Delta Vacations held its 26th annual Delta Vacations University at the TCF Center in Detroit on Sept. 21-22. It was the first time the company has held its educational conference and trade show in Detroit, though the city is a major Delta hub, inherited through its acquisition of Northwest Airlines in 2008.
After two years of holding the conference in Atlanta near the headquarters of Delta Air Lines, and more than 20 years holding it in Minnesota near the original headquarters of Northwest Airlines, the change of venue seemed to stimulate interest in the event.
“We have more than 1,100 agents each day, more than 2,000 altogether,” said Jennie Ho, president of Delta Vacations, “Forty-three percent are first-time attendees. We sold out even quicker than in years past. Saturday was a record, the earliest we’ve ever sold out. When you have a party in a new location, people come. People were so excited to see Detroit. So many agents have commented that they didn’t realize how great a city it is.”
The conference had attendees from every state except four, with a large turnout of Detroit-based agents.
“We have 180 partners attending the trade show,” said Elizabeth Moriarty, vice president of product development, “a really good complement of partners. We’re excited about the participation that we have. The feedback we get is that it’s the best education seminar and series held by a tour operator in the U.S.”
The company continues to build and refine its educational curriculum, and this year’s conference offered 96 unique classes featuring key partner hotels and CVBs, as well as Delta Air Lines and its affiliated airlines Virgin Atlantic, Air France, and KLM.
Adding destinations and hotels
Besides holding classes and a trade show, Delta Vacations uses the annual event to refresh its contact with its travel adviser partners and to apprise them of new developments.
One of the new destinations being offered this year is India. With Delta Air Lines establishing a new route from New York to Mumbai, Delta Vacations, as the vacation packaging division of the airline, is rolling out new packages to support the new route.
“We’re excited to be continuing to add to the Delta Vacations portfolio,” said Elizabeth Moriarty, vice president of product development. “We offer more than 300 destinations globally, more than 5,000 hotels as well as additional experiential offerings. We just launched India yesterday. Delta will be servicing India starting in December with service from New York to Mumbai, so we’ll be offering vacation packages into Mumbai as well as New Delhi.”
Delta Vacations has been concentrating most of its expansion over the last year in Europe and in the U.S. New U.S. destinations include Hilton Head, S.C.; and Santa Barbara. The company has also been adding new hotels.
“This year, we’ll be adding more than 700 new properties,” said Moriarty. “We have been consistently adding more than 500 new hotels a year for the last five to six years, with a focus on four-star hotels and above. More than 80% of our revenue is driven by four stars and up. Our focus is really ensuring that we are providing good hotel accommodations to our customers. Four- and five-star hotels make up a good percentage of our portfolio and that continues to elevate the customer experience, as well as the Delta Vacations brand.”
To meet growing demand, the company is expanding its inventory of serviced apartments.
“We’ve been offering more serviced apartments within Europe as well as domestically,” said Moriarty. “We find that it’s something that is very useful for our customers who want to have multigenerational families traveling, as well, a lot of people want to stay in condominiums and multiple-view accommodations. They like the idea of staying in an accommodation where they feel they are closer to the culture of the destination.”
Product developers are also concentrating on adding more experiential offerings in all destinations, including the Caribbean, where the region’s multi-cultural richness is often under-emphasized based on the idea that the Caribbean is only a beach destination.
“There are some unique things we are doing in the Caribbean to bring out the essence of the destination,” said Eric Fandek, senior director product. “For example, in Nassau, you can get together with a small group of people and go through a wine-building tour, in which you create your own wine. It’s almost like an adult chemistry class. You have a lot of beakers and different things in front of you, and you get to blend different wines. Whichever wine you end up liking, you can take.
“You get to pick out your bottle and your label, and they have that wine on record if you want to order it. You even get to bottle your own wine. It’s a cool experience, even for someone who’s not a true wine connoisseur. It’s just nice to be in that environment, to be creating something and to be able to share it with whoever you want to share it with.”
In Europe, the wholesaler is offering a lot of new culinary activities. “We’ve added a number of small-group, private experiential tours,” said Patricia Christensen, senior director of product. “For example, we are offering a London craft beer tour; an Irish whiskey tour in the Dublin and Shannon region; an Italian cooking lesson in Florence where you can go on a guided market tour and pick out your ingredients and then go prepare everything; and in Paris on the Left Bank, a gourmet walking tour where you can visit local bakeries and chocolatiers to sample their wares.”
