Vacation Express' decade of growth

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ATLANTA -- With 10 years in the tour business under its belt, Vacation Express has grown from a Jamaica specialist selling less than 1,000 packages in its first year of operation to a multidestination operator expecting to move more than 100,000 passengers in 1999.

The firm now offers 19 sun destinations in Mexico, the Caribbean and Costa Rica; 227 hotels; charter service into three of its featured destinations; scheduled air from a number of U.S. gateways, and a cruise program, set to kick off this year.

While focusing on upper moderate and high-end clientele, Vacation Express carries products for every budget, with prices ranging from $169 per person, double, for a one-night, air-inclusive program from Atlanta to Cancun to $3,000 for a seven-night, deluxe air-inclusive package from Atlanta to the Caribbean.

In its main markets, the Southeast, Midwest and mid-Atlantic, the company works with more than 7,000 travel agencies, through which 98% of its business is sold.

Through a disciplined expansion strategy that slowly added new destinations, charter gateways and products to the mix, Vacation Express has witnessed 50% to 100% annual growth in passenger volume since it was launched in 1989, according to Kevin Hernandez, president and founder, along with Meg Deeb, the firm's director of human resources.

The company's motto, "The Travel Team That Cares," has been the backbone of its successful record to date, Hernandez said.

"It extends from caring about the service we give to our travel agents to the experience we deliver to the end-user customer," he said.

Vacation Express aims to set itself apart by communicating that philosophy to the industry, Hernandez added. "We believe it is our biggest selling feature," he said. "At the end of the day, a lot of tour products are similar, and we want people to think of us as very reliable, and they do."

The firm's formula for success has not changed since it opted to follow the move toward consolidation in the industry, Hernandez said. Vacation Express was acquired by Airtours in September 1998 and now operates as a division of Airtours' North American Leisure Group.

"We still have the same philosophy," he said. "And the only change to the product is the addition of cruises, which is a direct result of the acquisition."

The cruise program features itineraries on the Carousel and Sunbird, two ships operated by Sun Cruises, which is owned by Airtours. Beginning in November and running until April, the firm's cruise lineup includes three seven-night itineraries.

The Carousel will depart from Calica near Cancun and call at Cozumel, Puerto Cortes, Roatan Island, Grand Cayman and Ocho Rios.

The Sunbird will depart from Aruba and offer two itineraries, one calling at Barbados, St. Lucia, Grenada, Margarita Island and Curacao, and the other stopping at Barbados, Antigua, St. Maarten and St. Kitts.

Aside from the addition of a cruise product, another major expansion move for the company this year is the introduction of Baltimore as its 10th charter gateway into Cancun, its top destination.

The year-round service, which begins Nov. 18, will offer five weekly flights with a stop in either Washington (Dulles) or Charlotte, N.C. On March 1, the Saturday service on the route will become a nonstop flight.

At its peak, the firm operates roughly 18 charter flights per week into Cancun. The second-largest destination for Vacation Express is Aruba, to which it operates approximately six charter flights per week during its busiest period.

Beyond expanding into the cruise realm and increasing gateways and frequency, Hernandez said Vacation Express is responding to trends in the marketplace, such as the demand for inclusive resorts.

To that end, the company is strengthening its relationships with inclusive operators such as Blue Bay Resorts, which has properties in Cancun and Costa Rica, adding other inclusives such as RIU properties in the Riviera Maya south of Cancun and persuading hotels to introduce inclusive options.

On the marketing front, the firm will unveil a new Internet Web site Sept. 15. Vacation Express pays agents a base commission of 10% on all of its products, with the opportunity for overrides based on production.

The company also features two year-round agent incentive programs, one rewarding agents with free airline tickets for use in their own promotions and the other offering frontline agents free nights for themselves at participating hotels. Additionally, Vacation Express often runs cash bonus incentive programs for agents.

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