Friday, September 12, 2008

Travel Consortiums: Ensemble Travel, Virtuoso, etc.

Ensemble Travel Group calls itself, "An International Collection of Expert Travel Agencies with Exclusive Offers That Make Your Travel Dreams Come True".  Virtuoso takes that a step further and has established an impressive international network of high end/luxury providers and, admittedly, is the tops when it comes to marketing itself and providing the ultimate in luxury offerings.  There are other travel consortiums as well, such as Signature (also focused on the upper end of the market) and Vacations.com (focused more on the mass market).

These travel consortiums of travel agents use their joint marketing and purchasing power to work with travel suppliers around the world in an effort to bring added value, better pricing and more information to their clients.  You should also be aware that in order to be a member of one of the upper level consortiums (Ensemble, Virtuoso, Signature), membership requires (aside from the payment of fees) that the agency not only be legitimate, but that it have a history of producing a very significant amount of revenue.  That requires, obviously, each travel agency to have established itself for a number of years and that it has a substantial client base. 

I digress for a moment to let you know/disclose I am a member of Ensemble. Years ago I was a member of Vacations.com, but as I will explain, it wasn't a good fit for me or my clients.

What do these consortiums do for a travel agent and, ultimately, for you?  They provide travel agents with a network of travel providers (whether they be cruise lines, hotels, tour operators, etc.) that cooperatively allow the agent to offer its clients - on occasion - special pricing, or added value (onboard credits, complimentary tours, a room upgrade, included breakfasts or dinner, or similar).  They also provide marketing programs, so that the travel agent can cost-effectively send out not only postcards and flyers, but glossy catalogs and magazines to its clients...and those dreaded emails (which I try to avoid sending unless it is something really good!).  And they provide the travel agent with information.

One thing that I find interesting is how the cache belonging to a consortium is directly proportional to the cost of the vacation. As a former Vacations.com agency, I do not recall any clients caring (and most not knowing) that I was a member.  For my luxury clients there really was little benefit, while those sailing on Carnival or Princess did benefit from some onboard credits (and, to be sure, they do add percentage-wise a much greater value on a lower priced cruise).  So it was a really poor fit for me and a very short term relationship.

On the other hand, there are those that believe using a Virtuoso travel agency is akin to wearing a Rolex; it is a status symbol.  Virtuoso provides its agents and their clients with some really good stuff, but at least for me as I write this, I do not find the value to be there.  That is, in large part, because of my involvement in the superyacht industry.  Many of the contacts and access Virtuoso affords its member agencies I already have.  Much of the information it provides is already in my knowledge bank because I have actively traveled all over the world for decades.  I have never been one to be impressed with hype (heck, being in the superyacht business, if I was swayed by "flash" I would have self-destructed years ago!), so I have looked at what works best and is the best value for me and my clients. 

I readily acknowledge that Ensemble Travel does not have the cache of Virtuoso.  But there are so many similarities between the two that other than Virtuoso having higher quality marketing materials and the aforementioend access, I find little useful difference.  As an Ensemble Travel agency, I am able to provide similar (or even identical) hosted tours and cocktail parties, some great European hotel upgrades and/or benefits (complimentary breakfasts, wine, etc.) and more.  One benefit that I believe Ensemble has over Virtuoso is that because its focus is not so much on the luxury end, I can provide some better pricing and amenities on the premium lines (such as Celebrity and Holland America); which is a significant portion of my business.

You may have noticed that I have not really discussed what the information is that the consortiums provide its member agencies.  There is a reason:  For the client it is many times simply irrelevant.  I do not care what information is available if it is not accessed, understood, efficiently utilized and then conveyed properly by the particular travel agent to the client.  I have had too many experiences of clients coming to me from another agency (one that is a member of a consortium) and their complaining about the misinformation, the lack of service or serious mistakes that were made...by a specific travel agent. 

Alas, it is not about reading something off a computer screen or "hearing" the Great Barrier Reef, Dubai or Amsterdam are wonderful.  You want to know that you can have a float plane fly you too the reef for your day of diving rather than enduring a two hour boat ride each way...and explain what it is like.  You want to know why Dubai's newest hotel, Raffles Dubai, is incredible and you just might enjoy knowing more about the incredible museums of Amsterdam (and how to miss the lines entirely) rather than the Red Light District.

Also, remember that marketing material (no matter how impressive) is intended to get you to go on vacation; not be your vacation.  So when you are looking to book your next cruise you should think about whether the travel agent's membership in a consortium and offering a complimentary tour or onboard credit is really what is important to you...or is it the knowledge that your cruise will be booked at a good price, with you being provided solid information, and receiving exceptional service that really matters. 

If you are fortunate, and I try to make all my clients fortunate,  you will get it all!