The concept of a travel subscription is not new. Travel clubs and timeshares (and their first cousin, "vacation ownership") have been with us for decades.
Travel Weekly's Christina Jelski recently wrote about three travel advisors who found that a subscription model -- charging an annual fee for travel counseling and booking services -- stabilized their revenue, increased loyalty and spared them from wasting time with shoppers.
But how far can the subscription concept be carried in travel?
One company aspires to use subscriptions to "put the world on vacation." Its ambition is no less than the "Primification of travel."
Primification, with a capital P. As in Prime, Amazon Prime, America's subscription engine of commerce for just about everything other than travel.
The company with this ambition is Travel + Leisure, formerly Wyndham Destinations, a timeshare company that also owns the vacation-exchange brand RCI.
At an investor conference earlier this month, CEO Michael D. Brown laid out a strategy for growth that will provide the company with a "captive community" of vacationers using inventory that is sourced through a business-to-business arm (Panorama Travel Solutions) and sold through two consumer-facing brands: Travel + Leisure Go, for one-off trips, and a subscription service, the Travel + Leisure Club.
In his presentation, Brown noted that there are 90 million households of "vacation lovers," 40 million "subscription lovers" (who might have Amazon Prime, Netflix or some other service they regularly pay for) and 10 million "timeshare lovers."
He concluded that many of those who are both vacation and subscription lovers but who haven't entered into vacation ownership or timeshare agreements could be attracted by a Travel + Leisure-branded club membership.
Travel clubs were all but killed by the internet, which allowed consumers to find discounts -- sometimes greater than what the clubs offered -- on their own.
In many ways, the Travel + Leisure Club appears to operate as a technology-enabled travel club with a somewhat traditional pitch, offering services and discounts that offset the membership fee, but differentiates itself by cleaving closely to the Travel + Leisure brand, selling trips that follow in the footsteps of the magazine's writers.
Subscribers to Travel + Leisure can read an article and then click "book it." "Traveling like a travel writer is what gets [potential club members] excited," Noah Brodsky, president of the Travel + Leisure Group, told investors.
And Brown believes there can be line extensions to other segments of travel. "There could be the Travel + Leisure Adventure Travel Club," he said in a post-conference interview.
"The brand has tremendous value beyond its media value. We looked at a lot of [travel brands], and our No. 1 choice was Travel + Leisure. We know what the customer is looking for, and [membership] will be sticky because of the name."
The previous name, Wyndham Destinations, was at times a liability. Other hospitality companies with vacation clubs didn't particularly want to be sold on a platform that prominently featured the name of a competitor.
Renaming to Travel + Leisure eliminated that concern. And Brown said he believes the underlying technology will also bring the travel club concept into the modern age. Like other e-commerce sites, the Travel + Leisure Club will have a recommendation engine (i.e., "if you liked this, you'll like that").
The magazine will retain editorial independence, Brown asserted, with editor in chief Jacqui Gifford's point of view. "We want it as it has always been -- the more independent [the magazine is], the more valuable it is, and that value inures to our benefit."
Adherence to editorial independence will truly be the test of Brown's assumptions. The company currently gets 70% of its revenue from timeshare/vacation ownership and 30% from its RCI exchange. By expanding into leisure travel more broadly, he told investors, it will be tapping a market four times as large.
Nonetheless, I can imagine there will be a temptation to nudge the editorial team to write about timeshares and vacation ownership, which for some time will continue to be the company's bread and butter.
Today, a search of the Travel + Leisure website returned only five mentions of timeshares between 2010 and 2021. If that number begins to rise much above the once-every-two-years average, it would certainly suggest the original vision was not playing out quite as planned, resulting in a shift in both the editorial and travel products.
Brown's vision will require both discipline and suppliers dedicated to creating trips that writers have taken. At this point, although the travel club touts "curated itineraries" and an inventory of suppliers that would rival an OTA, Brown said they do not have either a travel agency or tour operator contracted to create mirrors of writers' trips, which struck me as odd.
And stuck me as an opportunity for a nimble agency or operator. Interested parties should query [email protected].