With a dozen years of rapid growth under its belt, Signature Travel Network marked its 60th anniversary in 2016—and the member-owned cooperative had plenty to celebrate at its annual sales meeting in Las Vegas in December. The California-based group also announced a major investment in its mobile customer-service app, part of its ongoing drive to ensure the relevance and efficiency of frontline consultants.
Now, with its eyes to the future, Signature plans to “double down” on training, while helping its members find innovative ways to get to market and continuing to evolve its technology tools, president and CEO Alex Sharpe told Travel Market Report.
It was in 2004 that Signature made the strategic decision to expand from its largely West Coast focus and develop a national presence. To make it happen, Signature hired industry dynamo Ignacio Maza, charging him with building its hotel and resorts program and a DMC or “destination specialist” program. It also opened a New York office, while maintaining its headquarters in Marina del Rey, CA.
The changes sparked huge growth, compounded by the simultaneous growth of members such as Frosch, Travelstore, Plaza Travel and Tzell. By 2006 Signature’s sales had doubled to $2 billion. In 2009, sales hit $4 billion, and last year Signature Travel Network clocked in at $7 billion.
“It was exponential growth, in that first decade in particular,” said Sharpe, a former cruise-line executive who joined Signature in 2011 and assumed the top leadership role in September 2013, shortly after the death of his predecessor and longtime Signature leader Michelle Morgan.
Today, Signature Travel Network encompasses 211 member agencies and nearly 500 retail locations across the United States and Canada. More than 50% of their sales are in luxury travel. (There are also six overseas members who, unlike North American shareholder members, pay to belong to Signature.)
Signature’s 2017 hotels and resorts program now includes 978 properties, an 8% increase over 2016.
Using technology to build relations
Asked to describe Signature’s core strengths, Sharpe emphasizes that “the strength of the network is the consultants.” But it is technology that forms “the backbone” of Signature’s offering for its members, he said. “The technology facilitates the marketing. It makes the lives of consultants easier. It makes them more efficient and more relevant with their customers. It facilitates some of our training programs.”
The overriding goal of Signature’s technology programs is to “create ties between consultants and their customers,” he said.
The latest initiative is aimed at driving 100% adoption of Signature’s mobile customer service tool, the Pocket Travel Consultant app. The app consolidates clients’ travel itineraries and reservations and destination information; enables push notifications for things like schedule changes and weather updates, and facilitates consultant-client communications via an in-app messaging tool. “Think TripIt, but broader,” Sharpe said, adding pointedly, “it’s not just for younger people.”
Now Signature is underwriting the app’s cost for its agencies in a big way. Under a new tiered plan, the yearly price drops from more than $240 per consultant to as low as $20. Sharpe anticipates that 90% of its leisure consultants will be using the app by year-end.
Popular tech tools
One Signature tool that has gained traction is Cruise Track, an automated system that tracks changes in price and itinerary on individual cruise bookings, so Signature’s consultants can proactively notify clients. “That puts us in the driver seat,” Sharpe said.
Another popular tool is Client Reach, which sends custom trigger messages from travel consultants to clients throughout the customer cycle, beginning with price quotes through to destination information, reminders to buy add-ons such as trip insurance, welcome home messages and follow-up emails.
Client Reach also messages clients while they are traveling, giving Signature agents “the opportunity to solicit feedback and act on it,” Sharpe said. Those in-trip emails have the highest open rate of any of the messages, well over 50%, and high reply rates too.
The central nervous system of Signature’s technology programs is SigNet, the intranet where frontline consultants can access more than 100,000 pages of content, from cruise ship deck plans to pricing, promotional offers, supplier news, information on educational trips and trainings and more. “Everything happens from there,” Sharpe said.
Member-owned and ‘laser-focused’
One key to understanding Signature Travel Network is its structure as a member-owned cooperative. That keeps the organization “laser-focused” on what’s important to its travel agency owners, “and what’s important to them is selling travel,” Sharpe said.
“It’s not about making headlines, not about putting profits in the corporation’s piggy bank. It’s about driving sales. It’s putting ourselves in the seat of a consultant––“How do I help this person sell more? How do I get the phone to ring? How do I make it easier for them?”––rather than chasing profits or increasing the value of the Signature brand.”
Looking ahead, Sharpe doesn’t anticipate any course shifts. “Our priorities don’t really change a lot year to year. What we push is consultant education, consultant tools and utilization. Coupled with that is how do we continue to create more value add when someone uses a Signature consultant?”
Where might the organization improve? “The opportunities are helping our members with new and innovative ways to get to market. How do we help them do social media? How do we help them do retargeting? How do we help them get into the market in different and compelling ways?”
Signature is also investing in training––this year and “every single year into the future,” Sharpe said. “In this work, where there’s uncertainty and insecurity, we have to be better informed. We have to be better specialists.”