Few companies inside travel or out have the brand strength of the Walt Disney Co.
And fewer still can command the brand loyalty that transports Disney’s community of admirers across myriad consumer categories, from cartoons, films and media services to theme parks, tour operations and cruising.
All of which has led to a dynamic fan base with an interesting twist: They’re consumers and promoters, content creators and resellers, hobbyists and professionals. They are simultaneously congregants and evangelists, with an insatiable appetite for anything Mouse-related.
They podcast. They YouTube. They blog.
And some Disney-savvy travel agencies have forged alliances with these content creators.
Although each of these mutually beneficial partnerships is unique, the underlying value proposition typically offers a) a wider audience for the media partner and b) access for a travel advisor to a subset of potential clients interested in exactly what the advisor sells.
“Disney fans, that’s our target audience, right there,” said Tammy Whiting, owner of Storybook Destinations in St. Leonard, Md. “It’s the perfect way to reach them. We don’t have to wait for them to come across our website, wait for them to come across a Facebook ad — it’s them listening to these things and coming to us.”
After Whiting entered into a relationship with Len Testa, creator of the podcast Disney Dish, Testa asked listeners who booked vacations with Storybook Destinations to share their feedback.
“That kept us all accountable,” Whiting said. “They were making sure we were a good partner for them and that we would treat their listeners right.”
These partnerships benefit not only the content creators and the agencies but Disney, as well, in the form of bookings.
“It kind of is a win-win-win,” said Josh Nelson, cofounder of the YouTube channel ResortTV1, which has partnered with the travel agency MickeyTravels. “They’re sending people over to us, and then we’re sending people back to MickeyTravels, so it’s a nice little circle.”
All who were interviewed for this report were adamant that their relationships were built first on the trust and the authenticity of both parties. As Nelson put it, “I don’t want to ever be in that situation where I’m trying to sell something I don’t believe in. I think that’s the bottom line.”
Agencies’ partnerships with content creators have also been helpful during the coronavirus pandemic, which has heavily impacted Disney and Disney-focused agencies like it has the rest of the travel industry.
Beci Mahnken, the owner of MEI-Travel, Mouse Fan Travel and Universal Fan Travel, said she has leaned on her relationship with Lou Mongello, the host of WDW Radio, to showcase the new health and safety protocols at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, which reopened in July. While Mahnken is based on the other side of the country, in Washington state, Disney World is practically in Mongello’s backyard. He has livestreamed from the park, and he and Mahnken have held live Q&A’s.
“Right after that, we saw a spike in bookings and a spike in quote requests, so I think those types of things have really helped to put people at ease,” she said.
Claire Bilby is senior vice president of sales, services and events for Disney Destinations and head of the Walt Disney Travel Co., which takes guest bookings, both direct and from agencies. She said she believes brand loyalty to Disney drives the success of content creator-agency partnerships and that their authenticity is important, especially when communicating health and safety protocols.
“The Disney brand is an emotional brand for many. It’s about storytelling. It’s about memories. It’s about magic,” Bilby said. “People are craving to escape everyday life right now and the news. Being able to give them content, whether it’s through us or through some of these partners, reminds them of all the great things Disney means to the guest. It’s really important to folks in this time.”
MEI-Travel and WDW Radio go exclusive
About 13 years ago at a Disney fan event, Beci Mahnken met Lou Mongello. Mahnken is the owner of MEI-Travel, Mouse Fan Travel and Universal Fan Travel in Issaquah, Wash. Mongello is an author and host of the podcast WDW Radio, which has a large following that is active on Facebook and hosts frequent in-person events.
Mongello was already working with another travel agency partner, but he was impressed by Mahnken’s agency and her professionalism and commitment to her clients. And Mahnken was looking for someone like Mongello.
“I had decided at the very beginning that other agencies, especially in the Disney fan community, were trying to be it all,” Mahnken said. “They were trying to be a community and trying to be a travel agency, and I really felt that I needed to not try to stretch myself that thin. So I was looking for partners who met my goals and my outlook and had my service standards.”
About a year after they first met, Mongello decided to forgo his previous agency relationship and partner with Mahnken. He was looking for a resource for his community, and he also wanted to assist Mahnken with her travel-selling goals.
“When I say partnership, I really mean it, and I wanted her to be part of the content that I was creating,” he said.
Since then, Mahnken has become a frequent voice on WDW Radio, reacting to Disney news and answering listener emails. In fact, her first appearance on the show was to do the latter, helping establish her credibility as a travel seller.
“That really helped me establish my footing, because it gave us a different way to market,” Mahnken said.
Having Mongello’s endorsement among his community, too, has been key.
The two have designed a number of group events and trips, including a custom Adventures by Disney trip to China, a dinner at the Tower of Terror attraction and a cruise with famed Disney composer Richard Sherman, who put on a concert just for Mahnken and Mongello’s guests.
Groups are usually profitable, but Mahnken actually underwrites the cost of events to help keep costs down. In turn, she has garnered a “significant number” of long-term clients from Mongello’s audience.
“It’s just one of those things that allows us to give back,” she said. “We can give back to the community and hopefully gain some karma points and get some future business from people who will recognize the brand and know that, while, yeah, we’re for-profit, we’re trying to support the community. A lot of these events are just for that. It’s for the support and to create these experiences that they would not be able to do on their own.”
MickeyTravels tunes into ResortTV1
Three years ago, Greg and Elyssa Antonelle, owners of MickeyTravels in Windermere, Fla., started hearing a lot about YouTube channel ResortTV1.
