Reporter’s Notebook: Staying in Vegas with Signature Travel Network | Travel Research Online


Reporter’s Notebook: Staying in Vegas with Signature Travel Network

When it rains it pours—and it’s hurricane season in the travel advisor channel. The trickle of business that kept advisors going through Covid has turned into a torrent of demand, not only for the usual FITs and cruises, but also for the land vacations to which customers turned when there was no other option.

So it’s no surprise that travel advisors suddenly find themselves being courted more than ever. On the one hand, there’s the new hotels and resorts—and on the other are the traditional partners in the cruise industry, fighting off this new competition.

Meanwhile, the phones are ringing and the leads are backing up. Brick-and-mortar offices are opening and clients are stopping in. The main issues, advisors told me, are finding more hours in the day and more staff to handle the business.

In short, it’s been a good year for travel advisors.

That’s my take-away from Signature Travel Network’s annual conference in Vegas last week, where a record number of hotel partners showed up to woo a record number of attendees—many of them, on both sides, for the first time.

On stage at the General Session, Norwegian Cruise Line’s Todd Hamilton was quick to voice the company line, repeated a few times in recent weeks: The competition is not Royal Caribbean or Viking or Crystal, but land-based resorts. Norwegian plans to win back market share by paying commissions on NCFs to catch the attention of busy travel advisors—and then work with you to develop marketing plans that will bring in high-end bookings on longer and more extravagant itineraries.

Alex Sharpe opens the STN conference

Hamilton Takes His Shot at NCFs

“We’re taking a risk with NCFs,” said Hamilton of NCL’s plan, announced last week, to pay commissions on NCFs for the bookings that generate the most loyalty, those made 120 days out or more. But travel advisors must file a marketing plan to be eligible.

Jump on it, Hamilton suggested. “If you are offered a ride on a rocket ship, you don’t ask which seat.”

He noted that the cruise line’s growth plan (like that of many agencies) is to replace “cookie-cutter itineraries” with more curated, longer, more port-intensive—and more expensive—ones. The goal is to give guests not just a cruise, but an amazing all-inclusive vacation experience.

That requires three things of NCL: being easy to do business with, being a true partner to the travel advisor community, and providing value to the guest. To that end, the marketing budget for 2023 is written in pencil, waiting for a number that travel advisors will help determine.

“We have no clue what the number will be because we will market enough to fill our ships,” he said. “We are going to come to you guys and ask, what do you need?”

Selling more expensive cruises than those offered by its direct competitors requires real experts who can explain the value proposition to customers. “Marketing is at the heart of everything we do,” he said. “We want you to work with our sales team to come up with the best possible plan. We want to be a true partner; we are here to support you and we ask you to support us.”

(He also noted that, while the initial announcement said it was for bookings made after January 1, the offer has been made retroactive, so bookings made today are eligible.)

More Hotels, More Partnerships

At the onsite press conference, Signature EVP of marketing and preferred partnerships Karryn Christopher noted that the agency cooperative has seen its utilization of hotels flourish during Covid, adding 109 partners.

Like Norwegian, suppliers in every sector are “interested in working with partners to create strategic propositions—and we’ve seen value that we’ve never seen before.” In 2022, Signature partnered with suppliers and travel advisors to bring back in-person consumer events; so far, 26 events have brought in $80 million in sales.

Staffing Up

When you can’t find trained advisors, try surrounding your best salespeople with the best support people, suggested CEO Alex Sharpe. That’s what they did at Avenues of the World Travel in Flagstaff, AZ, travel advisor and marketing director Daniella Harrison told me over lunch. They grabbed up Maeghan Goldman when she walked in the door one day to ask for a job. They liked her background in retail sales, her love of travel, and her collection of young friends of marrying age. After a year of hanging on hold with suppliers, comparing amenities and pricing, typing out itineraries, listening to her colleagues and taking training courses, Goldman now has her own book of business with a tilt toward luxury travel and destination weddings.

So why choose land or cruise when you can sell both? Christopher noted that Signature has been crafting some new Educational Journeys for 2023 that bring together land and cruise partners, hopefully including Nile River offerings from Uniworld and Azamara in its Egypt trip, for example.

Something to Consider

Signature’s IT products differentiate it from its competitors in the way the technology and marketing work in unison, Sharpe said, and the way they enable everyone in the agency to access bookings. The hardest part? Just teaching old dogs to give it a try it.

“We’ve taught our agency owners how to be more profitable by charging fees and selling insurance,” he said, but in a world where agencies that used to have 10 people now have 6, you also need to be more efficient. Before they learn any other way, have your new employees learn to book using the system.

(If you need help with the new cruise booking engine, just get in touch with Signature and someone will come to your office to train you, Sharpe offered. “We’re spending a lot of money on this; just please give it a try.”

Best line of the conference: We have a “get to” job, not a “got to” job. Where others have got to go to work, we get to go to work.

Insider tip: Next time you’re at the Venetian, try the chicken and waffles at Yardbird. Skip the waffle and just enjoy the bird, says Phil Cappelli.

Thought on giving back: Pack for a Purpose allows travelers to bring along medical or school supplies to donate and drop them off at the hotel front desk. It’s just one of many charities to which Signature donates.

Cheryl Rosen on cruise

Cheryl’s 40-year career in journalism is bookended by roles in the travel industry, including Executive Editor of Business Travel News in the 1990s, and recently, Editor in Chief of Travel Market Report and admin of Cheryl Rosen’s Group for Travel Professionals, a news and support group on Facebook. As an independent contractor since retiring from the 9-to-5 to travel more, she has written regular articles about the life and business of travel agents for Luxury Travel Advisor, Travel Agent, and Insider Travel Report. She also writes and edits for professional publications in the financial services, business, and technology sectors.

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