Editor's Note: Headquarter Happenings keeps you updated on the marketing and technology programs of major travel agencies, host agencies, travel agency consortia, cooperatives, networks and franchise groups.
The headline grabber out of Travel Leaders Network’s annual conference in Las Vegas in June was a new partnership with American Express that gives Travel Leaders agents the opportunity to earn full commissions when booking rewards travel for American Express cardholders.
“When I look back on all my years in travel, this is as a big of a game changer for my business as I can think of,” Stephen McGillivray, chief marketing officer of Travel Leaders Group, said of the initiative.
In the planning stages for nearly two years and slated to be rolled out to cardholders this fall, the American Express partnership has three potential tie-ins for Travel Leaders agents, who must undergo roughly eight hours of online training to participate.
In addition to being able to book and earn commissions on cardholders’ Membership RewardsÒ pay-with-points travel, Travel Leaders agents will be the only channel through which Gold and Platinum cardholders can access discounts and value-added benefits through a new cardholder program called The Travel Collection by Travel Leaders Group.
Thirdly, Travel Leaders agents will be able to earn bonuses when they assist clients in signing up for American Express Gold or Platinum consumer or business cards.
“The thing we get with this American Express relationship is exposing their millions of cardmembers to our agents and potentially generating new clients for our agents, new transactions for our agents and, with the ability [to book] Membership Rewards, creating additional income opportunities,” said Ninan Chacko, CEO of Travel Leaders Group.
The big announcements
The American Express deal was the biggest announcement at Travel Leaders Network’s 2018 international conference, rebranded this year as EDGE, an acronym for educate, discover, gather and evolve.
The conference itself, the second since Travel Leaders Network was formed in January 2017, featured a couple of firsts: A Luxury Forum, one-on-one meetings between luxury-focused agents and luxury suppliers; and Hotel Marketplace, a hotel trade show.
Roughly 2,100 conference attendees, including Travel Leaders affiliate and franchise agents, also had a choice of some 200 workshops on 100-plus different topics, along with supplier forums, and a trade show featuring about 500 suppliers.
One unusual initiative rolled out at the conference is a website (buymytravelagency.com) that aims to connect agency owners looking to sell their businesses with potential buyers. The program reflects the goal of helping Travel Leaders Network agents “with every phase of your career,” President Roger Block told attendees.
Moving ahead with vacation.com website
Attendees were updated on the major news at last year’s conference – the relaunch of vacation.com as a content-rich interactive website that aims to engage travel consumers while they are still in the dreaming and early planning stages. At the time, Travel Leaders said the initiative would “revolutionize” the way consumers find agents and drive incremental growth by connecting agents to qualified, ready-to-buy customers who had never before used a travel agent.
After testing the program for a full year with just 30 agents, Travel Leaders Network said it was ready to enroll more agents. “We’re looking for committed agents to participate,” McGillivray told attendees.
The invitation came with a caveat. Individual agents must be accepted into the program (after the agency owner or host agency signs a participation agreement); and they must be trained in a specific sales process – in addition to splitting any resulting revenues with Travel Leaders.
“If the customer doesn’t book, there’s no risk, no fee to participate,” said McGillivray. That said, an agent’s success at closing sales on leads from vacation.com will determine the number of future leads she or he receives, he cautioned.
Travel Leaders has made a number of changes since announcing the program. Among them, the commission split with Travel Leaders has been made more favorable to agents.
Also, while 80 percent of prospects generated in the program’s first year were new to working with travel agents, as hoped, instead of being ready to buy, most were just ready to plan, which means agents still need to spend time with the customer, said Brian Hegarty, vice president of digital demand.
“We learned that the secret sauce to the success of this program is having expert agents involved,” Hegarty said. By day three of the five-day conference, about 100 agents had signed up to participate.
Generating leads for agents
The other lead-generation tool that Travel Leaders talked up at the conference was Agent Profiler. Launched in 2013, the online tool drives Google search results for Travel Leaders agents who have uploaded their profiles onto the consumer-facing site at travelleaders.com.
Agent profiler is “a total home run” when it comes to attracting prospects who are looking for an expert agent to help them sift through vacation ideas, validate their choices or arrange a complex itinerary, McGillivray told attendees.
Of the 40,000 travel agents that belong to Travel Leaders Network, just 5,400 currently participate in Agent Profiler. The number is expected to reach 6,000 by year-end, said Jeremy Van Kuyk, vice president of technology.
Even with those modest participation levels, Agent Profiler has grown into a $150 million sales channel. In 2017, agents closed on 25-30 percent of the 125,000 leads generated via Agent Profiler, at an average sale price of $5,000, Van Kuyk said.
Social media tools
Among new social media tools for Travel Leaders Network agents is Social Share, which provides pre-approved copy and images tied to specific Travel Leaders promotions. Agents upload the content as their own native posts, either as is or personalized. Consumers who interact with the posts will see a call to action for the posting agent.
Travel Leaders also has teamed up with supplier partners on digital marketing campaigns using images posted on social media by agency clients. Leveraging customer content has yielded higher than usual volumes of qualified leads, Hegarty said.
Other new marketing resources include two consumer magazines spotlighting the group’s hosted cruise and hotel programs; and a consumer website that features properties in Travel Leaders’ SELECT hotel program.
Travel Leaders also talked up its six in-depth specialist programs, including the newest on group travel. Some 374 agents have completed one or more of the programs, which come at a cost and take most agents about two years to complete. Another 1,600 agents are currently enrolled.
All told, 20,400 Travel leaders agents are tapping into a training hub to access hundreds of on-demand lessons, scheduled interactive webinars and virtual workshops, said Gloria Stock Mickelson, director of educational services.
New training initiatives include a 16-week, peer group study program on the leisure sales process, which kicks off this year. Also in the works are regional seminars on strategic business and marketing planning for agency owners and managers. Finally, Travel Leaders this year introduced half-day, in-person trainings for frontline agents called Sales Expos; the programs will be offered four times this fall and eight times in 2019.