Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
This story was updated on Tuesday, October 25 at 8:27 a.m. EST
You know you’ve struck the right chord when people are dancing before the main course.
Ensemble’s “Horizons” conference at Eden Roc & Nobu Miami Beach in Miami, Florida wrapped up on Saturday (Oct. 22) with a glam “Night to Shine” dinner and awards gala, which saw attendees storm the dance floor within moments of finishing their baby kale salad starter.
The night’s entertainment, “The Fabulous Cheaza” of Las Vegas, was partially to thank for the impromptu pre-filet mignon boogie, which broke the often-stiff social conventions of travel conference dinners.
READ MORE: “We're growing” - Ensemble unlocks new “Horizons," branding at Miami conference
The dazzling singer, who was plucked from Celebrity’s Infinity ship, had Canada and U.S.-based travel agency owners, managers and suppliers groovin’ and movin’ as she belt out famous hits like Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” Gloria Estefan’s “Conga” and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk.”
Someone started a conga line at one point, even Ensemble’s Executive Chair David Harris hopped on stage to bust a move.
The positive energy in the room was infectious.
But sizzling beneath the surface of the joyous event, which capped off three days of supplier updates, presentations, one-on-one meetings, fireside chats and panel discussions, was a deeper reason to celebrate: that travel, following more than two years of COVID-related challenges, is back with a consortium that promises to be “bigger, better and bolder.”
The "new" Ensemble
Ensemble’s conference unfolded less than six months after it inked a major acquisition deal with the Navigatr Group – a move that aims to bring a stronger value proposition, and more benefits, to members.
Navigatr’s assets include Kensington Tours, Travel Edge, T/E Network, TripArc and Violet, and the transaction, which more than 95 per cent of Ensemble’s shareholders voted in favour of, resulted in a leadership shakeup.
Michael Johnson of Navigatr became president while David Harris, Ensemble’s former CEO, assumed the role of Executive Chairman.
READ MORE: "A game changer": Travel Edge Network joins Ensemble Travel Group
The merger has led to what leadership calls a “new Ensemble” – one that combines Ensemble’s strengths in cruise, tour, marketing and data monetization with Navigatr’s technology solutions, such as “ADX” (Agent Digital Experience), a platform launched by TripArc in 2014 that lets travel advisors bundle services into single prices for maximum efficiency and commissions.
Ensemble transitioning from a cooperative to a privately-held company is about enhancing its offer with new tools, programs and services, David Harris told PAX.
“The focus is on being strong partners with our members and providing them with tangible benefits – dollars, yield, ROI – that they've not had the opportunity to experience in the past,” Harris said.
“That's at the core of the new value proposition – our meaningful partnership with them.”
The new Ensemble is also about offering members more choice, added Michael Johnson.
He uses the word “and” to describe the dynamic.
“The new Ensemble is about the best of the existing consortium, perhaps in a refreshed tone, and the new capabilities we're introducing, like ADX, which is focused on growing member yields and making the role of the agency and advisor a lucrative and sustainable position in the market,” he said.
READ MORE: “We couldn’t be more excited”: David Harris, Michael Johnson discuss the Ensemble-Navigatr deal
The deal also means Ensemble can benefit from Navigatr’s key central services, such as cross marketing, information technology, finance and legal.
Additionally, Ensemble’s team is set to grow by an additional 50 per cent and the company has even unveiled a new brand position.
The new logo, for one, consists of lowercase letters that are touching, “reinforcing an idea of connection and community,” said Scott McKay, Navigatr’s vice-president of brand and creative strategy.
The company has dropped the “Travel Group” part and has a new tagline, “Further together,” which is inspired by collaboration. In French, it’s “à monde ouvert” – meaning, “an open world, full of possibilities,” McKay said.
A new monogram mark, available in vibrant orange, bold yellow, sky blue, and neutral, will also soon be used in various modes of communication.
Ensemble’s magazines have also been consolidated into a single property called “range.” In Quebec, the French magazine will be called “depart.”
The magazines will come in two print formats: one focused on aspirational travel and lifestyle editorial along with advertising.
The second focuses on key travel themes and travel products in the market to highlight Ensemble’s partners and offerings.
There are also new branded B2B email platforms called Bold, Lift and Pronto to highlight relevant partner offers.
The branding will extend to annual events, each named in a distinct way that connects to the new tagline.
Marquee events will include Horizons, which will be the annual gathering with the entire Ensemble advisor community; The Summit as the executive retreat; Beyond for top performer recognition; Skyline, regional networking opportunities with frontline advisors; and Uncharted, a virtual event that will allow partners to share messages from the vantage points unique to their brand.
