“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it,” said Ensemble president Michael Johnson, quoting “notable philosopher” Ferris Bueller, to an audience of some 700-plus travel advisors, agency owners and managers, and partner suppliers at this year’s Ensemble Horizons conference in Las Vegas.
Life has been particularly fast for Ensemble over the past year –the consortium was acquired by travel giant, the Navigatr Group in May 2022 – and the Horizons conference is a great opportunity to stop, look around, and “level up” for the future.
“The last year has really been about integrating the company, staffing up, investing in programs, acquiring best-in-class talent, and also stabilizing the company,” Johnson told Travel Market Report. “We are now pivoting to growth.”
Johnson, himself, has only been with the consortium since the acquisition, as have most of the C-level group of executives leading Ensemble into the future.
“Our goal is to transform Ensemble into something new in the industry and reimagine what a consortium can be,” Johnson told the audience. “We want to provoke a different conversation.”
At its most basic, a consortium should be a business partner, not an affiliation, he added.
“When we talk about a new vision for the consortium, we’re really talking about a business partner,” Johnson told TMR. “A group that can support agencies and advisors through things like tools, technology, learning and development, access to partners to ultimately drive higher yields, higher earnings.”
Johnson said that consortium have played a “vital role” in terms of creating connections with supplier partners and providing marketing to drive leads, “but at the end of the day that stops when the agency owner walks into their agency or the advisor sits down in front of the computer and answers the phone.”
Looking to the future, he said, Ensemble believes a consortium should be more involved in helping advisors from start to finish.
“Our goal is to push you forward,” he told advisors.
Specifically, Ensemble is focused on helping advisors earn more, and, even more importantly, earn faster at the start of their career.
“It takes 11 years for the majority of advisors to earn the median income of $60,000 a year,” Johnson said. “It’s shocking… The case for change makes itself.”
People make travel better
While new tools and resources are essential, Johnson emphasized that advisors have to first recognize the value of what they bring to the table, and its not finding clients the cheapest deal or booking travel the quickest.
“There are thousands of people working, right now, to disprove that theory [that people make travel better], betting that a machine can book travel faster and cheaper than anyone in this room. And you know what? They’re right,” he told the suddenly subdued audience, adding that while its imperative that advisors not ignore the growth of artificial intelligence in travel, they shouldn’t fear it either.
“The truth is I think this represents an incredible opportunity to our industry, because it’s forcing us to come to terms with our value proposition… There is immense power in the combination of expertise and empathy. That combination has value.”
“Time is not your biggest weakness,” he added. “In fact, it’s one of your strengths. It’s the time you put into your craft, in developing your expertise, building your business, getting to know you clients, building relationships with partners, that is the most valuable and something that technology can’t replicate.”
New tools and resources
To help members provide maximum value, and reach – and even surpass – a living wage faster, Ensemble has been hard at work improving programs and introducing new tools that will allow advisors to level up.
“We want to help you level up, not just with knowledge but with practical solutions for you to put that knowledge into action,” said Kristina Boyce, senior vice president of operations.
Just about every tool and resource that Ensemble offers has been improved over the past year including marketing, education, partner programs, and booking tools.
“Our mission over the past year has been unwavering, to amplify the tools at your disposal, to help deepen those connections [to clients],” said senior vice president of marketing Shahla Lalani.
Among the new marketing tools are a “comprehensive suite” of customizable B2C newsletters that advisors can use to communicate with their clients, as well as two new consumer-facing magazines, Range and Depart, which both Lalani and Johnson said “rival any luxury travel magazine out there.”
One of the many programs receiving a overhaul is the Universe of Ensemble, or U of E.
“Frankly, it just took too many clicks to do anything,” Boyce said, telling the audience how it took her more than 10 minutes to register for a single webinar. “That’s not productive.”
Launching in a week, the revamped U of E will have an all-new Ensemble training academy with new 100- and 200-level courses, as well as several new professional development courses, in addition to many of the courses already in place.
In 2024, the learning and development team will be focusing on a new certification system for members, covering destinations, travel verticals, and specialty niches.
