Ensemble is ready for the next fifty years
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” co-president Lindsay Pearlman says matter-of-factly on the past and future surprises of technology in the topsy-turvy travel business.
Yet, despite the doom and gloom of A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) or Alexa taking over the role of travel agents, this travel consortium like other successful organizations is shifting with the times without losing sight of its core audience: the travel agent.
One of the reoccurring messages for the 900 members who attended the consortium’s annual international conference held last month at the Grand Hyatt Baha Mar in Nassau, Bahamas: People still like buying things and talking to people.
Mentor and founder Warren Buckner is proof of that. “We operate these functions internally. We have our own meetings and events team, and you look around and see everybody – we are there. We feed our family and pay our mortgage because of Warren Buckner,” Pearlman told Canadian Travel Press of the extraordinary legacy.
To boot, Bahamas’ tagline “It’s Better in The Bahamas” was a natural fit to cap off the Ensemble Travel Group which celebrates 50 years this year.
Coming off a record year with an increase of 77% in travel bookings compared to last year, Pearlman explained Ensemble is prepping itself for the future. “As much as technology evolves so does the consumer and so does the travel advisor. It’s just going to look different.”
Growth is expected across all segments for Ensemble members. Next year, the organization forecasts a 78% growth in bookings. This booking trend is among the findings of the latest Ensemble Outlook survey released at the conference which took place on October 24-28. The survey which polled nearly 2,000 Ensemble member advisors in the US and Canada was conducted in September.
At a press conference, Pearlman relayed how 99% of the time the information culled from the member surveys reflects the business direction. “[That’s] pretty accurate. You talk about the consumer confidence index, it’s always a great index on the confidence levels of our member base, so we’re thrilled to see the industry on a whole is healthy and scrambling to find new staff.”
Ensemble Outlook Survey results:
- Europe – 48% of respondents see a 5% to 24% growth
- Ocean cruises – Over half (57%) of respondents see a 5% to 24% growth
- River cruises – 60% of respondents see a 5% to 24% growth
- Land bookings – 57% of respondents see a 5% to 24% growth.
“The public’s pursuit of the more personal travel experiences across cultures and traditions around the globe is at the core of our members’ success,” noted Pearlman who added, while mainstream travel still is a huge chunk of the vacation pie, “the customized bucket-list adventures considered ‘once in a lifetime’ have changed things up. [These trip preferences] have now become ‘as often as I can.’”
Other survey results indicate the big driver in acquiring new land-based business among the member agencies is the “tailor-made/FIT vacations” followed by active and adventure. Additional popular travel themes are spa/wellness, family history/genealogy tourism, and shopping vacations.
Culinary-themed travel has beefed up client bookings bringing in more revenue stream. Nearly 50% of members polled indicate foodie travel is growing in wine and spirits vacations, culinary themed cruises, and cooking vacays.
Executives from five river cruise partners (AmaWaterways, Globus family of brands, Crystal River Cruises, Uniworld Boutique River Cruises, and Viking Cruises) participated in a panel discussion on the growing river cruise trend and showcased new river cruise products. “All ships rise,” noted Pearlman on business’ ability to grow their segments.
On cruising, the Ensemble Outlook survey indicates travellers prefer smaller more personalized experiences, while overall the cruising segments top three niches driving client interest are all-inclusives, small ships and family cruises. The organization reports more premium/contemporary cruise lines are creating options for the popular all-inclusive experiences.
On river cruise bookings, the top reasons Ensemble members cite are the ability to experience smaller hubs with more personalized experiences, boutique-sized vessels for maximum 200PAX and value for experiences.
On 2019 travel forecasts, Pearlman sees three areas affecting consumer habits: the sense of security, adventure, and travel with purpose. “Consumer patterns are changing as it relates to geopolitical events,” he observed on shifting booking patterns that are no longer dipping. “So, if someone is looking to book a cruise in the Caribbean and there’s a hurricane, it’s not that they don’t book something, now they might book Cabo.”
However, a new challenge arises in marketing which traditionally featured destinations in promotions. “So now what we do more and more in our marketing pieces is we highlight the expertise of the agency, so the piece isn’t just about the destination, the piece is about the destination and the agency. Why because, all of a sudden, if that destination gets hurt for whatever reason, the agency is still front of mind for that consumer to book.”
Future travel, he feels, will depend on how the industry addresses the challenges in overtourism in certain destinations. “What you’ll start to see is some of these big places maybe not next year, but over a five-year span, they will start limiting access which is a good thing.”
The issue of waste disposal and how to reduce waste is becoming a bigger issue.
“I think there will be more responsibility within our industry to be more cognizant of that and to provide more solutions. You know you are either a part of the problem or part of the solution. You are seeing it at the tour operator level where they are starting to do things differently. It’s little things that turn into big things.”
For instance, executives from The Travel Corporation, one of Ensemble’s partner suppliers, did beach duty one morning to clean up debris. “We filled one big garbage bag and try to do things like this wherever we go,” reflected Jeff Element, president of The Travel Corporation Canada on a common practice undertaken by his travel company.
This year, Ensemble Travel Group introduced the one-on-one appointment bookings to its meetings app to eliminate the volume of printed paper, which Pearlman says was a huge success. “People can meet who they want to see,” he notes adapting this technology to the always evolving travel conference landscape.
Let’s see where the future leads. Warren Buckner remains optimistic. With a twinkle in his eye, before he darted back to the trade floor, he quipped, “I’m looking forward to the next fifty. I’m a glutton for punishment. The travel business is not easy.”