Taking care of business by taking care of agents
If there’s one thing that you’ll take away from a conversation with Denise Heffron and Nicole Bursey (pictured above) it’s that the company they work for is all about retail travel agents.
Heffron, vice-president, national sales and commercial and Bursey, commercial director for Transat sat down with Canadian Travel Press recently to talk about how the company has retained that agent-centric focus, while evolving into the business it is today.
And things have certainly changed considering that while tour companies still hold fall product launches, in most cases, they’ve already rolled out most of that product by the time it’s autumn.
Said Heffron: “As soon as product is available, we’re loading it up to the system and getting ready for sale earlier and earlier. So the whole suite of products is out and [we’re] ready to go now.”
Along with that, commercial director, Nicole Bursey pointed out that Transat “had a really good jump to the season with our Super Early Booking Bonus [and] I think that helps the suppliers’ moods too because we’re filling some rooms earlier than normal – and that’s good.”
Add to that Transat’s wide-range of product offerings – everything from Sun to Cruise, from Long-Stay, to Winter Europe, from Weddings & Honeymoons to a special Groups Guide for agents, and more – and that gives agents a whole lot of selling options.
Give us some tips
And that’s a big help as agents are constantly looking for that “something extra” to give them the edge on their competitors. In this respect, Bursey points to Transat’s Collections: “We always remind agents that they’re there [the Collections] [and] how they can use them [the Collections] to help find the right product for their clients. It just speeds up the booking process.”
She continued: “One thing that we’re really talking more about is all the extras that [the agent] can book – like Club Class or Option Plus… if somebody is booking a Luxury Collection Hotel, it obviously means that they’re looking for that little bit more with their vacation.”
“All of these little extras help a travel agent demonstrate their value to their customer, because it’s those things that somebody might not think about if they were just shopping online,” she said.
Today’s agents also “seem pretty hungry for training” and that appetite “speaks to the traditional travel agent. Their value is knowledge and the advice they can give a client,” Heffron told CTP.
About a year ago, Heffron said, Transat changed the way it sold cruises. “We’ve packaged all of our cruises. So no more FIT. We felt with cruises, the big value we bring is really the ability to package with an air seat to the destination. It differentiates us from the crowd. It was a pretty big strategy change, and we did a lot work on cruises last year, but it is going well.”
Heffron continued: “We’re sort of targeting maybe the less-experienced cruise seller or the less-experienced cruiser. It’s an easy way to understand what you’re getting, and it’s more easily bookable.”
Even better, she said: “With our cruise packages, everything is commissionable, We’re commissioning the package. We’re paying 12% on most at the moment. And it’s across-the-board… So, it’s really Cruise Simplified.”
More Winter Europe
While Transat has previously offered Europe product in the winter, Heffron said that in 2017/2018, it has increased its presence there, observing: “We’ve pretty much doubled our inventory to Portugal.”
Overall, Transat has 8 destinations in Europe – three in Portugal, three in the UK, plus Malaga and Paris. And it will also be doing additional flying to London this winter.
“For Malaga and Portugal,” Bursey said, “there is a great long-stay market which [Transat] has been selling for a while, but we haven’t really talked about it a whole lot in English Canada.”
And the message to agents, Bursey said is simple: “When someone walks into their agency looking for a winter getaway because they want some sun, ask them to consider Spain and Portugal.”
What’s the trend?
Groups, destination weddings, multi-generational trips, getaways for the girls are just some of the trends that Heffron and Bursey have been seeing.
“Group business has been really strong for the last few years. It has always been a big chunk of our business, but we’ve really been focusing on groups’ development the last few years,” Heffron said.
“Multi-generational is a trend for sure. Destination Weddings are still very strong – a lot of people getting married in-destination, and it’s a fun, affordable, no-hassle way to get married,” she told CTP.
Early booking is also becoming a trend. “We’re pushing the window on Early Booking. We really wanted to dip our toe in the water to see if there was consumer demand – other than groups – because you always assume that nobody is booking until the fall,” Bursey said.
