Anticipation was high and curiosity oozed from every corner of the ballroom at Ensemble’s Annual Conference in Seattle last week, the first one with the group's new CEO and President David Harris at the helm.
Veteran agency owner Rikki Hepburn, of Personal Travel Management, commented: “This was the main reason I came this year. I wanted to hear the new direction for myself.”
Taking the stage, Harris made points with member advisors and staff early on by demonstrating his “People First” strategy. He started by introducing the entire Ensemble team and thanking them for their “amazing efforts,” with high-fives across the stage. Check. The team appeared happy, and relieved that the moment was behind them, so they could get on with delivering the conference.
When asked about his priorities for the first 90 days, Harris responded: “The team came first. Even though I knew most of them as a member, I needed to get to know and understand them from a different perspective. That’s taken longer than I would have expected, but it was totally necessary.”
Harris went on to make two more noteworthy leadership declarations. First, that his goal was to be accountable to the members. His role was to help Ensemble members win, and to do that, it was essential to know the score. “Data is king. The value of information and analysis is critical to building your businesses every day.”
Harris leaned in on his experience to share why data matters. “As an agency owner, imagine the power we would all have if we learned that, for example, August was the worst booking month for cruise sales. I could have used that time better. I know that, in my business, I could have made much more informed decisions.”
New CEO was a travel agent, too
This tick box of being a travel advisor scored big points with many agency owners that Travel Market Report spoke to throughout the conference. “David was an agent, so he understands our needs,” according to Patrick Luciani, owner of Travel Only, who just celebrated 50 years in travel. “I have every confidence in the new direction because David comes from an agency background.”
Harris went on to reveal, in what seemed like a bold statement, that they had in the past, reported the wrong numbers. “For years, we’ve shared incorrectly that we’re a $2-billion-dollar organization with 850 members. The true number of our members is currently 719 in North America, and a further 44 in Australia and New Zealand, for a grand total of 765 members worldwide.”
Yet, from a volume perspective, their business was more than twice the size. The reason for this discrepancy was that they had traditionally only tracked their managed business.
In doing the analysis, they’ve come to validate that their unmanaged business was closer to $4 billion, with 1.5 billion in unmanaged air business alone. This represents untapped potential for agency members.
The second noteworthy point, and the thrust of the entire conference, was how Harris and the Ensemble Travel Group are doubling down on the importance of sustainable travel. The theme, “On Purpose,” created a philanthropic backdrop that acted as a catalyst to move the group forward in a unified force for good.
According to Chris Lackstrom, director of supplier and market development, “It’s been incredible to see the kind of impact even the small things we’re doing can have. We’ve got reusable water bottles, recycled fabrics in our tote bags, and wooden name badges. We’re even donating the computers we’re using for the tech lab to inner city schools.”
Making a commitment to the cause ‘On Purpose’
It was announced that Ensemble will join forces with two powerhouses in the field of reducing the impact of travel on the environment. Travel Care Code, with Dr. Jonathan Day, will provide Ensemble agents with educational and marketing resources to share such as, “10 Easy Steps for Responsible Tourism.”
They will also partner with Cool Effects. This nonprofit group fights climate change by donating the proceeds of carbon offsets to the highest quality and verifiable carbon reduction projects throughout the world. Their carbon offsetting tool will be placed on the Ensemble platform to seamlessly calculate the carbon offset of air travel.
Ensemble accentuated their commitment by donating the carbon offset for the entire list of over 900 attendees.
Conference suppliers and keynoters weigh in
Suppliers attending the Ensemble Conference were able to hook their presentations to the “On Purpose” theme as they gave agencies the “why” behind their products.
Travel Corporation lives behind the company’s pledge to “Treadright” and gave a powerful presentation behind how sustainable travel is at the heart of every brand. Globus Family of Brands hooked to a variety of sustainable projects, including ocean clean up; and bracelets created by women in poverty to provide education, business skills and financial support. Afar Magazine entered into the consumer media with a vision of making “Travel a Force for Good.”
WestJet, known for their community-minded culture said it will increase fuel efficiency by 14% and give out blankets made from 100% recycled materials. Visa for Venice is installing vending machines for donations throughout the city to help the three-year effort to repair the impact of overtourism.
The keynote speech by Spencer West gave new meaning to “making travel matter” by demonstrating that anything is possible. Having lost his lower-body mobility at the age of two, among other remarkable achievements in his lifetime, West succeeded in climbing Mount Kilimanjaro on his hands. In the end, he actually helped his friends who had been stricken by altitude sickness to reach the final pinnacle.
The last-minute addition at the conference of entrepreneurial dynamos, Scott and Ally Svenson, who are the founders of Mod Pizza, provided another “On Purpose” lens. “Our mission is to be in the people business, by serving pizza.” Unlike other small businesses, Mod Pizza looks to make a positive social impact by providing second-chance employment to ex-convicts; and by teaming with Best Buddies to provide jobs to people with Down syndrome, autism, and other intellectual disabilities.
Education is a pillar
Education was highlighted at the conference as a competitive advantage, with the goal of providing the best-in-class education in the industry. It is now mandatory for the group’s U.S. agents to belong to ASTA, which Harris says is a no-brainer, as it is critical to support the industry association that advocates on advisors’ behalf.
ACTA Canada was in full support, with Doreen Lynch saying this: “It is always very rewarding to connect with Ensemble members at their conferences and events. This year was especially energized, as it focused on improving the lives of clients and the positive impact travel can make on the future of our planet. ACTA is proud to play a part of that positive momentum.”
The Travel Institute announced that Ensemble will be the first consortia to offer a scholarship for certification to every shareholder member. For the next year, Ensemble will underwrite 50% of the certification costs for each shareholder and will offer a 15% discount for all other members.
Will this mission of accountability and purpose-driven tourism pay off? According to Skift, 60% of travelers said it was important to choose travel businesses that prioritize sustainable business practices. Travel Market Reports’ “2019 Outlook on Niche Travel and Specialization” also reported that while only 6% of survey respondents specialize in sustainable travel today, close to 30% plan on specializing in it in the future, higher than any other specialization including luxury and family travel.
Ensemble Travel Group’s “On Purpose” conference laid out a comprehensive slate with a major focus on education, learning labs, hands-on tech demonstrations, and social media.
There were 1,000 posts created throughout the 4-day conference, signaling a high level of engagement curated by an invigorating young marketing team led by VP of Marketing Carl Schmitt.