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
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.”