That demand is definitely there, “but you need strong offers, and we’ve been to market earlier and earlier with very, very good offers, and so far so good. It’s good to get a bit of a jump-start,” she said.
Other trends include Trips for the Girls for shopping in London, as well as solo travel. “We introduced a Solo Collection a couple of years ago and that seems to be growing quite a bit. We’ve added new hotels to it. It seems like there was a pent-up demand for good value for people that want to go alone. So that’s been quite successful as one of our new Collections,” she observed.
Guiding the mature
Transat has also been putting a new emphasis on active vacations for seniors. “We want to make sure people understand that if they’ve got a client who has done a guided tour through the US or in Europe and now they want to try something different, a guided tour through Costa Rica makes sense to these people,” Bursey said, before continuing: “but it’s not something we always think about and it’s not something that agents necessarily think about [Transat] for. So, we want to really change that.”
And Heffron observed: “We really have a wide breadth of product, but even after all of these years, we still have to repeatedly bring that message to market. It sounds a little bit clichéd, but it really is a one-stop shop here.”
She continued: “We can give you a coach tour. We can give you a cruise. We can give you FIT. We can give you packages. We can do odd durations, hotels only, air only. We can do anything, but it’s a lot of product, and it requires a lot of training and education.”
With Transat celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2017, the conversation with Heffron and Bursey made a natural turn to talking about how they’d describe or define the company that they work for today.
“We’ve always been vertically integrated,” Heffron observed: “but I think for a long time, the big machine was the tour operator and then we had things around the tour operator, and I think what we’re seeing now is the business evolving and it’s levelling out a bit more. Our Air Only is very important to us. Our Retail Division is very important to us.”
And, while Transat “did come out of a more traditional tour op market,” Heffron told CTP that: “Now there’s no choice but to evolve and change because of the way product is bought and sold. The way people shop. The way it’s distributed has changed, and there’s lots of options out there.”
She explained: “We have to find ways to consolidate the offer and bring it to the market and be available in all channels. We have to be everywhere now, and it changes how we approach travel. It changes how we buy, how we sell.”
For example, Heffron said: “We’re increasing our Air Only sales in the South market because there’s a big VFR market of people going down on their own, so we need to be there. It’s not replacing what we’re doing on the package side, it’s in addition to, it’s incremental.”
So what’s the Transat difference?
“I believe Transat has a human touch,” Heffron said. “Many of the people that founded the organization are still in the organization. It’s entrepreneurial. It’s open door. It has always stood alone. It has never merged with anybody.”
And she pointed out “how many strong women Transat has in its organization,” observing: “I’m really proud of that. I think it is because one of our founders was a woman [Lina De Cesare], so it’s never been any sort of issue at Transat. Look at the number of women on Transat’s executive. Its president is a woman. Its commercial directors in Ontario and Quebec are women. Its national VP of sales is a woman. Two heads of revenue management are women. The vice-president of marketing is a woman.”
Doing the right thing
Transat’s commitment to being a good corporate citizen is another difference, with Bursey observing: “We have a lot of programs that encourage our employees to get involved. We give paid volunteer days. You can name your charity, and the company chooses some to support. We have our corporate charities, like the Children’s Wish and SOS that we work with. [There’s] Lead for Change. And we work with our hotel partners down south to make sure that they’re doing the right things.”
And as Heffron sees it: “I think the biggest differentiator is our strong commitment to retail and customer service. I think it’s definitely something that sets us apart.”
She points out: “When we talk about customer service excellence, it’s not just dealing with the agents, it’s everything. We want the best customer experience on our aircraft, at check-in at the airport, in our hotels. We really want to create an amazing experience for travellers from A to Z.”
Bursey agrees: “That’s in Transat’s DNA. That we’re here for the agents. Communication to the agents is so important. We’ve got the largest sales team on the road and inside to support travel agents, and I’m proud of the fact that we are so retail-focused.”