A strong turn into 2016 has Vacation.com agents optimistic for this year’s sales
Jose Ferreira, Chief Technology Officer for the Travel Leaders Franchise Group, Leisure Group and Vacation.com; Christine James, CTM, Vacation.com’s VP Canada; and Stephen McGillivray, CTC, Chief Marketing Officer for the Travel Leaders Group.

A strong turn into 2016 has Vacation.com agents optimistic for this year’s sales

TORONTO — Canada’s Vacation.com agents are seeing year-on-year growth in all segments with sales figures that are outpacing 2015’s performance, and more than two-thirds (66.7%) said they were optimistic about their business in 2016, according to the latest travel trends survey by Vacation.com parent company Travel Leaders Group.

After a strong start to the year (thanks in part to an early Easter) Q2 and Q3 are looking a bit flat but Vacation.com is “very bullish” that momentum will pick up. As for 2016 overall Vacation.com is “optimistic, but” said Christine James, CTM, Vacation.com’s VP Canada. “We’re just being realistic. We’re looking at worldwide issues, from the threat of terrorism to the falling Canadian dollar.”

Stephen McGillivray, CTC, Chief Marketing Officer for the Travel Leaders Group, said helping Vacation.com agents handle inquiries about tourism-impacting world events is part of the organization’s job. “You want consumers asking questions. Our job is to help our members handle objections. If a client is online with an OTA, they can’t get those answers. That’s the value of the travel agent.”

Wave Season bookings started earlier than usual this year, something James attributes to can’t-miss cruise deals for Canadian passengers. “The cruise lines came out with some great deals. They foresaw the Canadian dollar’s slide and they knew they needed to give Canadians some incentives.”

Nine in 10 Vacation.com agents in Canada – about 89% – said their cruise bookings were higher or about the same compared to the same time last year, and some 44% are first-time cruise bookers. Approximately one-quarter (26%) of the cruises booked are to the Eastern Caribbean, 15% to the Southern Caribbean and 4% to the Western Caribbean. The remainder of the bookings are for Med cruises (19%), European river cruises (19%) and Alaska cruises (11%).

McGillivray said he’s encouraged to see the cruise lines committed to their price integrity. “Healthy yields are good for our industry. When consumers think they can wait and wait and wait for a better price, that’s not healthy. It’s good to hear cruise lines saying ‘we’re not going to sacrifice yields for the sake of going out full’,” he said.

River cruise sales are still trending up but if there’s a softening in Europe, with the capacity that’s coming, “that’s where the challenge could be,” said McGillivray. “The river cruise lines, they’ve got some work to do.”

Meanwhile beach vacations are finally starting to sell in earnest after a slow start, said James. “All our key suppliers had a soft December because of the mild weather. I touched base with a few of them last week and now with the colder weather they said the phones are ringing off the hook.”

According to the Vacation.com study, the top five destinations for land vacations out of Canada are the Caribbean (the D.R., Jamaica and Cuba, in that order), Cancun and the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico’s Pacific Coast, Las Vegas and Italy. “People love Cuba but if they price themselves out of the market then that’s a huge issue,” said McGillivray.

Vacation.com’s annual conference is scheduled for May 22 – 26 at the Hilton Diplomat Resort & Spa in Fort Lauderdale. James said she expects the conference will have record attendance; the 2006 conference at the same property (back when it was a Westin) was very successful. Some 128 Canadian agents have registered already and James expects about 150. In all some 1,600 Vacation.com agents and supplier partners are expected to attend. By popular demand, G Adventures founder Bruce Poon Tip will return as keynote speaker.

Last year’s conference marked the official launch of Vacation.com’s Agent Snapshot. Since April 2015 some 1,920 Vacation.com agent profiles have been published, including 311 Canadian agent profiles. Even more importantly, the services of these 1,920 agents have garnered more than 8,600 client reviews. The profiles help consumers find agents through the Vacation.com consumer website. “We’ve cranked up about 10,000 leads,” said McGillivray. “Agent Snapshot has been an unquestioned success. And the ratings and reviews make it. We’ve found that consumers won’t click into the profile unless they see those reviews.”

Jose Ferreira, Chief Technology Officer for the Travel Leaders Franchise Group, Leisure Group and Vacation.com, said some agents are still wary of the importance of the online profiles. “I think some agents are still a bit shell-shocked from the 1990s, when they were disintermediated by the Internet and the OTAs. But it’s about putting yourself where your customers are.”

At this year’s conference, Vacation.com expects to launch AgentMate. It’s a product that’s been around for a while; it was developed as a simple invoice and accounting package for non-GDS agencies and as a proprietary technology for Cruise Holidays agencies, which are now members within Vacation.com. It grew organically to include CRM, reporting and analytics, group management, and later imported bookings via Vacation.com’s CruisePRO. “We built AgentMate over time addressing need after need and now we have this really robust product,” said Ferreira. “We’ve integrated cruise but there are also huge opportunities with land product, travel insurance and so on. Now we’re treating it as our own little tech startup within our company and we’re planning a rollout at the conference.”

AgentMate will be rolled out to all Vacation.com member agencies in 2016, he added.

Vacation.com will also introduce its new agent level of personalized marketing at the conference. Testing direct mail e-mails with an agent’s own name versus just their agency name, Vacation.com found the open rate doubled. “Vacation.com has always been big with agency-level personalization,” said McGillivray. Agent-level marketing takes this approach up a notch, he said. “The more relevant we can make our messaging, the more it will resonate.”