Under the theme “Fast Forward on the Shoulders of Giants,” 50-year-old Ensemble Travel Group celebrated its roots and its successes while mapping its path to the future, during its annual conference in Nassau earlier this month.
At the opening general session, Co-Presidents Libbie Rice and Lindsay Pearlman highlighted pivotal developments in technology, intelligence and marketing; leavened their celebration of the organization’s history with a healthy sprinkling of humor; and promised that the member-owned organization would always put members’ brands first as it continues to evolve.
“Ensemble is constantly exploring, responding and transforming itself to better serve you,” Rice told the more than 900 attendees gathered at the Grand Hyatt Baha Mar.
It wasn’t until near the end of the two-hour session that Ensemble underscored its bottom line health. “Our financial performance is totally off the charts — the last three years have been our best on record,” Pearlman said. Sales with some supplier partners are up 19 to 33 percent, he said during a press conference the next day.
Co-Presidents Libbie Rice and Lindsay Pearlman.
Technology: more support for agents
Technology is the organization’s biggest challenge, Pearlman said – not so much the technology itself, but facilitating the agents’ implementation of it. To that end, last year, Ensemble launched a Product Development and Technology Solutions department. This year, the department was enlarged.
Pearlman emphasized Ensemble’s expanded tech support, telling attendees: “We’ve added frontline support to be more responsive to your questions. We’ve added customized implementation plans to ensure that all the boxes are checked and the products tailored to your business before you go live. And perhaps most important to you, we’ve created a deployment director role to handle the onboarding process from soup-to-nuts and across all product lines.”
Additional resources also have been devoted to Navigate, Ensemble’s white-labeled Revelex cruise booking engine, which encountered some hiccups in its early years, especially in its integration with ClientBase. Rice was upbeat about Navigate, announcing that “onboarding of all interested members will be completed by year-end.”
New features are being added to Navigate, as well. In Canada, where half of Ensemble’s members are located, agents can now purchase Manulife travel insurance; and Ensemble’s U.S. insurance partners will be added in 2019, Rice said.
Moving forward on air
One announcement that drew applause from agents was a planned enhancement for Navigate that will enable it to serve up flight options for cruise bookings “that align with the clients’ sailing dates and allow you to put it all together in one place,” Pearlman said.
A key feature for members of Ensemble’s broader air program is a support desk that will assist agents with any air reservation, whether made by email, phone, online or GDS.
Ensemble also continues to evolve its Aviate air platform, this summer adding a director of air technology and services, with the objective of taking the program “to the next level,” Pearlman said. In 2019, agents can expect a more user-friendly Aviate, one that will “not only present options in a more logical way, but help guide you through the process so you feel more confident with your choices,” he said.
Ensemble travel agents.
More robust data intelligence
Ensemble is also beefing up its data analytics or infometrics. Over the past year, the group has created what Rice called a “robust data warehouse” that collects and analyzes member sales data, including information from third-party systems like ClientBase, and meshes it with suppliers’ transactional data, member agent profiles and marketing tactics.
The richer data will allow Ensemble to spot trends across suppliers, products and members so that it can better manage supplier contracts and adjust marketing to connect “the right product at the right time to the right customer,” Rice said.
In addition, the combined data will give members “a clear picture of opportunities for continued growth,” she said. Ensemble Insights, a new tool launching this fall, will allow agents to access their data via customized, interactive reports on Ensemble’s extranet.
Marketing: putting agents front and center
On the marketing side, Ensemble is embracing a “new marketing mindset” centered in “even greater agency personalization, with calls to action and content that are written to create an emotional connection between the traveler, the travel advisor and the travel experience,” Pearlman said.
Significantly, travel agency branding and contact information will no longer be relegated to small print on the back of promotional pieces. “The new marketing pieces feature your agency front and center throughout the collateral, leaving no question in the customer’s mind of your expertise and how to reach you,” Pearlman said.
Ensemble also has begun explicitly promoting the value of using a travel agent in its marketing materials. The promotional pieces also will include more personal stories that trigger consumer emotions, and in some cases, can be personalized further to the end user.
A test of Ensemble’s more personalized, agent-centric marketing early in the third quarter had exceptional results. Rice reported that some pilots of new-to-brand marketing outperformed supplier direct mail programs by as much as three-to-one.
Ensemble is also upgrading marketing support for its members. The company has launched a monthly e-newsletter for U.S. agents, with updates on marketing initiatives plus articles, tips and tools; as well as a peer mentoring program to help members understand and use its marketing programs.