22 JAN 2015: Despite the plunging loonie, turbulent world events and health travel advisories, Vacation.com anticipates a good year for agents in the company’s latest membership survey findings released earlier this week.

“2016 bookings are still above last year leading into the winter season for sun products. On the niche market side consumers are more focused on investing in themselves so we’re seeing supplier bookings for experiential travel and adventure travel showing double digits. It’s very strong,” says Christine James, Vacation.com Canada vice-president.

Cautiously Optimistic

Considered the largest travel business and marketing solutions provider to the leisure travel distribution channel with over 5,500 independent retail travel agencies across the US and Canada, Vacation.com senior executives met with travel trade media in Toronto to discuss the company’s outlook on its member agent bookings, forecasts in the marketplace, new proprietary tools, and to relay they are cautiously optimistic on bookings this year.

At a press conference James indicated Vacation.com’s outlook looks good with overall bookings even or looking better during the same time compared to last year. “In spite of everything that is happening in the world, from terrorism to health threats, bookings remain strong.”

Travel Outlook

Results from the survey indicate the top bookings are in the Caribbean with the Dominican Republic ranking first, Jamaica second and Cuba in third place; followed by Mexico East, and Mexico West. In the United States Las Vegas shows strong appeal and big popularity while the most popular European destination is Italy.

On the topic of Europe, James added, “We know that the overall 2016 outlook is very dependent on the resiliency of Europe in general. So far, travellers are showing that they will not be deterred by the attempts of some to derail tourism.” However she noted for some destinations that experienced terrorism attacks such as in Paris the marketplace has seen a slight slump. The company reports while 21 percent of member agents have not seen a drop in long term business to Paris over half (52 percent) of the member agents have noted in 2016 they have no Paris bookings.

“Generally speaking when there is an act of terrorism Canadians tend to respond and bounce back. They are more resilient in terms of fear factor,” she said on the situation and the eventual return of client bookings to the City of Light.

The company study revealed 74 percent of member agents in Canada are on par with or showing more bookings for 2016 but later added the plummeting Canadian dollar is a growing concern.

“You are not seeing as many sales in the marketplace and that’s a concern,” says James on the effects of the plunging Canadian currency. Some packages such as hotel rates in Cuba she noted are now being priced in US dollars as the result of a new Cuban government directive.

“For US $100 a night that’s $150 Canadian,” she says and adds the US dollar is reflecting the price of Cuban packages. “That’s why I think Cuba has dropped its position to number three. People love Cuba but if Cuba prices themselves out of the market that will be a huge issue.”

Cruising

First time cruise bookers are a source to watch. Survey results indicate 44 percent are first time cruisers.

The company which polled a large cross section of Vacation.com’s North American membership also has Canadian focused data that indicate nearly 89% of those surveyed state their cruise bookings are “equal to” or “better than” last year at this time.

Stephen McGillivray, chief marketing officer of Travel Leaders Group which is the parent company of Vacation.com chalks the strong cruise bookings to consumers adapting to the cruise line pricing commitment to hold yields.

“A couple of years ago, yes consumers waited when departures were 6 to 9 months out. They knew the cruise lines would fill their ships and drop their pricing but cruise lines are committed to holding their pricing integrity,” he said and observed agents are seeing repeat bookings at a higher yield than last year. “That’s good for us and for suppliers. Healthy yields are good for our industry.”

James noted that the investment of resources into the Canadian marketplace by cruise lines is also contributing to the upswing. For example, she explained cruise companies like Norwegian Cruise Lines have doubled its sales force.

In anticipation of the soft Canadian bookings due to the poor Canadian dollar, cruise lines were proactive, said James and devised Canadian pricing which members took advantage of.

“The (Canadian dollar pricing) would certainly help first time cruise bookers,” she told Travel Industry Today on the 44 percent first-time cruise bookings.

Best Ports of Call

Eastern Caribbean cruises have the most bookings among Canadian agents while Europe is second best for its popular Mediterranean cruises and for the burgeoning river cruises.

“Looking specifically at European river cruises, 50% of our polled members indicated their European river cruise bookings are higher than this time last year,” she said. However, McGillivray added that this product which is mainly Europe-centric can be facing some stormy weather.

“Their capacity will continue to surge but the challenge is if things soften in Europe.” He noted last year the river growth was up by a single digit while in previous years it was double digits. “The river guys have some work to do. They have challenges but that could be good for retail distribution.”

Other hot cruise destinations in the Vacation.com portfolio are the Southern Caribbean and Alaska.

Agent Optimism

Feeling blue? According to Vacation.com, most of their Canadian agents (66.7%) are feeling optimistic about this year’s bookings and business.

“Our agents should be optimistic. Bookings for escorted tours and packaged vacations in the Caribbean and Mexico are very strong, and the European market is priced well,” James indicated.

Members also have key tools and programs such as CruisePRO and Distinctive Voyages from Vacation.com to assist them in getting the most value for their clients’ vacation dollars. “The (agent’s) expertise and these extra features helps attract new business and retain existing clientele,” she said.

AgentMate

Watch for new web-based tools to help transform member agents business. The latest development is Vacation.com’s ‘Grand Vision,’ the AgentMate.

Described as a road tested, ‘real deal’ agency operating system, it appears the web-based customer management system (CMS) is a retailer’s answer to solving administrative tasks such as invoices, accounting, reporting and analytics, group management and consumer profiling among other uses.

Jose Ferreira, a 10-year industry veteran with the company, who is the new Chief Technology Officer for Travel Leaders Franchise Group in the Leisure Group division, discussed some of the pros in this improved software for non-GDS agencies that was acquired from CruiseHolidays. The technological improvements, he notes, are expected to grow agents and retailers businesses with the adoption of the new AgentMate.

“The core product in 2005 shifted from a distributed client server version to now a cloud-based system. Everyone logs into the same web portal and logs into their agency to view and run data.”

AgentMate is ideal for cruise and tour agencies (non-GDS agencies). “This is a great opportunity to transform their businesses,” he noted. The company reports using this system will reduce labour (i.e. accounting, calculations etc..) by three quarters having one person conduct the tasks usually performed by four people.

Ferreira added, “So many agent desktop systems out there do a big splash, get stuck in development then later it collapses and never moves to market. We built this (AgentMate) over time and addressed need after need so we’re excited about this really robust agent management system.”

Connect More: May 22-26

AgentMate will be launched at the 18th annual International Conference and Trade Show scheduled on May 22-26, 2016 in Hollywood, Florida. The conference theme is “Connect More.”

Over 125 Canadian agents have registered to date while over 1,500 delegates are expected to attend. During the conference, member agents will be exposed to all of the Vacation.com’s programs, training opportunities and any conference support.

In addition, there will be a new meeting programme known as the Supplier Partner Connections, which are 90-minute supplier forums for agents on relevant industry-themed topics. Agent attendees also will have Q and A sessions to learn some value propositions from suppliers.

author

Ilona Kauremszky

A regular contributor to Travel Industry Today, Ilona is a prize winning journalist whose writing pursuits have taken her around the globe.

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