearly 3,200 cancellations were for group bookings, and ALG was able to keep about 40% of its reservations on the books.)
Marks also gave an update on changes to policies and procedures: Although cancellation fees are still in place for existing bookings, ALG will extend its decision to waive change fees through 2021, which will launch beginning Sept. 30. Revisions to existing bookings will continue to be available at no cost; however, advisors can still expect to see the 3% fee for booking through Vax VacationAccess and will continue to have commission paid out at the time of travel, rather than at the time of final payment.
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“We had to respond to COVID-19, and not react to it,” Marks said. “There have been a lot of changes in relation to policies and processes, and I know that’s not the sexy part of doing travel. We had the opportunity to respond or react. We feel that we responded and acted decisively.”
Support center wait times were also a topic of discussion. Call volume doubled during the early months of the pandemic, with times that crept up to 90 minutes, according to Hernandez. However, premium line call times have been reduced to 26 minutes and email response times to within 20 hours, largely due to new optimized call menu options; reduced hours of operations to concentrate resources in peak hours; the cross-training of agents to leverage skill potential across brands; and a new customer success task force.
When addressing the diversity of ALG’s portfolio of brands — which includes Apple Vacations, Funjet Vacations, Blue Sky Tours, Travel Impressions, United Vacations and Southwest Vacations — Snisky assured advisors that no changes will be made to the company’s brands in the short term. He also touted the company’s diversity of offerings as a selling point.
“We like the diversity of the brands; it gives us unique ability to compete in the marketplace,” Snisky said. “The reality is [that] we have to be efficient. [The brands] can’t operate as individual companies with total infrastructure for each brand. We don’t have any vision to scale back the brands, but we want to be efficient.”
The team sees bright times ahead, as well, with Reynal noting that restoring travel confidence is both ALG’s biggest challenge and opportunity.
Five months doesn’t define a relationship with a brand that’s been around for 50 years.
In terms of groups, Ehlers reported that the company’s groups department has not only finalized more group bookings in the last three weeks than throughout the entire pandemic, but also more than in the same time period last year.
Snisky acknowledged that although the company would have “handled service a little bit differently” in hindsight, “five months doesn’t define a relationship with a brand that’s been around for 50 years.”
“We know we need to do some things to improve, but the worst is behind us right now,” he said. “While we had frustration during this time period, we have brighter days ahead. And our focus on the travel advisor has not changed in any way shape or form.”
The DetailsApple Leisure Groupwww.appleleisuregroup.com