Their youngest son, Nick, 13 at the time (and now a budding Disney YouTuber himself: MagicalNewsLive), discovered their videos and liked what he saw.
Disney historian David Mumpower, who writes for one of the blogs the Antonelles also run (among them mickeyblog.com, marvelblog.com and disneyfashion blog.com), asked if they had ever heard of the brother-sister duo behind ResortTV1.
At the time, the channel had around 19,000 subscribers. Greg Antonelle reached out to Josh Nelson, who runs the channel with his sister Jenna, and they formed a partnership. Today, ResortTV1 has more than 110,000 subscribers and continues to grow steadily.
“For us, it really works well,” Antonelle said. “Our clients and our potential clients, most of them are in [a similar] position as we were. We were living in New Jersey at the time, and we were wishing we were in the parks. While we couldn’t be there, the next best thing was to turn on the computer, connect it to the big screen TV and sort of live vicariously through [the YouTubers] while they’re walking through the park, riding the PeopleMover or going down Splash Mountain.”
Nelson started the channel for personal, not professional, reasons. Before he was an Orlando local, he started recording the videos Disney plays on hotel guests’ televisions, broadcasting must-dos and park hours for the day. He wanted to watch those loops from home, so he posted them to YouTube so he could watch them on his television.
To his surprise, he hit 100 subscribers, and the count started growing. He posted some hotel tours that proved popular. Then, YouTube started enabling users to livestream, “and it was absolutely huge,” Nelson said.
Today, ResortTV1 livestreams from the parks at least once a week in addition to posting other Disney-related videos, such as attraction ride-throughs and strolls around the parks.
Antonelle has booked well over 100 trips as a direct result of his sponsorship of ResortTV1. Meanwhile, Nelson benefits financially (he works full time as a teacher, but uses sponsorships to help offset production costs) and also amplifies his reach: Antonelle’s agents frequently share ResortTV1 videos on their social media channels.
Small World Vacations builds trust with MouseSavers.com
Sue Pisaturo, president of Small World Vacations in Washington Township, N.J., has been involved in the Disney fan community for decades. Her connections run deep, and hers is one of the largest Disney-focused agencies, ranking No. 52 on Travel Weekly’s 2020 Power List.
More than 15 years ago, she got in touch with MouseSavers.com founder Mary Waring. Mouse Savers.com aggregates Disney discount codes, and Pisaturo thought Waring might be a good partner.
Waring initially turned her down, recalled her brother, Don Munsil, who now runs MouseSavers .com with his wife, Sarah Stone. Waring didn’t believe the kind of people looking for discount codes would be interested in working with travel agents, but Pisaturo was persistent, and eventually Waring agreed to recommend Small World Vacations on the site.
Today, MouseSavers.com gets a referral fee if someone books with Small World, and Pisaturo gets their endorsement.
MouseSavers.com has never run traditional advertisements. Munsil said the site is much more information-oriented, bringing in revenue from referrals.
“The key is that it has to come from a place of trust, and it really needs to not feel like it’s a traditional advertisement model where you just put up ads because people paid you to put up an ad,” Munsil said.
Waring was key in bringing about another partnership Pisaturo has in the Disney space, although this one doesn’t have a commercial underpinning. Rather, Pisaturo regularly shares intelligence with Len Testa, co-author of “The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World” and “The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland” and president of Disney planning site TouringPlans.com.
Testa and Pisaturo met through Waring around 2002.
“We hit it off right away,” Pisaturo said. “We were instant friends, instant Disney nerds, being all about the data, all about the fun of crunching the data and using it to maximize your time and your money and to minimize your headaches.”
The unofficial guides are very data-driven. Each year, tens of thousands of consumers fill out the guides’ 20-page survey, and Testa collects that data and compiles trends useful to agencies. For instance, he’ll let them know if a hotel isn’t trending well, so agents can guide clients to other properties that might be more satisfactory.
He distributes these — free of charge — to Disney agencies he has a relationship with
Small World is one of the unofficial guide’s recommended agencies, but not because of any kind of advertising relationship. It is consistently one of readers’ highest-rated agencies, Testa said. Testa also benefits from being able to get the pulse of Small World’s clients to help craft survey questions.
Small World does have a relationship with TouringPlans.com; any clients who book a trip of $2,000 or more get free access to the site. Testa gives Pisaturo discounted subscriptions to give to such clients.
Additionally, Pisaturo also sponsors the Disney Food Blog, which is focused on dining in Disney.
“When you have a third-party association with a blog site or an informational and unofficial informational site … you’re looking for a partnership so that you have a source to funnel leads to you,” Pisaturo said.
Storybook Destinations helps deliver Disney Dish
Tammy Whiting started her agency, Storybook Destinations in St. Leonard, Md., seven years ago. She has forged several partnerships that have helped grow her business.
Many of her agents were regular listeners of Sorcerer Radio, a station devoted to playing Disney music. In 2014, she began to advertise on it: In exchange for a monthly fee, Sorcerer Radio plays her ad a certain number of times each day.
“In normal situations, we get several quotes from them a month, from listeners,” Whiting said. “Some have turned into long-standing clients. Not every quote turns into a booking, but that’s our job: Once we get a quote, turn it into a booking.”
Whiting also has a relationship with Testa under the umbrella of another one of his projects, the Disney Dish, a podcast he hosts with Disney historian Jim Hill. Whiting is a sponsor and has run some in-person fan events for the podcast.
Finding the right partners can be a process, Whiting said. When she identifies someone with potential, she typically tries them out for six months to see how many leads are generated.
“If it doesn’t work, then we move on, and if it does work, we’re in it for as long as we can,” she said.