A travel advisor’s unique passion for what they do and why they do it, combined with the right product mix, is a recipe for solid sales growth and success. That was one of the key messages delivered to travel advisors at this week’s Signature Travel Network annual conference, built around the theme “As Unique as You.”
“Your perspective is unique. The product our suppliers offer through you is unique. Your customers are unique. It’s about how you merge those three together, to change your client’s perspective, maybe even change their lives,” said Alex Sharpe, president and CEO of Signature Travel Network, during an opening address in front of 2,200 travel industry attendees at the Mandalay Bay Casino and Resort in Las Vegas.
Signature announced a number of initiatives at the conference designed to help its agencies and independent contractors to develop their unique brand and value proposition, and deliver on that brand promise.
Some of the more prominent developments include a big push to expand luxury business development, new technology and marketing tools, and adding 100 resorts and hotels to its portfolio.
“The number one reason consumers say they don’t use advisors is because they don’t think you can create an experience for them that they cannot make for themselves,” Karryn Christopher, Signature’s senior vice president of sales and marketing, told the audience.
“I know you’re unique. I know you can. But you have to show the customer you can,” she said. Signature has developed a series of digital banner ads that their advisors can customize for their websites and for other online channels. “Everything links back to our email marketing campaigns so that we can track what your clients are clicking on, and make every interaction with your client as unique as you are.”
Karen Yeates, the group’s executive vice president, information technologies, announced the launch of a new digital communications platform. The cloud-based software will funnel all client communications, regardless of channel (including voice, text, email and messenger applications) through a tool that delivers the message to their Signature advisor’s SigNet agency portal.
The tool is PCI compliant, so that clients can even include their credit card information in their communications, a feature that received a rousing applause from advisor attendees.
When the advisor responds, their communication back to the client is delivered through the same channel that the client originally used, regardless of what communications channel the advisor chose. Additionally, all of the communications are recorded in Signature’s customer relationship management database, Sabre Corp’s ClientBase. This way, all interactions with the client are appended to their file for future marketing and segmentation.
Signature is also working on a B2B booking engine that will better integrate with supplier tools, as well as the Sabre and Galileo GDS.
Focusing on luxury empowers unique travel advisor business models
Operating in the luxury travel market gives advisors more room to develop that unique brand and value proposition, Sharpe said later in a private interview with Travel Market Report.
“Luxury suppliers have the lowest ratio of non-commissionable products and services. Combined with higher-priced trips, this allows for the kinds of margins that help an agent to be more creative, to deliver that extra level of service, to accessorize the sale,” Sharpe said.
“The higher up you go in the price point, the more value we can bring to the consumer,” agreed Signature’s Executive Vice President Ignacio Maza. “If your client is staying at the Ritz in Paris, we can provide complimentary breakfast and airport transfers. We can deliver the wow experience, like getting them into the Louvre after hours, so the consumer is amazed and delighted.”
Sharpe spoke about a trip he recently took with his wife to Rome. “We wanted to see the Trevi Fountain, of course, but as everyone knows, it’s very crowded these days, with people taking selfies and some even stepping into the fountain,” he said.
Working with IC Bellagio, a Signature destination specialist, Sharpe was able to book a porch overlooking the fountain, a spot available just to IC Bellagio’s customers. “My wife and I sat up there, looking out at the fountain, and I was a hero.”
Signature’s Senior Vice President Richard Lebowitz commented on how the group makes available to advisors a form they can send to suppliers, alerting them of their client’s imminent arrival and any special needs or interesting information, like the purpose of a trip.
“More often than not, hotels don’t have that information. When an advisor empowers a hotel to celebrate a client’s birthday, or greet them in special way, that develops a dynamic personal relationship with the hotel that makes the advisor look good,” he said.
Yeates watched this value unfold recently when she, some friends and her husband arrived at the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel to celebrate her husband’s 50th birthday. One of the other couples was checking in in front of them. Signature had alerted the hotel that the husband in that couple also was celebrating his birthday, and staff greeted them with two glasses of champagne.
“Here is this couple, standing in the lobby, everyone else staring at them wondering why they were getting this extra attention, and they were thrilled being treated so special,” Yeates recalled. “Moments like that can make for unique, repeat relationships between a client and their advisor.”
Ted Teng, president and CEO of Leading Hotels of the World, said that independent properties are especially capable of delivering that kind of service. Some 85 percent of Leading Hotels’ properties are family-owned and operated.
“So, they tend to hire managers with a local tie to the community. They tend to understand the local culture and also can relate better with the employees, and find what is real and authentic,” he said. “They are working with their guests to co-create these experiences.”
Sharpe also noted that suppliers operating in the luxury segment are creating additional demand for high-end vacations by expanding their offerings and introducing completely new product, like luxury expedition cruise ships.
“We’ve never seen this kind of growth in product like expedition ships and boutique hotel brands. And when you look at those categories, you’ll realize those are some of the best marketers in the business, so they are creating new demand for new product,” Sharpe said.
He cited Celebrity Cruise’s Flora, a ship designed and built specifically for the Galapagos Islands. “Flora will transform that experience, and at $1,200 per person per day, that makes great sense” for advisors to focus on selling it. “It’s a good growth strategy for advisors to educate yourself about these suppliers, incorporate them into your unique brand, and sell them, because they’re inspiring the client for you.”
At the beginning of the year, Sharpe reassigned Maza from his longstanding position as head of Signature’s hotel and resort program, to luxury sales development. Maza was replaced by Lebowitz.
At the Signature conference, Maza unveiled a series of educational seminars and summits that Signature will host in 2019, for agencies and advisors looking to expand their expertise in the segment, including a one-day luxury summit on April 10, 2019, in Dallas. Signature will host six additional regional meetings during the coming year.
Operate from your passion
While networks like Signature can add technology tools and negotiate supplier amenities for advisors, in the end, the foundational elements of a unique business model come from the advisor realizing what makes them so unique, Sharpe said.
“First and foremost, successful advisors operate from where their passion is,” Sharpe told Travel Market Report. Travel products are “so widely available across the board, even though networks like Signature are offering exclusive amenities, insider access, etc. But that is not enough on its own.”
Sharpe explained further: “They have to have a real specialization, and become extremely efficient in their marketing and sales, and their unique brand. In the past, you could be an Africa specialist. Now, you need to be a Kenya family safari specialist. Your brand has to follow your passion. Take the time to figure that out.”
Maza agreed: “The environment is so competitive. It’s absolutely necessary for advisors to make the effort, make it a priority to be unique. The advisors who are taking the time to do that, they are doing exceptionally well.”