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After turnover at top, Ensemble's first CEO inspires optimism

CEO David Harris walks to the podium at Ensemble Travel Group’s 2019 International Conference at the Hyatt Regency in Seattle.

SEATTLE -- Late last month, Ensemble Travel Group held its International Conference -- its first with CEO David Harris at the helm -- following a sea change in the consortium's leadership over the past six months.

Harris outlined the consortium's path forward, which includes a closer look at sales data to identify key suppliers not already partnered with Ensemble. Members viewed his remarks optimistically.

Harris addressed members for the first time on Day One of the conference at the Hyatt Regency here. He said that the consortium's collective clout was greater than anyone had previously thought.

Ensemble had, for several years, reported that it had 850 members with annual sales of $2 billion. But a closer look at the data revealed that the consortium has 763 members with annual sales of more than $4 billion when including nonpreferred-supplier sales.

Harris' role as CEO began in March when he was appointed to the position, new to Ensemble, by the board of directors. Harris had previously owned an Ensemble agency and was serving on the board at the time. In June, it was announced that co-president Lindsay Pearlman, who reported to Harris, would depart. And at the end of August, co-president Libbie Rice also left.

Harris identified five pillars on which the organization will focus going forward:

  • Building skills and training. 
  • Creating unique product offerings. 
  • Fostering innovative partnerships (a new vice president of supplier relations, Una O'Leary, will start on Nov. 12). 
  • Using analytics to create efficiency. 
  • Taking a holistic approach to providing value for members, perhaps in areas such as human resources, tax services or insurance.

In an interview, Harris said that while he's not opposed to growing Ensemble's membership base, he is first and foremost intent on improving the consortium's value for members.

"We've been good at talking the talk, but I don't believe we've been as good at walking the walk," Harris said. "More specifically, we've not brought more value, more loot, to [the members'] table over the past number of years."

A panel at Ensemble's conference discussed sustainability issues.

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He said he believes most members' productivity has decreased in the past five to 10 years, partly because of supplier agreements, an area he said he intends to address. Ensemble wants to collect complete sales data from 75% of its top 50 producing agencies by year's end. That would account for around 60% of Ensemble's total volume, he said, which is a good starting point to address existing and potential supplier agreements.

Gary Pollard, president and CEO of Ambassador Tours in San Francisco and the chairman of Ensemble's board of directors, said the board wanted to bring in a "visionary" to lead the organization.

"I'm not necessarily sure there was something that was happening," he said of the consortium before Harris' arrival. "I think it was more of, 'Are we stagnant?'

"He fit that need at that moment, and we're pleased beyond our wildest dreams," Pollard said.

Marc Hayes and Marisel Aleman, Cruise Elite's president and vice president, respectively, said they were surprised by Ensemble's leadership changes this year. But the leaders of the Ormond Beach, Fla., agency were impressed with Harris' plan.

"David came in and hit it out of the park," Hayes said.

Aleman said she hopes he addresses Ensemble's air suppliers in the future, a necessity highlighted by the sales figures he presented (Ensemble members' nonpreferred air sales account for more than $1.5 billion a year in North America, with $300 million going to a single, nonpreferred airline).

Jenn Lee, vice president of sales and marketing at Travel Planners International in Maitland, Fla., said she's excited to have an agency owner heading Ensemble. She knew Harris as an Ensemble member, and she described him as "even-keeled," a good listener and a CEO focused on getting Ensemble headquarters in order.

"We are very excited about the future," Lee said. "You can just feel the resurgence and the energy of where the company's going."

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