Travel agents are angered by a new policy from Sandals curtailing their ability to earn commissions on future bookings made by clients vacationing at a Sandals resort under the company’s Soon Come Back program.
Agents are also dismayed by what they see as a betrayal by a company that has long touted its close partnership with the agent community.
In a letter and email to agents, Sandals senior vice president of sales Gary Sadler earlier this month detailed new rules for agents who want to get credit for future bookings made by clients while on vacation at a Sandals or Beaches resort.
The rules, which take effect March 1, require agency clients to send written instructions to Unique Vacations indicating they want the booking transferred to their travel agent. Unique is Sandals’ exclusive booking representative.
Commissions capped at 10%
Under the new rules, Sandals / Unique Vacations also caps commissions on such bookings at 10%.
Travel agents also are prohibited from transferring these bookings to tour operators. Agents routinely earn from 14% to 16% commission on bookings run through wholesalers.
“It means we’re working harder to make less money,” said Geoff Millar, owner of Ultimate All-Inclusives, an online agency. “We’re at 15% commissions now with Sandals bookings. With these new rules you have to go through this whole long procedure and instead of making 15%, it will be 10%.”
Will not sign agreement
Sandals also stipulated that agents must sign an agreement to continue participating in the Soon Come Back program. But Millar said he will not sign. “If I don’t sign I can still sell Sandals; I just tell my clients not to do the Soon Come Back program.”
The recently created Destination Wedding & Honeymoon Specialists Association reported “tons of” calls and Facebook postings from agents upset over the new policy, said Lisa Sheldon executive director.
She said some agents are saying 10% commission is better than nothing, but others are saying if they can’t work with their preferred tour operator they don’t know if they will continue to work with Sandals.
Agents also fear that other suppliers will follow suit. “Once a company starts a program, others think they can do it,” said Sheldon.
Romance turns sour
Referring to Sandals’ mention in its email of the company’s “31-year love affair with our travel agents,” Sheldon commented, “Our romance may be changing.”
Agents also complained about the tone of Sandals’ email and what they perceived as its inflexibility.
Jennifer Doncsecz, president of VIP Vacations in Whitehall, Penn., said the email “came across as very high and mighty.”
One agent, speaking anonymously, griped that “it’s their rules – period. No discussing, no dialogue like we have with other companies.”
“Sandals has always said we love travel agents. That was always their big deal. How can you say that when you’re changing the game?” the agent added.
At presstime, Sandals had not yet responded to Travel Market Report’s request for comment.
Sandal’s email calls its Soon Come Back program a “game changer” in that it gives agents “the opportunity to earn commissions when their clients rebook a vacation with us without having to go into or call the Agency. To our knowledge this is the only program of its kind in the hotel industry.”
Doncsecz said, “Other companies do the same thing, but they don’t have the paperwork now involved.” For instance, she said, several cruise lines send a fax or some other kind of alert to her agency when a client books a future cruise onboard. And those commissions are not capped, she added.
Still, Doncsecz said she will not stop selling Sandals. “It’s a fabulous product for honeymoons and destinations.”
Instead she will include information with her clients’ documents warning them not to “waste your precious vacation time” sitting at a desk and booking future travel when the deals offered are no better than those that her agency can secure.
Clients who do book on Sandal’s Soon Come Back program may get a $100 or so resort or spa credit, she said, but the “pricing is exactly what they’d get booking at home.”
Shari Marsh of Cruise Holidays in Raleigh, N. Carol., said the Soon Come Back program won’t entice her travelers to book a future trip. “Ninety percent of the clients I send to Sandals are coming off a major wedding expense. The last thing they’re thinking about is putting another $400 down on another vacation.”
Marsh said she will never involve her clients in a discussion about whether she is being cut out of her commission. However, “I may have to be more proactive in taking the time to educate my clients in planning ahead and booking in advance.”
The situation is no different than with the cruise lines, Marsh added. “I have clients on board now, and I loaded them up with my cards to make sure they understand they are working with a travel agent.
“I know that if I don’t do that the cruise line can circumvent me.”
As for her relationship with Sandals, Marsh said, “if I feel that Sandals is going to threaten me, I will pull back my business, although I hate to do that because Sandals is a great product.”
For Travel Market Report’s coverage of cruise line policies regarding shipboard bookings see:
Onboard Cruise Sales: No Need for Fear, Agents Say April 2, 2012
Leverage Onboard Booking Perks to Generate Repeat Business, April 05, 2012