Always ready for the next evolution
Ensemble Travel at 50
Pictured above: Seen at Ensemble’s Toronto office (l-r) are Franca Iuele, Liz Scull, Clare Burke, Ingrid Lopez, Lindsay Pearlman, to his left is Judi Ticknor, Sandra Lowe, Chris Lackstrom and Christine Campbell.
It kind of takes your breath away to realize that Ensemble Travel – originally GIANTS – celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2017. In the first part of this three-part series, CTP’s executive editor, Bob Mowat sits down with the group’s co-president, Lindsay Pearlman to talk about the group and where’s its been, where’s it at and where’s its going.
Cast your mind back to 1968.
If you’re a student of travel industry history, you might just recollect a group of 10 travel agents in Brooklyn, New York – led by Warren Buckner – who banded together to launch the Greater Independent Association of Travel Services or GIANTS.
Not only did that group create one of the more memorable travel industry acronyms; but over the past 50 years, GIANTS has taken a leading role in establishing the foundation that has became the bedrock on which the travel agency-supplier relationships that we see in the industry today have been built.
During those formative years, the goal of GIANTS was to gain greater buying power and to increase its influence with travel suppliers for both the agency members of the group and for their customers.
It was a change-embracing group and after 36 years – in June 2004 – it recognized the need to reinvent itself, rebranding as Ensemble Travel and explaining at the time, that it had evolved as an organization and its new name was a reflection of that evolution and a signal of its future direction.
But company officials also made it abundantly clear that Ensemble Travel and its members would never forget the lessons learned during the group’s early days.
In fact, with the arrival of 2017, Ensemble is gearing up for its international conference in Dallas, Texas where it will launch celebrations for its 50th anniversary that will mark its many achievements over the past five decades.
Clearly, there have been lots of changes and lots of achievements for the group since 1968, but as Ensemble’s co-president, Lindsay Pearlman told Canadian Travel Press (CTP) in a recent interview, the group hasn’t forgotten its roots and is “still a co-operative.”
“So, to join the organization, you buy a share [and] regardless of the size of your company, one member owns one share with an equal vote. The board of directors is made up of our member base, and they are elected by the members. So Libbie Rice, my co-president, who is based in New York and I, report into the board of directors,” Pearlman explained to CTP.
Ensemble’s history in Canada dates from 1984, and two years ago, it expanded internationally into Australia and New Zealand. Currently, the group has about 850 members split evenly between Canada and the US, with 10 members in Australia and New Zealand.
Reflecting on the group’s longevity, Pearlman observed that, while GIANTS “was really started as a commission club,” it has adapted to a myriad of marketplace changes, evolving from its commission club origins “to a kind of a marketing company, and now I think it’s fair to say we’re more of a business services company.”
Today, Pearlman told CTP, “We basically provide services to our members that they either don’t want to do for themselves or aren’t equipped to do for themselves. So that could be web support, training, marketing production (both online and web-based), contract consolidations, supplier management – all these different elements that we can leverage that improves their profitability, their overall operating costs and gives them products and services that allow them to compete in the market regardless of the size of their competition.”
As for where Ensemble is headed in the next five years or so, Pearlman said, “You know what, [forecasting] five years down the road is impossible nowadays. I think three years is really long-term planning.”
However, Ensemble’s co-president also revealed that the group has “just finished our new strategic plan. It’s called Plan 2020 and that kind of throws your head around because when you think about it, 2020 seems like such a long time [down the road], but it’s literally just three years from now.”
He continued, “If we were originally, and I think this is actually a pretty fair assessment, a commission club that moved into a marketing company that moved into a business services company, I think the next evolution of this is we’re going to be a technology company.”
In fact, Pearlman pointed out that Ensemble has already “invested heavily into a new technology platform called Navigate. Navigate will be principally a B2B platform that will aggregate all different products (and services) into a single source platform. So, an agent comes in in the morning, opens [Navigate] up, and can source and book all types of product – cruise, tour, car, hotel, everything – from one place.”
“The first vertical we did was cruise, and it’s built and running,” he told CTP and continued, “We have five of our biggest cruise producers currently on the platform, and we’ve given [it] to them to break [in] and to tweak and develop. We have another 70 that will be coming along in Q1 and another 100 that we have slated to go. And these are already loaded onto the platform, it’s just about rolling them out and doing the training and making sure that everybody is comfortable enough to be with it. The whole idea is ease of use and access to as much product as possible to allow the traditional agent to compete regardless of what they’re looking at.”
Pearlman explained, “For our members, Navigate gives them a platform where they can access everything – one channel. For our preferred partners, Navigate gives them one channel to distribute their product through. Think about it, if you’re a really good agent nowadays, how many platforms do you need to source different material – we’re putting it all on one platform. And for us, we get data, so that’s going to make Ensemble a better resource, a much more timely resource for our members.”
Next step for Navigate will be the addition of tour packages and products, while for air, Ensemble already has Aviate which Pearlman said “will be a feed into the Navigate platform.”
Asked whether this was a case of Ensemble anticipating or responding to NDC (New Dis-tribution Capability), Pearlman said, “That will be part of it, but we didn’t go at it because of it – that’s part of the structure around it.”
He observed, “You know, I like to say that simple is expensive, so you try to build a bucket that will evolve, that needs to evolve, so that’s why we launched this [Navigate]. We didn’t wait until we had all of the verticals loaded onto this because it’s a continuing evolution process. So, one vertical at a time and then as different programs come into place and change, we’ll be in a position where we have the flexibility to adapt based on those market requirements.”
And flexibility and adaptability may well be the watchwords for 2017 for Ensemble, with Pearlman noting that, “2015 was our best year in the company’s history. 2016 will come in as our second-best year in company history, missing [the] number one [spot] by a fraction – it was really close. Our trend into 2017 is very good. We’re really happy with it. Consumer booking habits seem to be evolving significantly, and we need to adapt to that. A lot of that, I would say, has to do with both the economic climate related to the dollar and the political climate related to our friend [referring to Donald Trump] south of the border.”
As well, Pearlman pointed out that “these are variables that we’ve faced in the past – so they’re not new – I would say that they’re just a little bit more extreme. I’m really looking forward to 2017. Personally, 2016 wasn’t the best of years, but we’re through it and that seems to be the general consensus for a lot of people. I think it’s fair to say that we’re very optimistic about 2017. The trends are pretty good, but we’re probably more unsure because of variables we can’t control.”
The bottom line for Pearlman, though, is that “at the end of the day, people are still travelling – especially Canadians. Planes are filled. Resorts are full. Hotels are full. When they buy it and how they buy it is a bit of a question mark, but the bottom line is they’re still buying it.”