Cruising Big with Vacation.com
By James Shillinglaw
May 13, 2012 11:45 PM
Perhaps it's only appropriate: The largest travel agency group in terms of number of locations held its conference last week on one of the two largest ships in the world. Indeed, it was the first time Vacation.com, the travel agency marketing services group, had ever held its annual meeting at sea.
When V-com decided to stage its conference on a ship this year, it decided to do it big time on Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas. Oasis and its sister ship, Allure of the Seas, are the two largest vessels afloat, at 225,282 gross registered tons and capable of carrying close to 6,300 passengers with all berths filled.
Vacation.com itself currently claims to have 5,100 travel agency locations in the U.S. and Canada, meaning that even if one travel agent representative from every location were aboard, it still wouldn't fill all the beds on the ship. In this case, however, V-com had a little more than 1,200 attending its conference, including travel agents, preferred suppliers and others, such as media representatives like me. The rest of the ship was filled with "civilians" (aka clients), so it was a good chance to see how Oasis of the Seas really operates with a nearly full complement.
The only other time I'd been on the ship was during its inaugural cruise roughly two and a half years ago -- and that was when Oasis of the Seas was only about half full. This time I was impressed by the lack of any crowds -- at embarkation, where I sailed through check-in and security faster than for any ship I can remember, as well as in all the public spaces and dining venues. It just didn't feel like there were roughly 6,000 passengers aboard.
As for V-com, the group's 1,200 conference attendees barely took up space in Oasis of the Seas' main theater, which was used for the general sessions. The breakout sessions and trade show were spread among the ship's other entertainment and dining venues during the day. The only challenge -- and one that can occur just as easily at a land-based conference -- was finding the people you wanted to meet -- or more precisely, finding them again after you met them the first time. Meeting points and times were essential in order to keep track of the folks you wanted to see.
For me, this 14th annual Vacation.com conference brought back some memories. I've attended almost every V-com meeting since the group was cobbled together through a merger of rival travel agency consortia buyout groups nearly 15 years ago. Indeed, I was there in New Orleans when those groups merged and adopted the Vacation.com name. I've watched as the group has grown in sales while at the same time contracting in number of agency locations as it consolidated.
That kind of sales growth is a trend that Vacation.com President John Lovell says has continued over the past year. Lovell told me that preferred supplier cruise and tour sales are up 6 percent this year and now total more than $2 billion. He says in the aggregate, V-com sales are well over $10 billion, including air and hotel.
At this year's meeting, V-com made a number of announcements -- all designed to boost preferred supplier sales and give its members better tools to sell more travel. For example, V-com unveiled plans for a revamped extranet that updates its existing AgentNet with a new, more robust online product called Agent Universe, which will debut later this summer. AgentNet was one of the first agency portals, so it clearly needed some updating. V-com executives promise a more customized user experience for member agencies, including quick links to give members access to the group’s programs, tools and information that each member deems most important.
V-com also introduced a new mobile app, GoSiteSee, which member agencies can give to their clients for free when they travel. The agency-branded app delivers information for 35 destinations (so far) in the U.S., Europe, Asia and South America), including dining, attractions, transportation and directions.
Finally, V-com introduced a new email retargeting program, a benefit of its long-running Engagement marketing program. The idea is to give supplier promotional emails, which are sent out by V-com on behalf of its members, more shelf life. If a member agency customer opens a promotional email but does not contact the agency to buy anything, that same promotion will subsequently reappear as advertising in other websites that the consumer visits, including Amazon.com, AOL.com, CNN.com, ESPN.com, Google.com, NYTimes.com and Weather.com, among others. Now first I thought this seemed a bit creepy, but V-com executives say this is what's happening on the Internet all the time these days. More to the point, it gives V-com's preferred suppliers more "bang for the buck" with V-com member agency customers.
Now these announcements weren't quite as earth shattering as the programs V-com introduced last year, which included the AirPro commissionable air program and Stream, a pre-paid, commissionable hotel booking product. On the other hand, the announcements this year continued a V-com tradition of providing more tools and advancements to its members, all in a quest to produce more preferred supplier sales.
V-com is now in its second full year as part of the Travel Leaders Group family of travel agency organizations and it appears to be benefiting greatly from that association. Synergies with other members of the group, including Tzell, Travel Leaders Franchise Group and Nexion, which itself is a V-com member, are proving to be extremely beneficial to V-com members.
Indeed, V-com executives tell me there are additional programs being developed for V-com through these synergies that will be announced later this year. It's all part of Travel Leaders Chairman Mike Batt's plan to have 50 percent of the travel agency distribution system under the Travel Leaders' umbrella (he now claims to have roughly 30 percent of agency locations).
Fifty percent is certainly big number, but with big groups like Vacation.com in the fold, Batt is well on his way to achieving it. Indeed, if things keep going as they have so far, Royal Caribbean might have to build an even bigger ship just to accommodate the next conference Vacation.com holds at sea.
James Shillinglaw is editor in chief and editorial director of Travalliance Media, which publishes TravelPulse.com, Agent@Home magazine and Vacation Agent magazine.