Editor's Note: Headquarters Happenings is a regular feature from Travel Market Report that helps keep you updated on the marketing and technology programs of major travel agencies, host agencies, travel agency consortia, cooperatives, travel networks and franchise groups. Top executives from these groups detail how they grow their businesses and how their programs and initiatives can help travel agents succeed in selling more travel.
It’s one of the oldest travel agency groups in the country and one of the largest cooperatives, and it’s now focused on delivering a new booking technology solution, more training and education, as well as international growth for its members. Ensemble Travel Group, which was launched as GIANTS in 1968 with agency members mostly from the U.S. Northeast, held its annual international conference in San Diego last October, where it unveiled a number of new initiatives.
Over the past few years Ensemble has developed into one of the largest trans-national travel agency groups, with strong membership in the U.S. and Canada. Ensemble’s co-presidents, Lindsay Pearlman and Libbie Rice, are headquartered in Toronto and New York, respectively, and most of the group’s 850 member agencies are located in Canada and the U.S.
But over the past year Ensemble also has expanded into Australia and New Zealand as well. The group now has 11 members in Australia and one in New Zealand. Ensemble also has welcomed 77 new member locations in the U.S. and Canada since the group’s conference in Orlando in 2015.
“For Ensemble, it’s about staying the course and following our strategic plan built around three pillars—product, platform and infometrics,” says Rice. “And looking ahead, 2017 bookings across all business lines are already showing to be quite strong. When you couple that with our momentum in Australia and New Zealand, well the future couldn’t be brighter.
New booking platform
The big news from Ensemble’s conference last October was Navigate, a new integrated booking platform for the group’s members set to debut in the first quarter this year. Ensemble executives say this platform, which they describe as “unlike any other in the consortia space,” will initially provide member agencies with the ability to make cruise bookings from Ensemble’s cruise inventory, but it will be expanded in the future to include air, hotel, tour and shore excursion products.
“In a perfect world you’d want something that…enables you to deliver the right product at the right price to the right customer, saves you time, is ultra-intelligent and delivers data to you like you’ve never seen before,” says Pearlman. “Navigate does all that and will become your lifeline, your go-to, your one-stop source for growing your business.”
Members will not only have access to all Ensemble preferred supplier content on the platform, but they also will be able to add their own groups and special offers. “Navigate’s advanced technology integrates timely marketing, multi-level training and new-hire development with preferred partner goals and objectives—all of which will result in increased opportunities for our members,” says Rice. “We also know that better data means better analytics, which allows us to really capitalize on trends.”
Several Ensemble members have been beta testing Navigate for the past few months prior to its launch this year. The product rollout will happen in phases, with the Revelex-powered cruise booking engine as the first business line to go live in the first quarter.
“The idea behind our new booking engine was to develop a core platform that our members can use to book all travel verticals,” says Rice. “Our members will be able to see all the Ensemble content and they will be able to add their own content. So it’s a huge benefit from a training perspective being on one platform and one system. You can do this through Navigate and our members who do not have a GDS will benefit from that.”
University of Ensemble
Ensemble also is ramping up education and training for members. While it has long offered a series of educational events, executive retreats and other training opportunities, it has now launched the University of Ensemble to, in Pearlman’s words “take it to the next level.”
Pearlman says the group’s new educational program focuses on training in three areas: supplier products and services; Ensemble-related platforms, products and services; and skill sets, such as sales training.
“The whole idea of this is to bring to it a bit of fun,” says Pearlman. “You can go through these programs, you can be certified on them, and be a certified specialist in certain areas. There’s also an e-perks rewards platform so you can earn points that you can redeem for educational courses or personal items. You don’t have to pay for the program. University of Ensemble will be a one-stop shop for everything about Ensemble and our preferred suppliers.”
Beyond technology and training, Ensemble also is proceeding with a number of other initiatives. Last year it introduced an option under which agents can join the group as affiliates, not as full members. “Our overall growth has been quite strong,” says Pearlman. “In conjunction with that we have an affiliate program that’s really geared to have people come in and see what the organization is like. Based on their business model and needs, as they grow they can become full shareholders. Conversely if they are already shareholder, but want to start winding down their business, they can move from being a shareholder to an affiliate.”
Finally, at this year’s conference Ensemble debuted a new program to help its agencies become members of ASTA and ACTA. “We are a huge supporter of ASTA,” says Rice. “We see the role they have in the industry is one that we don’t want to cover in terms of lobbying. We don’t mandate ASTA membership, but we strongly encourage it. So we’ve come up with a program where our members get a discount if they sign up for two years. We will even deduct the membership fee from their annual Ensemble distribution check.”