The Travel Corporation's Brett Tollman on travel advisor relationships

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The Travel Corporation, which owns Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, Trafalgar, Insight Vacations and a variety of other brands, recently held its annual advisory board meeting with about two dozen travel professionals. Much of the conversation centered on how advisors can help the company shed its image as a "tour operator" and educate consumers about the comforts and benefits of modern "guided vacations." Senior editor Jeri Clausing sat down with president and CEO Brett Tollman to discuss the issues facing the business.

Q: The past two days you talked a lot about how people seem to shun coach tours yet happily book a cruise to travel with 5,000 other people and hop on coaches in every stop.

Brett Tollman
Brett Tollman

A: That's the big gorilla in the room. Cruise lines have a very different price point, very different scale. Part of their business model, as I understand it from someone I know, is to get people onboard, because that's where a lot of the profitability is. So their price point can be different. They obviously have a huge investment, billions of dollars on a ship versus $30 million that we spend on a river ship.

Q: So what do you do to compete?

A: Keep trying to find ways to build closer personal relationships with advisors. We're just looking for 5% of their time or market share. We just need to keep being the squeaky wheel, continuing to innovate, to find points of difference.

Q: Many of your products reach a different demographic than do cruise lines. I'm surprised they are the big competitors.

A: The cruise industry is just so big. It's no different with Viking. They've done an incredible job to define river cruising, to reinvent per se ocean cruising with their new ships, which have gotten a lot of attention, have sold out and won a lot of awards. And they're spending whatever it is, $100 million to $150 million on advertising in the U.S. And so they are in demand and customers are coming in to advisors and saying, "I want to buy Viking." Our challenge is to try to convince the right travel advisors, not all of them, to say, "Well, I know you, I've qualified you, and Viking's really not right for you. It's Uniworld." Or it might be one of our rivals. Because that's doing the right thing for your customer. And if you're not and they go on whoever it is -- I'm not highlighting Viking, necessarily -- and they don't have a good time, they're really not going to come back to you.

Q: I wrote something recently in which I referred to Luxury Gold as a tour operator. Your people did not like that.

A: That's me. Because otherwise you sound, like, old-school, which is what we are trying to move away from. That's what we are ... constantly challenging ourselves on. How does an old-school tour operator still remain relevant today and 10 years from now. That is why we have moved to "guided vacations." That is why we try to educate and inspire travel advisors to try and think differently about this space.

Q: Are you working to educate people about the onboard experience of your coaches? My only coach tour was in college, and that was definitely a bus.

A: We've done it over time. We do it in our trainings. We show photographs. We've developed in Europe a drop-down table with a seam in it that you can rest your tablet on while you're traveling. Obviously, the inside of the coach has wonderful legroom.

For us, it's not about the journey, it's about the destination. When cruise lines do their ads, their messaging, they don't show the cabin, necessarily, but they show the people. We're not prepared to do that kind of advertising, or we don't have the money to do it when you're moving 40 people versus 5,000. The margins are just so different. So it's a constant challenge, but we're up to it.

It's a matter of developing more technologies so it's more seamless for advisors to book. It's creating innovative programs. ... All the trends we hear about from travelers, "We want the more immersive experiences, something more local, something personal, something no one else has done. We don't want to be standing in lines." And so we're doing more and more of that.

In the past, we've shown photos of "this is what the Vatican entry line looks like, and we can get you to the front of the line." And we've taken some of these advisors on a trip and get them to the hotels so they can actually see it. When you arrive, the keys are ready for you, so you go straight to the room. There's no check-in, there's no passport needed. Your luggage arrives within five minutes. Folks who have been on an ocean cruise think, "Oh, that's amazing." Because on a large ship it can be 5 o'clock before you get your luggage. So we try to do that, but frankly, it all gets forgotten.

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