Apple Leisure refocuses with an eye toward a better 2020

Travel Impressions president Scott Wiseman said the Dominican Republic is starting to come back, albeit slowly.
Travel Impressions president Scott Wiseman said the Dominican Republic is starting to come back, albeit slowly. Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing

CANCUN -- Looking to put a complicated merger and all-around bad year behind it, Apple Leisure Group (ALG) continues to tweak its management ranks as it places a renewed focus on customer service and rebuilding agent trust.

Executive vice president Jacki Marks was among three people promoted to the company's executive committee in October with the departure of ALG president John Hutchinson and vacation brands president Lynn Torrent. 

Marks told travel advisors at Travel Impressions' annual Best of the Best conference and gala here that she has been charged with overseeing customer service and rebuilding group business.

As part of that, she said, Michael Ehlers, currently vice president of sales, will take over the group business currently led by Justin "Jay" Battiste, who is leaving the company in January. Jim Tedesco, who recently came to the company from Flight Centre Travel Group, will head ALG's sales team.

Marks also said she is recruiting a senior vice president to lead the call center.

Customer service and group business are areas that suffered this past year as the company dealt with tougher-than-expected issues integrating its booking platforms after its merger with Mark Travel.

Marks said those issues are 80% resolved, and she and Travel Impressions president Scott Wiseman emphasized that the company is now ready to step back and focus on investing for the long term.

This year was "probably the hardest year of my career," Marks said, citing the merger, the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max and a huge drop in Dominican Republic bookings over what turned out to be unsubstantiated concerns that several tourist deaths were suspicious.

Despite some of the mistakes made post-merger, Marks said all the changes were absolutely necessary.

"Travel Impressions is a better and stronger brand than we were," she said. 

And while she said the company will slow down now and refocus on the long term, "I'll tell you we are not going to stop changing. We're going to make Travel Impressions the absolute best brand that it can be so it can fight back against the OTAs and so we can be the company that can support you for the very long, long future."

She also said that the steep drop in Dominican Republic bookings aside, Travel Impressions is experiencing "double-digit growth that we haven't seen in years."

"I'm super excited about 2020," Marks said.

Wiseman said the Travel Impressions portfolio also continues to grow. Domestic inventory is up 65% this year, he said, and Europe has 23% more products. 

The company is also increasing its charter commitments and soon will be adding product from the Four Seasons and Belmond brands.

The unofficial theme of the event, the third ALG brand event in the past few months, was rebuilding the "trust bank." All three events were heavy on apologies to travel advisors for issues arising from the bumpy merger.

The new platform, however, offers advisors access to dynamic rates and packaging options that enable them to handle booking and client needs "instantly, no matter what time of day," Wiseman said.

"Last year there was a little trepidation," Wiseman said. 

"I think you can see the mood and the atmosphere are a lot more positive," he added. "The verbal confidence level is very strong compared with when we first launched, and the numbers are proving that out."

The biggest benefit, he said, are the robust self-service features. 

"The second thing is [travel advisors] are starting to earn more money," he said. "The products and how we commission them are a lot more accessible."

Additionally, Wiseman said, the Dominican Republic is starting to come back, albeit slowly, thanks in part to a grassroots effort by ALG that sent almost 500 agents on fams there in recent month.

Wendy Hoekwater, senior vice president of marketing for ALG's vacation brands, said a survey of those advisors before and after revealed that their level of confidence in the destination went from 50% to 95% following their trips, a change in perception that was also reflected in their booking numbers.

Wiseman said some of the most recent numbers show Dominican Republic bookings down 20% year over year, compared with the 70% drop seen earlier this year following media reports about several tourist deaths. The FBI recently reported that it found no links connecting the deaths.

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