When you think of the best hotel service, which brand comes to mind? Four Seasons? One&Only? Aman? Ritz-Carlton? Mandarin Oriental? They all have something in common beyond exceptional service. All have hired Cindy Novotny's Master Connection Associates to train their teams.
Embark Beyond's managing director, Jack Ezon, wondered why clients whose travel he books should have to wait until they arrive at one of those properties to experience that same level of service. He contacted Novotny, made her a partner in his business, and Master Connection now provides monthly training for his staff.
Brett Armitage, the chief commercial officer for Kerzner International, parent of One&Only, was conducting a training session for Ezon and discussed "Team Today, Team Tomorrow," a Master Connection concept that seems custom-made for the Covid-19 crisis. The idea is to divide staff into two teams, one that looks at future possibilities and the other, in Ezon's words, "deals with the crap of today."
Team Today took on the PPP loan paperwork and other programs to enhance liquidity and generate near-term revenue. Embark Beyond is a young company -- it was formed just a year and a half ago -- and Team Tomorrow looked at building infrastructure. "We've built three years of infrastructure in as many months," Ezon said. "There are no distractions. It's easy to build a plane if you're not trying to fly it at the same time."
Ezon wears the hats of both teams, shifting between them.
Going after PPP loans and building out infrastructure seem a far cry from the glamour of travel that attracted much of the retail travel community to become travel advisors in the first place, but both teams have also contributed new programs that reflect a great deal of travel-selling creativity. Both Today and Tomorrow are tasked with client acquisition and engagement and have developed products that, though born during the pandemic, may very well outlast it.
For instance, when Ezon saw that clients were turning to real estate companies to rent an apartment or home for six months to escape the pandemic, he thought, "Why should we lose that business?" and tasked Team Tomorrow to start a real estate brokerage arm. The company now sells and leases property.
"It's a natural progression," Ezon said. "Our name is Embark Beyond; travel's not in our name. We've always considered ourselves a lifestyle company. Travel is a platform to achieve self-discovery and make connections, but it's a natural progression to leverage client relationships beyond that. We're not limiting ourselves in looking for ways to provide services that touch our customers."
Among the programs Team Today has created with pandemic challenges in mind are Camp Embark and the Embark World Academy (for children) and daycations (private jets bring clients to a destination, roundtrip in a day, for those squeamish about spending a night at a hotel).
But Team Tomorrow also comes up with solutions for the present. The group thought up minimoons, for couples whose weddings and honeymoons are postponed. If they book a celebratory domestic weekend getaway now, they'll later receive a free night when they honeymoon in earnest at a luxury hotel.
Team Tomorrow is adding insider information, from restaurant recommendations to the best rooms in hotels, for 150 destinations on its website. It's upgrading and digitizing training programs and optimizing social media activations. Its biggest infrastructure project is an internal platform to consolidate Embark Beyond's negotiated hotel rates, wholesale rates and loyalty programs into one search and list retail and wholesale air options with commission and profit margins built in.
It has partnered with a company in Brazil to create Embark Observed, which helps hotels prepare kosher events or comply with other dietary restrictions.
The newly created Journey for a Cause helps nonprofits put together a three-day trip for 10 to 15 donors that could potentially raise more money than a gala for 1,000 people.
An event arm is working on both micro-celebrations for 2020 and planning large-scale events for 2021.
And Team Tomorrow is creating a dual-passport program to unravel the paperwork to get a second passport based on heritage (Italy, Ezon noted, will issue one to anyone who can prove Italian heritage, even 10 generations back) or based on an investment (five countries essentially sell a passport in exchange for investments). Embark partners with an ancestry research company to obtain the proper documentation for heritage passports.
The Team Today/Team Tomorrow concept seems doable for a company with resources deep enough to take on multiple tasks; Embark Beyond has 35 staff and 80 independent contractors.
But Ezon believes the approach can work for anyone, even an independent home-based agent. "It's harder, but if you take a left brain/right brain approach, listen to customers, think about solutions for their needs and execute, anyone can do what we're doing. You just can't be afraid to fail or get out of your comfort zone."