Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Branding was on my mind as I flew to Los Angeles to meet with the presidents of the Travel Corp. companies recently.

The previous evening, I had met an executive of the World Trade Centers Association (WTCA), an organization founded by people who had overseen the development of the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center. In 1969, they had recognized the name had elastic brand value, protected the name from unauthorized use and now license it to anyone, anywhere who wishes to name a building "World Trade Center."

My first reaction was: Why would anyone pay the $250,000 initiation fee (and lower but annual renewal fees) rather than simply look for a similar name without cost?

WTCA Executive Vice President Bella Heule made a persuasive case that the money was well spent by developers. To me, the most convincing reason was, at heart, purely (and fittingly) economic: Once a company settles in a World Trade Center building, the building itself becomes part of its corporate identity. After telling clients that your offices are in the Havana World Trade Center, for example, moving out becomes difficult. You would be signaling that you're downgrading from a landmark to a mere address.
(And yes, there is one in Havana as well as others in Haiti, Syria and Iraq.)

It struck me that the latent value in this brand could easily have gone unrecognized, and I wondered how many other companies have the legal rights to a word or words strung together that, while already demonstrating value, have tremendous unrealized potential.

The invitation to meet with Travel Corp. brand presidents representing Trafalgar, Insight, Uniworld, Contiki, African Travel, Grand European Travel and Destinations America, as well as North American President Richard Launder and CFO Mike Kidd, was irresistible. While the presidents' duties extend beyond marketing and branding, these are their core areas of expertise.

How did they view the as-yet untapped power -- or limits -- of their brands, which run the gamut from luxury positioning (Red Carnation Hotels, Uniworld) to those with mass-market appeal (Trafalgar)?

I wondered about the elasticity of these names. Would it make sense to brand a five-star tour operation or cruise line "Red Carnation" to instantly convey a level of service that's currently associated with the hotels? Is Uniworld leaving money on the table by not launching a less-expensive riverboat product to compete for passengers now filling Vikings' far greater capacity?

Uniworld President Guy Young said there had been discussions about this: "We saw what we thought was an opportunity to create a sub-brand to compete with Viking. We own and operate the Uniworld ships, but we thought we could lease ships. In the end, we decided to focus on making Uniworld the best possible brand in the space, and [we] were concerned that if we turned our attention to a sub-brand, it could damage a brand we've spent millions to build."

The decision was vindicated, in part, by current market conditions. After years of impressive growth, "river cruising is experiencing headwinds," Young said. "Agents love the high commissions, guests love the experience, but there has been a huge capacity increase over the past years," and it is becoming more difficult to "fill the ships and keep the yields."

As for bringing the Uniworld brand into blue-water cruising, as Viking has, Young said, "We have had discussions, but in the end, decided we do river cruising best."

Other Travel Corp. brands are proving more elastic. Whereas it may be seen as risky for an upscale product to move downstream, the company sees potential in a four-star product like Insight Vacations to introduce five-star "Luxury Gold by Insight Vacations."

Trafalgar is perhaps the most pliable brand, offering higher-cost "Hidden Journeys" and, for the more budget-minded, the CostSaver line.

The discussion did not focus solely on branding. We also talked about ways in which the company's brands are appealing to consumers who are increasingly considering the social impact and sustainability policies of the operators with whom they travel and stay, as detailed in the recent Tourism Cares/Phocuswright study featured in last week's Travel Weekly cover story.

Trafalgar's efforts can be found on social media using #TrafalgarCares, and Contiki, primarily targeting millennials, overtly incorporates social and environmental impact components directly into its tours.

Other brands also have initiatives under way, and the company itself has a foundation, Treadright, that supports a wide range of projects related to areas of the world where Travel Corp. operates.

And in the end, Treadright, I concluded, is possibly the most underexploited brand within the company. One senses the name Travel Corp. is intentionally generic, coined to include whatever acquisition or direction the company chooses to incorporate.

Treadright also has that flexibility and suggests something more, either as the name of a holding company or a standalone social-impact travel brand. (As the launch of Carnival Corp.'s Fathom cruise line suggests, standalone social-impact brands can make headlines and waves.)

I should make it clear that no one at Travel Corp. suggested they were on a rebranding quest; this is more in the vein of musing than recommendation. After all, how seriously can one take branding suggestions from the editor in chief of a media platform that updates multiple times a day and includes live events, yet continues to call itself Travel Weekly?

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