Hear From Starwood’s Chris Austin!
By Martin Deutsch
November 29, 2012 11:45 PM
Travel agents who attend the Home Based Travel Agent Forum, April 29-May 1, 2013, at the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino in Las Vegas can look forward to hearing an optimistic assessment of their future by keynote speaker Chris Austin, vice president of global retail leisure and luxury sales for Starwood Hotels & Resorts, the industry’s largest luxury hospitality operator with nine hotel brands. Austin, who joined one of Starwood’s predecessor companies in 1986 in England, tells me he will stress that he doesn’t care where travel agents work from as long as they work professionally.
Austin, who spoke with me in a telephone interview from his office in Miami, goes on to say “how many hours home-based agents work and from where they work is their business.” He points out that what’s really important is how these agents conduct their sales and marketing activities and how they build their supplier and client relationships. And believe me, Austin is unusually qualified in his emphasis on professionalism. After all, he played a key role in Starwood’s decision to change its description of retailers from “travel agents” to “travel professionals.”
Austin says this descriptive change, from agent to professional, supports the understanding that the seller (i.e., the travel agent) operates in a respected profession, similar to doctors, lawyers and real estate agents. He also suggests that today’s home-based agents are a brand unto themselves, so they need to differentiate themselves from the competition. “They have to be innovative just as we have to be at Starwood to stay ahead of the game,” he says.
In all probability, Austin’s keynote address will provide a focus on innovation as well provide a good deal of prominence to selling luxury products. “Every travel professional has the potential of having luxury customers,” he says. Indeed, he points out that luxury is not just the exclusive domain of traditional brick-and-mortar agents, calling that “a myth that has no basis in reality. “
Austin believes that travel professionals can sell any kind of travel from anywhere, especially luxury. And since their compensation is a percentage of what they sell, it makes absolute sense that they develop long-haul bookings combined with luxury accommodations at their destinations. That’s especially true since it’s been shown that the further away their clients travel, the longer those clients will stay, and the more likely they are to reserve luxury rooms or suites. This “complete correlation,” according to Austin, leads inevitably to more compensation and higher profits for travel professionals.
In discussing luxury, Austin calls attention to two of the brands in Starwood’s lineup -- St. Regis and the Luxury Collection. He points out that St. Regis, which always the same name for its properties, except for one in London, now has 30 locations worldwide, having just opened its first hotel in Africa. The Luxury Collection, on the other hand, has 85 hotels in 35 countries, but these properties are “perceivably independent,” Austin says, with generally distinctive names and a more individual character. “The Luxury Collection is more for the global explorer, while St. Regis is more for the global elite,” Austin says. Both groups of hotels are located strategically around the world and invite bookings from home-based travel professionals, which in turn allows them to enhance their earnings and their standing as professionals in their community.
As for the forthcoming Home Based Travel Agent Forum in Las Vegas, Austin says the event features both quality and quantity in the travel professionals it attracts. “The Home Based Travel Agent Forum has established itself as a core education base for travel agents,” he says, explaining that while suppliers often emphasize quality over quantity, “you can’t have a trade show with only 100 people in the aisles.” That’s why he thinks that the Forum today provides a great opportunity for suppliers like himself to mix face-to-face with the home-based travel professionals on hand.
With the U.S. elections now behind us (at least for the moment), Austin reports that 2012 has been a good year for Starwood so far, although business has “softened” somewhat during the uncertainty created by the heated race for the White House. But he says Starwood is “very, very positive” about the future and it enjoys an above-average share of occupancy in mature markets worldwide.” In addition, Starwood’s brands have many new hotels in the pipeline and that growth is still the watchword for the hotel business. Those nine brands include St. Regis, The Luxury Collection, Sheraton, Westin, Four Points by Sheraton, W, Le Meridien, Aloft and Element Hotels. In all, Starwood currently has roughly 1,025 properties in more than 100 countries. “We are the largest operator of luxury hotels in the world,” Austin says.
So if you want to catch Austin at the Home Based Travel Agent Forum, you can register at the $70 Early Bird rate, which is in effect until Dec. 31, by visiting www.LVTravelShow.com. After that, the rate goes to $99. Once you are fully registered, you will receive email instructions on how to reserve accommodations at the low $99 per night suite rate at the Venetian Resort. Travel suppliers interested in signing up for a booth can do so by contacting Jim Cloonan, president of Travel Show Marketing Group (TSMG), which produces the Forum, at 617-337-5132 or email him at Jim@TravelSMG.com. Cloonan can discuss the various sponsorship opportunities at the Forum. So come join us in Las Vegas, stay at the fabulous Venetian Resort and here from luxury hotelier Chris Austin!
Martin B. Deutsch is marketing consultant and program director for the Home Based Travel Agent Forum.