“The courses won’t necessarily be easy,” Boyce emphasized. “They’ll require time. You’ll be making an investment in yourself and your learning. We want certification, a badge from Ensemble, to mean something.”
On the product side, Ensemble is expanding its portfolio of partners across all verticals including air, cruise, hotels, DMCs, rental cars, and more.
In particular, Ensemble has grown the number of DMCs and tourism boards it partners with – something Johnson said had been a weak spot for the consortium in the past. Additionally, Ensemble has grown its air program to include 14 partner airlines, as well as exclusive net agreements with four airlines. As part of the coming upgrade to the ADX booking tool, the new air program will soon include a hook up to a NDC gateway (through Amadeus) that provides access to over 20 NDC providers.
The hotel program is currently is being expanded on a daily basis and starting in 2024, Ensemble is launching a hotel incentive growth program to provide incentives to owners and advisors when they support the hotel amenity program.
With the integration of Ensemble with Navigatr, agency and advisor members gained access to ADX, a booking tool that enables advisors to book multiple services, see Ensemble-specific amenities and commission levels, and create customized white-label quotes and itineraries, among other services. (ADX has been the booking engine that powers host agency Travel Edge Network – also a Navigatr company – for almost 10 years.)
In 2024, ADX will upgrade to ADX Plus, which will include the addition of new verticals, including rental cars, ground transfers, on-request DMC services, and rail, among others. It will also feature a robust bundling system that enables advisors to bundle each piece of a client’s vacation into one total package, with extra margins (determined by the advisor) added to any piece of the bundle, that can be presented to clients with one total price.
“This may seem like a different way of doing business, but this is what tour operators have been doing for years,” said Jessica Patel, senior vice president at TripArc (a Navigatr company), which designs and operates ADX. “And what it’s allowed them to do is command double digit margins.”
Last year, Boyce said, Ensemble promised members it would do better at updating the portal. In the process, the team realized the platform was simply lacking. In early 2024, the consortium will launch an all-new portal that will provide “massive enhancements” in navigation, user experience, accuracy and timeliness of information, business insights, and global search capability. It will also be where advisors access the ADX Plus booking engine.
The portal will be customizable so that advisors can pin things that are critical to their business or can hide info that’s not relevant. For instance, a cruise specialist can turn off notifications about sun and sand products.
“It is going to be dynamic and predicative and intuitive,” Boyce told TMR.
Also getting a refresh is Ensemble’s client website tool, which allows advisors, particularly ICs, to build their own professional-looking websites that Boyce said “allows your client and prospects to have confidence and reinforce their decision to purchase with you.”
The new tool will help advisors build a fully customizable website that highlights their knowledge, certifications, and expertise, and then pair it with Ensemble’s preferred partners, marketing, and offers to provide fresh, relevant content every day. On the backend, it features reporting and SEO.
Additionally, for advisor who don’t feel comfortable writing their own content, including professional bios, the system will include AI-enabled support for content writing.
Boyce added that the bulk of the demand for the client website tool is among ICs, who need instant credibility when getting started.
Last year, Ensemble launched the “Further Your World” fam program with three opportunities that equipped advisors with first-hand knowledge of destinations and. For 2024, Ensemble has expanded the program significantly with options in locations around the globe and from suppliers that range from Intrepid to Metropolitan Touring to Big Five Safari.
In addition to the program overhauls and updates, Johnson also announced a new partnership with Spark by Benevity. The charitable giving program provides advisors with access to more than 2 million projects that they can create fundraisers around. And, for select charities, Ensemble will match dollar for dollar all contributions that advisors and their clients make.
Embracing business intelligence
Also new for Ensemble over the past year is a focus on collecting and using data to make informed decisions. To fuel its new data focus, Ensemble partnered with two tech companies: Grasp Technologies, which collects real-time transactional data, and Environics, which provides data analytics and enables segmentation capabilities.
The technology will be used not only to help member agencies and advisor, but to better market and measure the execution of each supplier partners’ offerings.
Ensemble members that participate in the consortium’s marketing program will have access to the segmentation capabilities and the backend data, allowing them to make smarter business decisions, Johnson said.