Uplift, a company that provides financing to travelers so they can pay off vacations over the course of 12 months, has been making steady inroads into the agency channel through recent partnerships with CCRA Travel Commerce Network, Cruise Planners and Oasis Travel Network.

The partnerships will enable travel advisors to offer their clients the option to pay monthly with a loan from Uplift, which the networks believe will give their advisors an advantage over their peers and help level the playing field with suppliers that already offer Uplift as a payment option.

Tom Botts, Uplift’s chief commercial officer, said the company’s outreach into the agency community was natural because Uplift is run by executives who know the industry well. CEO Brian Barth, for example, was a co-founder of travel metasearch site SideStep, a company that Kayak acquired in 2007.

“Anyone who knows anything about travel knows that the agency channel is still very vibrant, alive and a very important part of the distribution model, particularly for large-ticket items like cruises and vacation packages,” Botts said. “We recognized early on that supporting the agency channel would be critical to us.”

Botts also relates to the importance of the agency channel on a personal level: His wife, Libbie Rice, was until August co-president of travel agency cooperative Ensemble Travel Group.

Michael Coletta, manager of research and innovation for Phocuswright, said that making travel more accessible to consumers could help boost agency sales. Travelers who wouldn’t have booked otherwise might now choose to.

According to Botts, Uplift uses a proprietary algorithm to approve or deny loans for prospective travelers. The company approves a “very high” number of consumers, he said, in a “sub-second approval process.” 

Interest rates start at 7.99% and go up from there, with the average in the high teens, he said.

“It’s important to know that this is simple interest, not compounded interest, so it’s a very consumer-friendly proposition in that we don’t charge interest on interest, we don’t charge late fees, we don’t charge early-payment fees,” he said.

That differs from credit card debt, on which interest compounds, Botts said. Uplift underwrites its own loans, which are issued by CBW Bank in Kansas.

Uplift pays the supplier in full at the time of booking, a benefit to advisors if they receive commission after final payment is received, which is most typical in cruise sales.

Coletta said he believes that Uplift is currently the only company in its space solely dedicated to travel. Affirm, which offers financing for a variety of things, does have a large focus on travel, making it a “formidable competitor,” Coletta said.

In the coming year, Botts said, Uplift plans to announce more partnerships within the agency community. 

“We allow travel advisors to offer an additional form of payment that’s gaining steam across the ecosystem,” Botts said. “It enables them to close more sales. It enables them to offer more expensive trips and give consumers an additional, flexible way to pay, and that’s really the value in it for travel advisors.”

Travel advisors are most excited about the potential for upselling that comes with offering Uplift’s services to clients but have also said it will enable advisors to hook new clients.

“It’s going to help them maybe close a sale, or it may help them to get the client what they really want,” said Kelly Bergin, president of Boca Raton, Fla.-based host agency Oasis. “They really want that over-the-water bungalow, but they’re freaking out about the price -- it gives [agents] the ability to upgrade clients.”

Michelle Fee, CEO and founder of Cruise Planners, agreed.

She sees potential for Uplift “to help your customer seek a vacation at a level where they might not possibly have the funds readily available. It allows them to take the upgrade of the cabin or maybe it’s a milestone birthday or something like that.”

It’s also not another credit card, beneficial to those who might have maxed out their credit line, Fee said.

Cruise companies have also embraced the product, Fee said, helping to lend it further credibility; Uplift has partnered with Carnival Cruise Line and Norwegian Cruise Line. Other suppliers include United Airlines and Southwest Vacations.

Considering that suppliers are offering Uplift, Fee said there was also a concern agents could lose sales to them, so it helps Cruise Planners to remain competitive against supplier-direct bookings.

“There’s no cost to us,” she said. “There’s no cost for our advisors. It’s giving us one more closing tool that we didn’t have prior to this, so it’s one more way to get somebody to buy travel.”

CCRA identified three main areas where Uplift is more beneficial to travelers than using a credit card: cost (Uplift doesn’t charge late fees), easy financial planning and flexibility (for example, many choose to pay off loans early, which carries no penalties with Uplift).

Since announcing its partnership, CCRA said it has seen an uptick in members registering for Uplift and completing transactions.

“Financing has been around forever,” Botts said. “You can finance furniture. Certainly you’ve been able to finance cars, and very expensive cars, for a long time. We’re just bringing that ability to finance into the travel industry.”

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