Travel Agents Are More Relevant Than Ever, Say AMG’s Nicole Mazza And Kathryn Mazza-Burney

by James Shillinglaw
Travel Agents Are More Relevant Than Ever, Say AMG’s Nicole Mazza And Kathryn Mazza-Burney

Nicole Mazza, chief marketing officer for TRAVELSAVERS, NEST, and Affluent Traveler, and her sister Kathryn Mazza-Burney.

Last week American Marketing Group (AMG), which includes the TRAVELSAVERS, NEST, and Affluent Traveler Collection travel agency groups, held its biennial Travel Week conference and trade show, with roughly 725 travel agents in attendance. TMR sat down with Nicole Mazza, chief marketing officer for TRAVELSAVERS, NEST, and Affluent Traveler, and her sister Kathryn Mazza-Burney, TRAVELSAVERS executive vice president, to get their take on the health of the travel agency distribution system, what’s selling for their travel-agency members, what products and services their members are asking for, and what the keys to success are going forward.  

TMR: What’s your view of the overall health of the travel agency distribution system, based on what you hear from your travel agency members?
Kathryn: The travel-agency distribution system has never been healthier. Travel agents today are more relevant than they have ever been. We’re seeing some really great growth across our brands, and our sales numbers with our preferred suppliers also are healthy.
Nicole: We’re seeing strong demand from our affiliates and some really good sales numbers. They are busier than they have ever been. Looking at our future bookings with our preferred suppliers, the demand is there.  

TMR: What do you see as the major concerns for travel agents this year and into the future? 
Kathryn: I think it’s the same old things—the online travel players, along with what’s happening in the world. Unfortunately, we don’t live in the most stable world right now and our business is affected when something happens. But travel agents are used to it. They have survived and thrived; they are resilient. 
Nicole: The threats we’re seeing are opportunities as well—and there are great opportunities for the travel-agency community. When we look at the online players, we see a lot of consumer confusion. Consumers are looking more and more for expertise, and they are getting frustrated with the amount of content in the marketplace. What our agencies do best is use their expertise to understand the exact right product that fits a consumer’s needs. Our agencies also are seeing consumers who are frequently extremely unsatisfied with the online channel. As opposed to seeing business move away from them, they are seeing a strong surge back, because these customers are so unhappy with the online players’ customer service. 

TMR: Which industry segments produce the most revenue and profits for your agents today?
Nicole: Certainly customized FITs and tours continue to grow in profitability, and high-end premium and luxury travel is still very profitable. Ancillary services such as travel insurance probably have the highest return. Travel insurance still has an extremely strong profit margin, upwards of 30% or 35% commission. And river cruising continues to be profitable, though it’s a little soft this year with the downturn in Europe and the increase in capacity. Our agencies also are making a lot of money in the cruise space. They do a phenomenal job of upselling, so when you are looking at products such as Norwegian’s The Haven or Royal Caribbean’s Sky Suites or the MSC Yacht Club, our agencies sell them and sell them well. There’s a lot of commission to be made there. 

TMR: How are sales this year overall for your groups and looking into the future?
Nicole: Sales are excellent. We came off a phenomenal year in 2015. There is some softness in the market in certain areas, such as Europe, but we’re seeing tremendous growth in Alaska, the national parks, and exotic markets. The Hawaii market also has come back strong. Also our network has a very strong corporate mix of business, and we’re seeing that continue to grow. We think 2016 is going to be a very good year and our future bookings for 2017 are incredible.  

TMR: You mentioned Europe. How is that region really doing for your members in terms sales?
Nicole: Europe is doing better on the FIT side. Our agencies’ clients are asking where should they go. When they hear there are clients traveling to certain parts of Europe, I think it’s building their confidence that they can go, too. They think their travel agent wouldn’t send them someplace that wasn’t safe. There are a lot of areas in Europe that consumers are not relating to what’s happening in the rest of the region. When you look at the numbers in Ireland, Scotland, and Iceland, for example, we’re seeing tremendous growth. We’re seeing some softness on the escorted tour side and on the cruise side in Europe, but FIT is still building and people still want to go. For 2017 it’s a whole different story: Escorted tours are coming back and cruising is coming back. 

TMR: What types of programs are your members asking for?
Nicole: Technology is obviously a large focus. The biggest concern we hear from the agency community is time—time to put together a customized FIT itinerary for a client quickly, easily, and efficiently, in order to create that unique experience. And then of course they want preferred supplier relationships that include different amenities.
Kathryn: And of course our agents are always looking for more customers.  So those are the three main areas our programs address. 

TMR: So should a young person today consider a career as a travel agent?
Kathryn: Earning a living making peoples’ dreams come true as well as seeing the world—why would anyone not want to be a part of this incredible industry?

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