Rene Jongmans is President of Vacation Express, a leading tour operator based in Atlanta, GA offering packages to the Caribbean, Mexico and Costa Rica. Born and raised in Holland, he spent three years in various management positions in St. Maarten before joining Vacation Express in 1992. With the exception of a one year hiatus, he has held the position of President since 2000. The sudden emergence of Vacation Express from a regional tour operator to a national player in the travel trade has surprised many.
TRO:Where do you position VacationExpress.com in the travel industry?
RJ: In the past few years Vacation Express has transitioned from charter operations to scheduled air operations. Even though we compete successfully with all the large tour operators we are more of a “boutique style” supplier offering travel agents a more personalized service and hands on destination knowledge. With our aggressive pricing, unique agent incentive programs, a fully dynamic packaging booking engine for Costa Rica and an extensive product line throughout the Caribbean and Mexico, we are the #1 choice for many agents in the Southeast and Midwest but have made great progress in expanding our agent base in other parts of the US as well.
TRO:There are star ratings on the resorts listed when you search for a package, what criteria do you use for these star ratings?
RJ: Without an industry guideline it is difficult to come up with one standard for hotel ratings. In order to determine the rating of a hotel, we not only look at all the inclusions the hotel offers, but also use many years of client feedback as a guideline. In addition, our Product Managers, Sales Managers and other staff members visit many of the hotels on a consistent basis to ensure that ratings are accurate. Plus, I personally make it a priority to stay on top of “what’s new” and visit various destinations throughout the year for site inspections.
TRO:How many employees/agents/independent contracts do you have and what kind of training do they receive?
RJ: Fortunately most of our staff members have been with the company for a long time and have traveled extensively to our destinations. Their first hand experience is of utmost importance and agents compliment us on our product knowledge. When adding a new product, either myself or one of our Product Managers will have personally visited the destination or hotel and will conduct the staff training. We have also found that hotel or destination representatives are always eager to visit and conduct training seminars as well.
TRO:What percentage of your bookings is made via your booking engine only versus bookings that come from the phone?
RJ: Approximately 65% of our bookings are made online and the remaining 35% is booked via the call center. Given the knowledge of our staff we know that many agents call in to inquire about which product may be best for their client. Our staff is eager to share their knowledge, but we realize that when the client is ready to make a decision many agents will simply book online as a result of which the online percentage is much higher than the call center percentage.
TRO:How do you market VacationExpress.com?
RJ: Given that we have been in business for 20 years now, many agents have heard of Vacation Express, but we realize that we continuously need to be in front of the agent. In addition to our Sales Team making sales calls, hosting tradeshows and fam trips, we fax and email agents and use online trade advertising to generate more awareness for our company.
TRO:What has been your biggest success with marketing for lead generation in terms of ROI?
RJ: In terms of generating new agents we have found that TRO in particular has been very successful. Also with many agents going home based and joining home based organizations we have seen a large increase in word of mouth referrals, which is a positive sign.
TRO:Finally, what is your favorite destination and what do you like to do when you are there?
RJ: I have a lot of favorite destinations, all for different reasons, but to pick a few….. When it comes to an active vacation, nothing is more perfect than Costa Rica. The variety of activities and the diversity of the country are so unique that I can go back time after time again knowing that I will always have a great time. For a quick relaxed getaway, there is no better place than Cancun. The quality of the hotels and the friendliness of the people make you want to go back over and over again. I am certain that I have visited well over 100 times and consider it my “home away from home”