Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Recent moves by the Travel Corporation (TTC) may provide the basis for an interesting case study in portfolio brand management, with implications for suppliers and retailers alike.

Branding in the travel industry is going through an interesting period that includes, simultaneously, brand proliferation and brand consolidation. In the hotel sector, for example, through a combination of acquisitions and organic growth, Hilton now has 14 sub-brands, Marriott International has 20 and Wyndham Worldwide has 24.

There are more classes of airline service than ever, each subdivided into fare buckets and an ever-expanding list of ancillary fees. In cruising, beyond brands, categories and ships, there can be more than 30 different cabin choices on just one vessel.

Complexity in the travel landscape is typically good for travel advisers. Would a typical traveler know the difference between Hilton's Embassy Suites, Homewood Suites and Home2 Suites?

TTC is unusual in that it has 30 brands across sectors (tours, hospitality, riverboat cruising, safaris, inbound operators) and geography (many brands focus on certain destinations or serve clients in specific regions).  This presents the company with an array of branding challenges and opportunities.

TTC is a "house of brands" whose corporate profile is lower than its consumer-facing brands. And typically, a house of brands makes a choice to have either a brand-specific focus or a portfolio focus and builds sales and marketing tactics around one strategy or the other.

Valid arguments can be made for either approach. One CEO I worked for likened his preference for brand-focus to a kid trick-or-treating. "If I were to send one kid to a house to ask for candy, he comes back with one piece of candy. But if I send 10 kids to ring the doorbell, they'll get 10 pieces of candy."

But maintaining a large, brand-focused sales force is clearly more expensive than assembling a smaller, portfolio group that, arguably, could evaluate a client's needs and unearth cross-selling opportunities that might be missed by a brand-focused rep.

The more brands one has, the greater the implications for a chosen strategy. TTC announced a high-stakes bet on travel agents last year when it beefed up its force by adding 18 sales managers to call on agencies on the East Coast. It chose to make those sales managers brand-specific rather than representing the full TTC portfolio. (The exception is some cross-selling among the four brands considered luxury.)

TTC's chief engagement officer, Guy Young, said the move has shown early signs of success, with revenue jumping 35% year over year in May and June, appearing to justify the considerable expense of a brand-specific rep team.

But he also told me about a successful cross-portfolio sales effort, launched in the final quarter of 2016, that focuses on an oft-overlooked (and undervalued) corporate metric: customer lifetime value.

This initiative is called "the 10-year wallet." The idea acknowledges that many travelers are unlikely to return to the same TTC brand year after year, regardless of how satisfied they were. The 10-year wallet tempts them to move around the portfolio of brands over a decade. (Young admits the "10-year" term is somewhat arbitrary, and he certainly wouldn't mind seeing it extended.)

The call to action comes from the consumer's travel agent of record, and subsequent bookings are credited to that agency, even if the traveler books directly.

A half-year in, some of the movement among brands was expected. For example, Uniworld clients tended to book other luxury brands such as Red Carnation Hotels or Insight's Luxury Gold label, and there was some movement between Trafalgar and Insight.

But there were surprises. Contiki, an entry-level brand targeting 18-to-35-year-olds, produced a number of bookings for the more upscale Insight brand and even a handful of Red Carnation reservations. Busabout, a TTC hop-on/hop-off bus brand virtually unknown in the U.S., got 46% of Contiki crossover bookings.

Overall, Young said that in its first six months, the 10-year wallet initiative has directly produced $10 million in revenue. Had it been merely a call for repeat business to the original brand, it would have been considered a success -- about 60% of the bookings went back to the brand that initiated the promotion -- but it produced another $4 million introducing customers to an additional brand.

What is clarifying about TTC's activity is that it demonstrates one doesn't need to decide on either a "brand-first" or "portfolio-first" strategy. I would call this blended approach a "customer-first" strategy, which gives individual brands support (as TTC did with its expanded network of sales managers) but also recognizes that customers are not necessarily Contiki clients or Red Carnation clients; they are evolving travelers whose passages are generational, economic and social as well as geographic.

Given the tremendous recent brand proliferation and the sometimes overwhelming array of choices a traveler faces, an agent who can clearly articulate not only what a client could do this year but in years to come has a tremendous opportunity.

The 10-year wallet, like Virtuoso's Journey to Global Citizenship and Global CommUnity's Family Life Travel Map, provide models for how agencies can amplify client loyalty and sustain their businesses. The increasingly complex field of brands and branding strategies provides a perfect environment for agents to sell both journeys of a lifetime and a lifetime of journeys.


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