In Signature’s 60th Year, The Travel Agent Business Is Booming

by Daniel McCarthy

Sharpe speaking at the owners meeting.

It’s been 60 years since Signature Travel Network first launched—and with $7 billion in annual sales and growth of over 500% over the past seven years, owners and members are proud of their past and bullish on the future. 

Over 200 of Signature’s owners, including 15 new members, gathered in San Francisco for the annual Owner’s Meeting last week. The group’s president and CEO Alex Sharpe and senior vice president Karryn Christopher took some time to talk to TMR about their “optimism and anticipation about what comes next.” Here’s a little of the conversation:

After all that has happened in the industry during the past 12 months, what are you hearing from members about the health of their business? 
Christopher: Many of our members reported that last year was their best year in business ever—and many, despite all the challenges in the last year, said this year is their best. They have found a way to be more profitable.  

Sharpe: The broad numbers have been really good. When you hear people like [speaker] Jason Dorsey say that Millennials are traveling and Millennials are using travel consultants—or want to—we’re seeing a resurgence. We’re seeing younger people look to the industry and more younger people come into the industry for advice. So it’s exciting. Is it a groundswell? No. But it’s certainly moving in the right direction. The way I look at it, at some point the agency industry bottomed out and now we’re starting that climb back, which is really exciting. To be able to reverse trends, in what most people would say have been pretty difficult times, is impressive. I think it’s the difficult times that have made it possible because when stuff happens customers want their travel consultant. They want advice. When they’re going to travel to some of these destinations that have had their issues, they want someone who’s informed, who knows what’s going on, and who can hand-hold them through that process. There’s huge opportunity. 

We’ve been hearing about the overall growth in the luxury sector, which really allows agents to not only make sales, but to earn higher commissions as well. Are you seeing that growth?
Sharpe: Though it’s been a difficult year and pricing has been down a bit, the average yield on cruise bookings per transaction is going up. The luxury guys are bullish, they’re building ships—Crystal is building, Regent just launched the most luxurious cruise ship ever built and Seabourn has two in production. But it’s not even just the classic luxury; look at what people are doing in expedition.  

It’s a huge opportunity—but again, challenges in the world create opportunity for travel consultants to show their value, and also people who are going to spend that kind of money are discerning. They want to deal with people who can do it the best. When we can provide wonderful service that translates to wonderful value, price isn’t the issue. It’s about just getting the most out of their time and their vacation experience.  

What are your owners and members saying about the past 12 months, considering what has been happening in the world?
Christopher: Bookings have been hurt, absolutely. Bookings are down in those areas and that’s pulling down what would have been a banner year. But that provides agents with an opportunity to pull clients to places that they do presume are safe. Zika earlier in the year was a concern for some of our members who specialize in honeymoons and destination weddings, but have successfully redirected that business to destinations people consider to be safe. 

How can agents accomplish that?
Christopher: It’s just about picking up the phone and talking customers through and just making sure they don’t cancel.  

Sharpe: Part of our partnership is with suppliers who are willing to work with us to find alternatives. They don’t want to lose the business, either. It’s that relationship. I think this year while certainly there are issues, we are proponents that you have to keep traveling. You don’t want to send people to dangerous places. But you’ve got to keep traveling. 

What parts of the world are customers heading to this year? 
Sharpe: Absolutely, Ireland and Iceland have been phenomenal this year, along with all of Scandinavia. Spain and Portugal, too. And Africa is back. Two years ago, Ebola was all we could talk about with Africa and now it’s back, better than it was before. And Australia has such great value now and it’s such a wonderful destination with the value of the dollar. There are so many places we can send clients. It’s a matter of focusing on the positives rather than the negatives. 

Does Cuba fall into that category, with the diplomatic changes there?  
Sharpe: I just came back from a Fathom cruise to Cuba with 15 of our consultants. It’s a special place. I’m not sure how cruise lines are going to use it for deployment, I know they think of it as the Holy Grail.  

I think it can really spice up some of the Caribbean itineraries. But will they focus on just Cuba or are they going to use it as a really great beginning or ending point when they’re cruising from Florida? 

The infrastructure isn’t where it needs to be, but that’s what makes it so cool. There’s not a lot of infrastructure in Belize, there’s not a ton of infrastructure in other places and the places where there is aren’t necessarily the sexiest Caribbean destinations. It’s going to change things, for sure. I think it will get people to refocus on the Caribbean.  

Christopher: There is definitely a hunger on the travel consultant side, too. We offered a Cuba workshop at this conference and we offered one at our sales meeting, and they were the first to sell out. 

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