It was a night of tailcoats, feather boas, corsets and can-cans.
Ensemble’s 2023 Horizons conference, “Level Up,” came to a rip-roaring finish Sunday night (Nov. 5) at Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino, where a ballroom was transformed into a cabaret inspired by Paris’ original Moulin Rouge.
The glam gala kicked off with a high-energy can-can dance as more than 800 travel agency owners, managers, advisors and suppliers – donning burlesque-style costumes, top hats and sparkly attire – took their seats in a sprawling, chandelier-lit dining room.
And it didn’t take long for folks to get down and funky on the dancefloor, where singer Cheaza belted out crowd-pleasing hits like Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and Gloria Estefan’s “Conga” (which, yes, led to a snaking conga line).
Can Ensemble members dance? They sure can-can can.
Delivering the “new” Ensemble
But they can also sell-sell-sell with the help of a transformed consortium.
Ensemble’s 2023 conference, which began Nov. 2, picked up where 2022’s event in Miami left off.
Last year was about unveiling the “new” Ensemble, which was acquired by the Navigatr Group in May of 2022, and sharing details about changes that promised a stronger value proposition for members.
This included a brand refresh, new print and digital publications, including new consumer magazines, Range and Range Best, a new FAM program called Further Your World, new marketing, hotel and DMC programs, updated training and development under Ensemble Training Academy, and new annual events.
Key to Ensemble’s growth strategy has been its ability to onboard members on its proprietary ADX platform.
This optional tool, which stands for “Agent Digital Experience,” was launched in 2014 by TripArc (a Navigatr company), and allows advisors to not only book all aspects of a client's trip, but to also invoice in the same platform for maximum efficiency (and commissions).
In addition to attending supplier one-on-ones, workshops, hosted dinners and theme parties, attendees at this year's Horizons conference could also take advantage of ADX training, live and in person.
From “prove it” to doing it
Speaking with PAX, Ensemble President Michael Johnson said last year was about stabilizing the company, rebuilding programs, developing a team and solidifying the consortium’s community.
“Because there was a lot of uncertainty,” he said. “Let’s be honest, we were an unknown entity coming in. When we acquired Ensemble, there was almost a ‘prove it’ mentality. There were a lot of members who said, ‘OK, you talk a good game. Now let's see whether or not you're able to deliver.”
“I think we've done that, and this year was about continuing to build and pivoting to growth.”
And the word has gotten out. Johnson says Ensemble, over this past year, has heard from many agencies and advisors about the company’s new programs.
“It’s interesting to see how it's all tying together,” Johnson said. “We're very encouraged.”
The “highly encouraging” part is that Ensemble, during its transformative year, managed to retain 99 per cent of its membership, Johnson said.
“The fact that the membership stuck with us, and gave us an opportunity to deliver on our commitments, is something that we hold sacred,” he said.
Ensemble, in a year, has also seen “overwhelming growth” across all verticals, Johnson added.
“The challenge for our members is responding to the demand,” he said. “That said, now is the time to focus on positioning for new opportunities. You don't rebuild your roof in the middle of a hurricane, you focus on making sure you're ready.”
“The reality is that this growth, at some point in time, will level off. And so, now is the time to level up.” [To reference Ensemble’s 2023 conference theme].
Give the people what they want
This year’s Horizons conference revolved around the value of humans (in an age of rising artificial intelligence), real-life connections and the need for agencies to have business partners, instead of affiliations.
“We're not trying to win a popularity contest at Ensemble,” Johnson told the delegation at last Thursday’s opening session. “Our goal is to push you forward…our role at Ensemble is to support you, not brand you.”
Ensemble announced several new programs and initiatives over the weekend.
A new member portal, for one, will launch in early 2024, and the company is also making enhancements to its popular “UofE” training academy.
Travel agencies and independent contractors will also now have access to a new tool that allows them to build fully-customizable websites.
Ensemble also unveiled a new giving program, called Spark, which connects members to two million charities and non-profits around the globe, in both Canadian and U.S. currencies, with tax receipting.
“Everything we do is in response to what our members want,” Kristina Boyce, Ensemble’s senior vice-president of operations, told PAX. “We’ve launched [new things] because we gathered feedback and data and then made some great decisions based on that.”
Boyce said this year’s conference, which saw a strong showing of travel advisors, including many from Canada, is “very validating.”
“We’ve listened to our members, we’ve built great things, they are seeing the benefits of it,” she said. “It’s really exciting.”
Ensemble also encouraged the notion of making a difference in the world, together.