The entire strategy was inspired by themes of togetherness, collaboration and going further, said Shahla Lalani, senior vice-president of marketing.
Following the acquisition, “We wanted to show how we're going to lift and push forward,” Lalani said.
There’s also a goal to elevate the role of travel advisors.
“You'll be seeing a push in the consumer world as we make it known that you’ll want to [work] with Ensemble advisor because they give you that service and experience,” she said.
Advisory boards are coming
Ensemble, by the New Year, will also implement appointed, short-term advisory boards, or task forces, across the organization to address challenges in different segments of business, from host agencies to brick and mortar businesses.
The majority of Ensemble members are also producing more than they did in 2019, Johnson said. And consortium’s newest members, including Travel Edge, have positioned Ensemble to further exceed 2019 in terms of preferred sales, he said.
“The average value per transaction is significantly higher,” Johnson noted.
As for Ensemble's outlook on the industry, the team isn’t too concerned about a possible economic downturn.
“Downturn shmownturn,” Harris said. “We just came through two years of you know what, so anything that can be thrown at us will pale by comparison. We're prepared to handle it."
“The value of the advisor has never been more important in consumer interaction.”
“I've never been more excited”
“We have been with Ensemble for over a decade and I've never been more excited,” said Gregory Luciani, president and CEO and TravelOnly. “The new leadership team is exceptional. The direction, the vision, the technology…to see what they're doing is fantastic. It's going to be a game-changer for the Canadian marketplace.”
Luciani added that the consortium model is “always going to be important” in the travel industry.
“It’s important to suppliers, it’s important to agents,” he said. “The more we can bring under the Ensemble umbrella, the stronger we’re going to be.”
Terri Jo Lennox of Travel Time Inc. was chair of the Ensemble board when the Navigatr deal was first presented earlier this year.
“From the get go, I recognized that it was a viable opportunity,” Lennox told PAX. “We complemented each other in ways that the other didn't, which is important.”
“Change is hard, but it's good…nothing has been taken away from us. We have things that we can add.”
The ADX technology, for one, has been particularly appealing to Lennox.
Ensemble has lauded the benefits of ADX – the consortium says members who have embraced the platform, which streamlines processes, have seen increases in sales by upwards of 150 per cent.
“I've had the opportunity to use it for the last four weeks,” Lennox said. “It’s seamless and easy… I think it’ll open up a channel for even the less-skilled advisor to be able to dip their toes into selling air. I think it’s going to be a game changer for a lot of people.”
ADX isn't mandatory for Ensemble members – agencies can continue to operate as they always have.
But Harris urged members to at least explore the new options that are (and will be) available.
“If you're not changing, you're standing still. And complacency is the enemy,” he said.
Ensemble, meanwhile, is taking a “methodical approach” to implementing the new tools and processes to avoid disruptions to the member experience, Johnson said.
“We're introducing programs as quickly as we can, but we're not rushing,” he said.
At the same time, Johnson doesn’t take the trust of Ensemble members for granted.
“The interesting thing about an acquisition like this is that there's no asset in the transaction. There was no real estate or goldmine somewhere. The asset is the membership,” he said. “That builds an accountability mechanism into the deal, because if we don't deliver on our commitments, members are free to make different decisions. So, we hold ourselves accountable."
And the winners are...
TravelOnly and WestJet Vacations were among the two Canadian companies honoured at Ensemble’s awards on Saturday.
TravelOnly was recognized for their “outstanding contribution to the travel community.”
“We are very honoured and humbled to be awarded Ensemble’s Outstanding Contribution to the travel community. This award would not be possible without the expertise, hard work and dedication of the entire TravelOnly family and I want to take this opportunity to say thank you,” Luciani told PAX.
“There are countless individuals, organizations and associations who’ve made the travel industry what it is today and we will continue to support them as industry leaders and a strong voice for the retail community.”
WestJet Vacations was named “Travel Industry Ambassador Partner of the Year” – an accolade that was shared with Silversea.
“It was an amazing unexpected honour to receive the partner of the year award from Ensemble and it’s wonderful members,” said Sevi Anagnostis, manager, commercial partners, at WestJet Vacations. “We value our strategic partnership and truly appreciate their business and continued support of WestJet Vacations.”
Other winners included Royal Caribbean, which won Ensemble’s “Partner Pandemic Response” award; Collette, which provided the “best advisor support during COVID,” Ross Spalding of Crown Cruise Vacations – winner of the “Horizons member excellence award”; Lauren Doyle of The Travel Mechanic, who won the “reinvention award”; and AmaWaterways, which was named Ensemble’s “most socially responsible” travel partner.
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