Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Real Benefits of Booking with an Ensemble Travel Group (or Virtuoso or Signature) Travel Agency: Goldring Travel

Back in 2008 I wrote the article Travel Consortia: Ensemble Travel, Virtuoso, etc.  which set out the basic benefits of booking your cruise, hotel or tour with a travel agency that belongs to a consortium.  Of late, and of course on Cruise Critic, some significant misinformation has been set out by a colorful, if not terribly accurate, individual so I thought it a good time to delve into the subject a bit more.

First, let's set the record straight on cruise benefits: 
  1. No travel consortium provides $500 or $1,000 onboard credits as has very erroneously been reported.  The person reporting otherwise mentions these inflated amounts as being associated with Ensemble. As an Ensemble Travel Group member I can tell you categorically, it is patently false. Travel consortia negotiate with the cruise lines to identify certain cruises and on those cruises (and only those cruises) you are provided with a complimentary shore excursion or an onboard credit of up to $300 or a pre- or post- amenity with a particular vendor for up to $350.  Other times it is just an onboard credit or, on non-luxury lines, a smaller onboard credit or a category or two upgrade, etc.
  2. If you are getting a $500 or $1,000 onboard credit it probably is either a combination of the above amenity and an additional credit from your travel agency - especially when direct discounting is not permitted. (Where possibly Goldring Travel prefers giving you a direct discount because taking your money today so that I can give it back to you months later while you are on your cruise doesn't make sense to me.)
  3. Certain cruiselines - Regent Seven Seas and Oceania, for example, are now limiting those onboard credits and amenities to 5% of your cruise fare. So if you paid $8,000 for your cruise, your onboard credit will be limited to $400...unless there is also a travel consortium amenity.
  4. National Accounts almost never get better pricing than smaller agencies, but higher commission rates....because we sell more of that product.  National Accounts are simply large volume accounts.  (Obviously Goldring Travel is a national account with, for example, Seabourn.)  But that doesn't necessarily mean superior pricing or access.  I can pick up the phone and call the top folks at Seabourn, Crystal, Silversea, Azamara Club, etc. for reasons other than my sales volume...though that surely helps.  In fact, many National Accounts (not Goldring Travel) do not discount or provide added amenities, but rather charge you an additional fee just to book with them; so you actually wind up paying more!
OK, that said, here are some of the basics of - and the differences between - two of the larger consortia.  Ensemble Travel Group, of which I am a member, is a not-for-profit organization.  That doesn't mean non-profit.  It means that the money it makes is given back to its members.  Virtuoso on the other hand is a privately held company that has a profit motive; giving back to its members only a portion of its profits and keeping a good bit of its profits for itself.  The resulting products are, consequently, very different on the outside, but quite similar on the inside.

What do I mean by that?  One is in the "travel business" and the other is in the "business of travel".  Huh?

Virtuoso essentially markets itself as being superior to the products and agencies it associates itself with.  "This is a Virtuoso agency", hotel or whatever...pushing its brand first and then the brand of the associated agency, hotel or whatever.  It has been very effective in its marketing Virtuoso as a standard-bearing brand, but as an entity, it necessary favors its bigger agencies who profit off the smaller ones and it is quite expensive to belong to.  (In theory the profits it brings the smaller agencies will be greater than its cost.)  In other words, Virtuoso is in the "travel business".

Ensemble Travel Group works differently, with all of its profits being given back to its members effectively in proportion to its production with each "preferred" supplier (more on that later).  As a result, the brand being supported is each travel agency's; not Ensemble.  And because it has no selfish profit motive (only one for its members), you don't have a situation where money is spent on pushing its brand or disproportionately on it larger members. As such, Ensemble is in the "business of travel".

I looked long and hard at which consortium I should join and stay with.  I compared amenities on cruises, which hotels were in each's programs and the amenities provided, etc.  And what I found was - honestly - there is very little difference between Ensemble Travel Group and Virtuoso properties and amenities.  The differences are in how the consortia help its members (technology, marketing, profit-sharing, etc.)  And obviously for Goldring Travel, Ensemble Travel Group worked the best.

But how do these consortia make money to either put into their pockets or give back to their members?  It isn't a secret:  Similar to super-sized travel agencies, they make money from the cruise lines, hotels and tour operators.  The more their members sell, the more they get paid.  Pretty simple.

But what does this mean to you, the traveler?  Dependent on the agency, it can mean a lot or a little. For example:
  • Goldring Travel's website is fairly robust with lots of information; interesting graphics; and many ways to explore an entire holiday on your own...if you like.  You can only imagine what I can do for you - finding the best options, properties and pricing - with the technology Ensemble provides Goldring Travel!
  • Suppliers seek consortia members out to provide more information and amenities because we produce for them.  Generally non-member agencies just nibble around the edges, so the real information is hard to find and amenities even harder to provide to their clients.
  • Goldring Travel combines any available Ensemble amenity, additional supplier amenity, and  its own discount, onboard credit or other amenity, so you have a double/triple benefit.  This is especially valuable with the new Regent Seven Seas and Oceania restrictions.
But that said, keep in mind that an onboard credit on a cruise or complimentary breakfast at a hotel cannot, ever, make up for the talents of a great travel advisor.  You remember that person (or if not find one so you can "remember") that promptly answers your calls/emails; says, "I'll take care of that.  It is easy."; provides you with accurate information; seeks out the best pricing; and, of course, provides you with an overall great experience.  I have earned my membership in Ensemble Travel Group just the same way I earn my clients' business by doing just that.

[Interested in the "long version" of this topic?  Please read my June 2011 article:  Luxury Travel Agents and Their Consortia: Do They Make A Difference to Your Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal or Regent Seven Seas Cruise? ]

So if you are someone hell-bent on finding someone to share your tours, believes a cheap hotel is fine because you only sleep there even if it is 30 minutes round trip to anywhere, or thinks that "killing" a bottle of wine while "gnawing" on a lamb chop is the ultimate in fine cruising experiences, then all of this is meaningless.  Just find the travel agency with the cheapest rate because all of the benefits of using a top travel agency that not only qualifies for membership in, but belongs to, a top quality consortium don't really assist...except maybe for an occasional onboard credit.

Now you know.  But, of course, if you have any questions or concerns, please give me a call or email me.