Building on its new giving program, Sunday night’s gala doubled as a fundraiser for the Legacy of War Foundation – specifically, for land for women to fund a farming cooperative and lift 100 Rwandan families out of poverty.
On hand was Giles Duley, CEO of the Legacy of War Foundation, who shared his story of starting his career as a fashion and celebrity photographer in England, to going on to documenting the long-term impacts of war.
He spoke of his own experience as a photographer and writer documenting the long-term impact of conflict globally - including in Afghanistan where he was critically injured by a landmine.
Now, living as a triple amputee, Giles has dedicated his life to supporting survivors of conflict. Guests heard about Legacy of War’s Land for Women project in Rwanda which gives sustainable farming cooperatives to survivors of the Rwandan genocide.
Duley’s message that love, in the face of conflict, continues to exist in the world left conference attendees moved and inspired.
“Throw yourself into it”
Last night was also an awards ceremony, where top member agencies, agents and suppliers – including those based in Canada – were honoured for their achievements. (See the complete winner’s list below).
Megan Duncan, a travel agent and manager at Travel Gurus based in Edmonton, AB, received the “Rising Star Award.”
Speaking with PAX at the gala, Duncan said winning felt “unreal.”
“I have a passion for this job,” Duncan said. “It doesn’t feel like work to me. I love connecting with clients, and I love what I do for them.”
Duncan’s advice to travel advisors who are looking to “level up” their business?
“Throw yourself into it,” she said. “Do the training, take advantage of every opportunity. FAM trips are extremely helpful, do all trainings, and ask other agents for help.”
The “conference within a conference”
Winnipeg, MB-based travel agency and host agency Fareconnect also received the Outstanding Contribution to the Community Award.
Owner Cindy Gaudet, who runs Fareconnect with her husband, Rick, called the win “overwhelming” – mainly because the agency had 50 of their independent contractors with them at this year’s event.
Fareconnect, which celebrates 20 years this year, spearheaded a “conference within a conference” format whereby Ensemble allowed them told hold their own company symposium, at the Paris Las Vegas, within the main conference.
“Our ICs feel blessed and accomplished being here, between us going one-on-one with them, meeting suppliers, and getting proper training from Ensemble,” Gaudet said. “If they can walk away with one thing to build their business on, then they’re already winning.”
Fareconnect, notably, has experienced 60 per cent growth in its advisor network, ever since the pandemic struck, growing its roster from 120 to 420 people who are mostly new to the industry, Gaudet shared.
“We believe in Ensemble,” Gaudet said. “We believe in everything they produce for agents to train and make their business better.”
Next year’s events
The Ensemble team last night announced the locations for next year’s signature events.
“Summit,” an owners and managers retreat, will take place at the Biltmore Waldorf Astoria Resort in Arizona from April 28-30, while “Beyond,” a reward and recognition trip, will unfold at Half Moon Bay in Jamaica from June 17-21.
Next year’s “Horizons” conference, meanwhile, will be held at the new Resorts World Las Vegas from Sept. 16-19.
“If I was to describe Ensemble in one word, I would say ‘growth,’” Johnson told PAX, “because it's across every dimension of the company.”
“We see green shoots, and we're continuing to nurture that.”
And the winners are…
Here’s a list of this year’s Ensemble winners:
Partner of the year (Adventure) – Linblad Expeditions
Partner of the year (tourism board) – Jamaica Tourist Board
Partner of the year (DMC) – Titanium Tours & Egypt and Beyond
Partner of the year (land) – Globus Family of Brands
Partner of the year (hotel collections) – Hyatt Inclusive Collection
Partner of the year (hotel chains) – Accor
Partner of the year (ocean cruise) – Viking
Partner of the year (river cruise) – AmaWaterways
Uncharted Award – Most innovative presentation at Uncharted – G Adventures
Innovation Award – Larissa Lognay (Groupe Voyage Montreal), Diana Hechler (D. Tours Travel)
Rising Star Award - Megan Duncan (Travel Gurus), Susan Jasnoch (Custom Cruises & Travel)
Member Excellence Awards – Goldrush
Overall partner of the year award – Celebrity Cruises
Outstanding Contribution to the community award – Fareconnect
Employee Excellence Award – Lee Zanello
Go to PAX"s Facebook page here to see more photos from Ensemble's conference!
What did Ensemble members and partners think of this year’s “Horizons” conference in Las Vegas? Stay tuned for more of PAX’s on-location coverage of “Level Up”!