It was a surprising and unprecedented merger that had been more than a year in the making. For decades, Apple Leisure Group (ALG) and the Mark Travel Corp. had been North America's fiercest competitors for charter and packaged travel to all-inclusive destinations in Mexico, Jamaica, Costa Rica and Hawaii, to name a few.

In May, however, they become one company in what Jacqueline Marks, ALG's executive vice president for vacation trade sales and engagement, said she prefers to call a marriage because one party might lose its name, but both parties reap the benefits of the union.

With that marriage now complete, Mark Travel, whose brand will be subsumed by ALG at the end of the year, held its last summit for top agents and suppliers the final week of September in Cancun. Travel Weekly tours editor Jeri Clausing sat down with Marks and two other members of the newly merged and realigned management team: Lynn Torrent, executive vice president of ALG and president of the vacations division, and Ray Snisky, chief commercial officer.
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Travel Weekly: I guess the top question on everyone's mind is: How will travel agents be affected?

Jacqueline Marks: What it really comes down to is, we are going to be bringing a more common approach to commissions. But in bringing a common approach, the intention is not to reduce commissions. In fact, I think what's important is we want to reward the best behavior, which means the more you book with us, the more you can earn. It's creating a common platform for commissions. 

Jacqueline Marks
Jacqueline Marks

(Earlier in the day, Marks had outlined a new top-tier commission program, stating that if 80% of an agent's business is with two brands and not much with others, top-tier agents will still earn the top commission across all of ALG's brands.) 

TW: What is one of the biggest challenges you face in creating this common platform? Merging the technology?

Lynn Torrent: Technology is actually the biggest opportunity, one of the strategic reasons for this marriage. ALG has really struggled to create technology, and ... I give a lot of credit to Bill La Macchia [Jr.]. He had the foresight years ago to invest in superior technology. So the goal is to get all the brands on the same technology. It's good internally, and it's really good for agents.

TW: One agent said her biggest concern was customer service: If she had a problem with Apple Vacations she would automatically turn to Mark's FunJet because she knew her customers would be taken care of. How do you address that?

Ray Snisky: Everything has been done with an approach to best practices, and I think that is going to be our mantra moving forward. Clearly, there's no way that we're going to survive without taking care of the customers.

TW: How long have you actually been working as a team? And how is it going?

Torrent: Since May 1. It's still our honeymoon. Ask us again in a year.

TW: Are you all working in the same office?

Marks: No, we still have multiple locations, so we're doing a lot of traveling to make sure we create that visibility. That's important. 

TW: At this point, what's the biggest challenge you face? 

Lynn Torrent
Lynn Torrent

Torrent: I think it's time. We just want to go faster. If we could just wake up tomorrow and all the brands are on the same technology, that would be terrific. But it takes time. We're getting there. And I think that [blending cultures] is another opportunity. I don't know if I would call it a challenge. But even before the merger with Mark Travel, ALG acquired companies and has different cultures. So coming with people with different perspectives, different backgrounds, having this sort of melting pot, that takes time. And relationships. We're all new to each other.

Snisky: I think what magnifies the time issue is wanting to get it right. It's not about getting it and throwing it out there. So we've joked with the team that it's almost like we're working on this new exotic car in the garage, and it's going to be faster than all of the other cars and more comfortable and have all these bells and whistles. But there's other cars that are out there right now, so we just want to get that car out there. 

Marks: We still have to give agents information very quickly, and we've been trying to do that as much as we can because the confidence that we can build comes from the information that we can share. I'm realizing today how much they crave that and how much we need to give [travel advisers] what they need so they are as confident as we are.

TW: Has there been any surprise pushback from agents or suppliers?

Snisky: I wouldn't characterize it as pushback. I'd [call it] embracing change. Everyone likes to feel strongly about their ability to embrace change, but most like to embrace change when they are in control of it. So I think from a hotel and suppliers standpoint and travel agent standpoint, that change is a shock to them. I don't think anyone saw this coming.

TW: What is the biggest hesitation you see from suppliers?

Ray Snisky
Ray Snisky

Snisky: I think the lack of true understanding. ... We have said from day one that a relatively small percent of what we fill comes from [AMResorts]. We've come together with a strategy to open up more hotels with Karisma and Posada (which were only sold by Mark.) 

Marks: Mark also had more links to dynamic hotel pricing.

TW: So Apple had more charters and Mark had more hotels? 

Marks: That's why it's a win-win. That's when we realized this was such a good thing. We both brought something to the table the other didn't have. So when you put that together, it's just so powerful. 
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Correction: Prior to the merger, Karisma and Posada were only sold by Mark Travel. A previous version incorrectly stated that Mark Travel sold neither brand.

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