What’s not to like about a year with no headwinds for the travel industry?
At the annual Dream Vacations/CruiseOne/Cruises Inc. conference onboard Norwegian Bliss earlier this month, Brad Tolkin — who is the founder, co-CEO and chairman of World Travel Holdings (WTH), the parent company of the three brands — ticked off the elements that added up to one great year for the travel industry as whole, and for all three of the World Travel Holdings home-based divisions, in particular.
The lowest unemployment rate since 1969, GNP growth of 3.5 percent, high wages spurred by the tightest labor market that Alan Greenspan has seen in his lifetime, and a soaring stock market, have given travelers the cash to travel, said Tolkin.
As a result, the cruise lines are adding “the craziest capacity in the history of cruising.” Virgin and Ritz Carlton soon will bring new customer bases to first-time cruising; Alaska has added luxury products to its popular offerings; and the Instagram effect has everyone eager to post photos of outlandish experiences in distant places.
If that is not reason enough to celebrate — and indeed, the sea of blue-shirted travel professionals in the Bliss theater did seem pretty celebratory — the travel industry “is probably only in the sixth or seventh inning” of this travel growth spurt, Tolkin said. And perhaps the best news is that, in a recent AAA survey, three out of four Baby Boomers and Millennials said they consider using a travel agency for their vacations.
In short, Tolkin said, if your travel agency did not grow 10 percent in 2018, you are falling behind the industry norm — and WTH’s franchisees and hosted agencies (let’s refer to them as Dream Vacations, for simplicity’s sake) certainly are not doing that.
In addition, he told his travel agents, “Here is my annual plea: Please charge a fee for your services.”
Veering off course
But, of course, travel is never completely predictable — and one unexpected learning experience for the 1,000 conference attendees came courtesy of Hurricane Willa, which suddenly was headed to Cozumel ahead of Norwegian Bliss. For the many new travel agents onboard — and indeed, the three companies have many newcomers to travel, attracted by the franchise arrangements and programs for ex-military — it was perhaps the best breakout session of all to experience firsthand how the cruise industry and travel professionals work together in an emergency, and how customers respond.
In the end, most were unconcerned by the change of itinerary from the Mexican Riviera to San Francisco and San Diego. The biggest challenge, said General Manager of Network Engagement and Performance Drew Daly, was finding new venues for every event, as sea days became days in port and vice versa, and outdoor events scheduled with Mexican heat in mind had to move indoors in the San Francisco chill.
“We planned this conference for a year and we redid everything in like two hours,” he said.
New for 2019
On the main stage, meanwhile, the big announcements for 2019 are designed to help member agencies — be they the franchisees of Dream Vacations and CruiseOne, or hosted agencies in the Cruises Inc. family — build their customer bases and market to them on a regular basis, educate themselves about new and profitable niches and products, and deliver great customer service.
In the mix is new technology to help sell land vacations and groups, and new marketing partnerships designed to get the Dream Vacations name in front of new consumers.
A new module for the all-in-one booking platform is rolling out, making it possible to book land as well as sea vacations in the system. The goal is to allow agents and customers to “do everything from quoting to booking” on any device, and to link all the pieces of the reservation to an itinerary builder, something member agents have long been asking for.
There is also a new mobile app, Travefy, that lets agents communicate with clients and share documents, and track customers’ flights in real time.
In the marketing arena, a partnership with the “Rachael Ray Show” exposed the Dream Vacations and CruiseOne brands to national television audiences in October. Others with wine.com, Beyond Proper clothing, and Swarovski jewelry — and more in the works, but not yet announced — offer opportunities for cross-collaboration and reciprocal marketing. The goal, of course, is to draw in new, and especially new-to-cruise, customers.
“The new-to-cruise market is such a great opportunity,” said the brand’s Senior Vice President Debbie Fiorino. And with all the new inventory coming on line in the next few years, “we are trying to get in front of new groups of people who have an affinity for cruising, but have not yet tried it.”
Direct mail is on the rise
But the partnerships are just a small piece of what WTH has to offer, Fiorino noted. The biggest part of corporate marketing dollars — a “seven-digit” investment — goes to the direct mail program, with usage up 40 percent in 2018 over 2017. “Direct marketing is making a comeback, and has a high response rate,” she said.
For consumers, a new promotional engine on the direct-to-consumer website, which went live in July, allows consumers to see all the existing promotions when they search online — a change that has tripled the online booking rate, Fiorino said. “So, an agent in the web-lead program can wake up in the morning and have a fully-baked trip waiting for them,” including one that came through this year with a $10,000 price tag.
“We are making major investments to take our agents into the future and assist them in driving revenue,” Fiorino said.
New members and more training
Also playing a role in the growth of the three brands is an influx of new travel agents, many from two highly successful outreach programs to the U.S. military. The first, in its seventh year, is Operation Vetrepreneur, a program that has applicants submit videos and business plans for travel businesses they wish they owned; the winners (this year there were seven) have the first year of their franchise fee waived.
The second, the Veteran Enlistment Program, offers 20 percent off the initial fee for a Cruise One or Dream Vacations franchise fee (about $9,800) plus other incentives, for a total value of about $5,000. That program now is being expanded beyond the veterans themselves to include their spouses, as well as Gold Star Families, which are families of soldiers who have lost their lives.
To meet the needs of the newcomers and existing franchisees, in 2019, the division will expand its training program to include five regional trainings in: Ft. Lauderdale, Galveston, Boston, Phoenix; and Columbus, Ohio. There also will be a Land Summit, a Group Summit, a River Summit, and a Luxury Summit in New York, plus the first-ever Online Summit.
On the agent recognition front, achievement levels henceforth will be adjusted in real time rather than annually, so travel professionals will get certificates, invitations and other perks that are based on their sales, in a more timely manner.
Fiorino predicts that will be increasingly important as sales continue to grow in 2019, both on land and at sea, and customers travel farther and spend more. She is seeing more upscale trips, more Europe and more Alaska, on the books for 2019, and predicts travel will continue to grow by double digits.