The company is expanding its private tours across its entire range of destinations. “We are introducing a lot of private elements that help either cut through lines, make things a little faster, and make things more convenient for customers,” said Fandek. “For example, Chichen Itza, typically that’s a long 13- or 14-hour tour that takes all day. As a private tour, this cuts down that time considerably. You have a private car, a private guide, and they walk you through at your own pace. It’s a lot more focused on the individual customer and what they want and what they need.”
Customer service: ‘our pride and joy’
The company continues to hone its customer service practices.
“Our level of customer service truly is our pride and joy,” said Ho. “We really believe it’s what differentiates us in the marketplace, especially in the B2B area, where we understand that our travel adviser partners work with multiple tour operators and vacation package providers in the marketplace. For our call center and our sales team, the spirit of customer service and the customer experience is at the forefront of every decision that we make. It is in our DNA.”
The need to refine and improve customer service never sleeps, and challenges arise constantly as new issues crop up in the travel marketplace. Recent problems in the Dominican Republic led to a rush of clients wanting to cancel their vacations, which created a logjam in the company’s call center.
“Punta Cana has had a tough run recently,” said Ho, “and when the news started to come out, it was for a while every day, we were hearing something in the media. One night early in that experience, our call center director in Minot, North Dakota, called me at home and said, ‘Jennie, I’m sorry to tell you, things aren’t looking great at the call center because our call times got to about three hours wait time today.’”
This was an extreme divergence from the corporate goal at the call center to answer 80% of calls within 90 seconds. “Usually our response time is measured in seconds,” said Ho, “not in minutes, not in hours. So to get this call to say our wait time got to three hours was horrifying. I said, ‘Well, let’s figure this out. At this moment, what can we do to make a difference?’”
The call center vice president suggested asking Delta Air Lines if it could offer a special waiver for customers in the case of the Dominican Republic. People were calling in high volume and their immediate need was to cancel. Rebooking to another destination was a much more complicated and time-consuming process.
“We decided that if we could address the customer’s need right then to make a different decision and then allow them to come back and rebook their vacation later, if we could provide a service like that, immediately it would make a big difference.”
Ho immediately contacted Delta revenue management that night.
“We worked through a Delta Vacations waiver policy and put it into effect right away,” said Ho. “The next day, the call time went from three hours down to 30 minutes. For that entire month, we were hearing from the marketplace that our competitions’ wait times were extremely long. Our average wait time for the month of June was two minutes and 32 seconds.
“We didn’t get lucky. It was really the close communication and the partnership we have with Delta Airlines and how quickly our call center was able to really staff up all hands on deck, and really to be thoughtful about what our customers need. They still want to go on vacation, but they just need a little time to think about it. Instead of trying to rebook that trip, which takes many hours, because vacation planning takes time, we were able to tell customers, ‘We understand. You can get your full value, on hold basically, while you think about making other plans. And when you’re ready, come back.’”
Building morale and loyalty
It was a policy move that earned major brownie points with travel advisers. Kristen Molloy, vice president of sales, received a tsunami of good feedback on her regular rounds visiting travel agencies.
“I get to spend a lot of time in travel agencies and really talk to our partners and connect with them,” Molloy said, “and it was such an amazing experience to go into agencies as this was going on and talk to our partners, and many times they said, ‘You say you have our back and we feel it, but we really feel it now.’ It meant a lot.”
After each annual event, Delta Vacations surveys the attendees for feedback on their experience at the conference.
“We are interested to hear from their eyes,” said Molloy, “and we use that feedback for building next year. We ask, ‘What’s your motivation for attending?’ and we are really proud of the fact that education always comes up first. They are really here to learn, to build their own curricula, design their class schedules to build on what they want to learn.”
The annual event is also a big hit and a point of pride with Delta Vacations employees. The conference is entirely produced in-house and staffed with Delta Vacations employees, who volunteer to give up a weekend to attend the show.
“We don’t hire a third party to do the event,” said Ho. “Everyone works for Delta Vacations. Every year, we put out call for volunteers. This year, in the first hour, it filled up. It’s a unifying moment for all who participate to show who we really are.”