TORONTO — After encouraging its members to ‘Take the Lead’ at last year’s Canadian Fall Regional Conferences and Trade Shows, TL Network Canada is now teaching them how to ‘Stay in the Lead’, the key message at this year’s event.
Taking place in both Western and Eastern Canada on select dates in September and October (Markham, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver), the annual conference includes front-line agent training, owner/manager training, a Power Speaker Session led by Jeremy Van Kuyk, Vice President of Information Technology, Travel Leaders Network, a trade show, and dinner with sponsor presentations.
This year’s Conference numbers are up, both in participating members and suppliers. In Markham on Sept. 26, the organization hosted 75 agents, 39 exhibitors and 42 supplier reps, while Toronto welcomed 130 agents, 38 exhibitors and 49 reps on Sept. 28, an increase from last year’s numbers.
But this is not surprising, considering the phenomenal growth TL Network Canada has seen in 2017 following a move to consolidation earlier this year. On Jan. 1, Vacation.com and U.S.-based Travel Leaders Associates and Results! Travel formally combined to become one entity called TL Network, which now boasts 7,000 locations in both Canada and the United States. As such, the group comprises more than one-third of North America’s leading travel agencies and is now the largest seller of luxury travel, cruises, river cruises and tours in the travel agency industry.
In other words, it was a good move, one that benefitted everyone involved, especially its members.
Travelweek sat down with Christine James, Vice President, Canada, TL Network to talk about how business has grown after consolidating, new trends in the market and what travel agents need to do to become – and stay – successful.
TW: Why did the company decide to consolidate? Was it a necessary move from a business standpoint?
CJ: The reason the integration made sense and has been really successful and beneficial to our members is because there were certain solutions and tools like the learning system, the certification program that sat in the franchise world, where Vacation.com agents did not have access to that. We all had great solutions and programs but they were all separate. By combining our collective efforts and knowledge base into one unit, we actually ended up with a better product – best in class – whether it be a booking tool or training program.
TW: How specifically are you helping agents now following the move to consolidate?
CJ: We’re increasing the number of profiles, and we’re helping our agents build their profiles and get more agents into the program. We have generated year-to-date, in Canada, almost 3,000 leads, which is significant considering we only have 450 agents currently posting live profiles. And the average sale per lead is over $4,000.
We were helping agents build before the integration, but now we’re combining all our teams and talent. Let’s face it, a lot of agents are good at selling but not at selling themselves. We’re able to provide them with comprehensive writing services, for example. We get them to fill out a basic template, we put pretty words around it to make it look more dynamic and attract clients. We’re also using a lot of SEOs. We’re trying to encourage our agents to build more profiles – the more you have, the more leads you’re going to get.
TW: Can you comment on the growth that Canada is seeing?
CJ: As of yesterday, we’ve had 38 new members since January, which is phenomenal. We’re up to over 700 members now. Canada is growing at the same pace as the U.S., maybe even a little faster if you look at it percentage-wise. We’ve had great success in Canada and equal success in the U.S.
TW: This year’s theme is ‘Stay in the Lead’. How would you suggest travel agents do that?
CJ: By staying ahead of the curve, both in terms of product and technology. We believe we provide them with the technology solutions to keep them in the lead. I think the big advantage that TL Network has is that we only serve one master, whereas when you go to third-party providers they have multiple masters and as such can’t respond to your demands quickly. We’re able to respond to our agents needs very quickly, whether it’s a matter of enhancement or content delivery.
TW: Would you agree that going niche is the way to go today?
CJ: I think you have to be. This is very in line with the rollout of our certification programs that we’re offering. As part of the integration, we’re able to offer our agents access to these programs, which are full learning modules, not just a one-hour webinar. It could take up to two years to complete all the modules, it’s all on demand. And upon completion, agents are actually certified.
We have four streams right now: Leisure, Luxury, Action/Adventure, and Honeymoon & Destination Weddings, which has the highest amount of streams. Not only is this segment more profitable, but it also requires more training. It’s not a typical booking – it’s highly specialized. In this particular stream, as part of the training, we actually fly you into destination to witness an actual destination wedding.
TW: What do you think is the biggest challenge agents face today?
CJ: When we ask our agents what keeps them up at night, it’s not how do I get new business in my door, which is important. Rather, they’re concerned with attracting new agents into their offices because there’s the factor of the aging agent community. As older agents retire, they need to attract new agents. Just this week, we hosted another event – Young Professionals – where we provided an opportunity for millennials to network and exchange best practices with like-minded individuals within their demographic.
TW: What trends are you seeing in terms of booking patterns?
CJ: The good news is that our booking windows with key partners is actually widening. People are booking further out now, which is really nice to see. We’re seeing the average vacation booking to southern destinations two to three months out now, whereas before it used to be six to eight weeks. I think the suppliers have gotten really smart in offering early booking bonuses and being really aggressive with early offers, because everybody wins if the booking window is further out – agents, suppliers, everyone.
TW: How are you maximizing this new trend?
CJ: We have developed a tool that captures potential clients very early in the buying stage. Available on the Vacation.com site, which is now a purely consumer site, we funnel travellers through our website before passing the lead to our existing agents. Basically, we take them through the whole journey, ask them a lot of questions and create a profile. When the profile is complete, we then deliver them up to one of our agents, which is really unique in the industry. This is still in the launch stages, we just got a select pilot group with a few Canadian members. We’ll probably go into full launch in early 2018.
TW: With the travel industry still recovering from recent hurricane activity, how did TL Network step up to help members through these past few weeks?
CJ: I got great feedback from our members. In fact, we had a council meeting this morning and all the council members were actually singing the praises of all our supplier partners. The suppliers were very proactive in the way they handled the movement of people that were stranded in destination and folks that were about to depart by offering them different alternatives, waivers, etc.
We also have our own microsite within our existing website dedicated to hurricane updates. We were getting constant updates everyday from our various supplier partners, so we wanted to have one area where our members can go see the latest news. It was so much to manage, and we’re still updating it. It wasn’t an easy time for our agents but we supported them in that effort.
TW: What’s in the pipeline for TL Network Canada?
CJ: We’re actively rolling out the full launch of the Vacation site, repurposing it from a network brand into a consumer brand that has more relevance to consumers. Consumers were never really aware of Vacation.com – it was an industry identity – so the Vacation site will be entirely new to them. It’s a great name – anyone looking for a ‘vacation’ will call it up, which is huge.
As for our next big events, we’re continuing out west in Calgary (Oct. 24) and Vancouver (Oct. 26), and in June we’re going back to Vegas.
TW: Finally, what’s ONE thing that all travel agents need to do to ensure their success?
CJ: They really need to keep up with the latest technology and tools, and this includes social media. We actually have webinars on how to train yourself on social media and how to use it to your advantage. Agents today really have to stay ahead of the curve, it’s as simple as that.