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Monday,  April 15, 2024 9:22 AM 

AI, alliances & Canada’s booming cruise sales: Travel Leaders unpacks a “banner year”

AI, alliances & Canada’s booming cruise sales: Travel Leaders unpacks a “banner year”
From left: John Lovell, president, Travel Leaders Group; Roger Block, president, TLN; Christine James, VP, TLN Canada; Stephen McGillivray, CMO, Travel Leaders Group; Cory Voss, CIO, Travel Leaders Network. (Pax Global Media)
Michael Pihach

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 Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

The impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on the travel industry is a movement that shows no signs of slowing down.

From natural language chatbots (like ChatGPT) automating trip itineraries to cruise lines (like Virgin Voyages) using AI to replicate celebrities to host agencies (like TravelOnly) building their own AI-assistant tool to simplify marketing tasks, the travel industry has entered an era where more processes are run by highly-advanced software. 

How will this new technology shape the travel industry in the years to come?

“I think it'll be just like the internet,” said John Lovell, president of Travel Leaders Group, speaking to trade media at a press conference at Toronto’s Hyatt Regency Hotel on Wednesday (Feb. 7).

Lovell, who was joined by his executive colleagues, said AI is “the next step” in accessing information in a quicker, more efficient and personalized way.

Within travel, it’s also going to speed up creativity, Lovell said. “It’s going to enhance what we do today,” he said.

Travel Leaders, last year, released an AI solution for its global network of travel advisors called TobyAI.

The engine, which launched in December, is more than just a tech tool, said Travel Leaders in a news release at the time.

“It's a valuable colleague,” the company wrote.

Using the tool, travel advisors can, for example, craft itineraries, draft bios, write emails and create social media posts. TobyAI also generates images that adhere to a user’s text-based prompts.

“There's a bunch of things this tool can do to provide efficiency,” said Stephen McGillivray, CMO of Travel Leaders Group, at yesterday’s meeting.

And there’s room for personalization. For example: agents can tell TobyAI what kind of tone they’d like the tool to use when it writes a client email.

Humourous? Formal? Sympathetic? TobyAI appears to bend all ways.

From left (of TLN): Roger Block, president; Cory Voss, chief information officer. (Pax Global Media)

And while this may speed up daily tasks, TobyAI’s content is not meant for agents to simply copy and paste, McGillivray said.

“That's not the right way to use AI. You've got to read it. Hopefully it comes out in your brand and tone, but you've got to tweak it,” he said.

Travel Leaders' agents are trialling the new software as part of a free year-long subscription that was offered.  

There’s a cost to integrating artificial intelligence into company infrastructure, said Roger Block, president of Travel Leaders Network (TLN).

“But it’s not huge,” he said. “It’s a little bit of investment here and there.”

Celebrating a “banner year”

AI just one component of Travel Leaders’ “banner year,” as Lovell put it.   

Despite concerns that credit card debt was reaching an all-time high last year (particularly in the U.S.), travel sales were still “extremely strong” as people prioritized travel, Lovell noted.

“This is the renaissance of the travel advisor,” Lovell said. “Prior to the pandemic, consumers were going more direct, booking online, making their own reservations. But what we've seen in 2023, and now in 2024, is that advisors play a much stronger role. The trend has reversed.”

Demand for luxury & groups

The demand for luxury is driving business these days, the team said.

TLN says “Elite Travellers” – those who fly premium cabins and stay in luxury hotels – are taking the most trips, on average travelling six times a year for leisure in the past 12 months.

“They're traveling more, spending more, and taking longer trips as well,” Lovell said. “And that booking window continues to expand.”

As for hotels, travellers are prioritizing location, reviews and the quality of rooms, the executives said.   

From left: John Lovell, president, Travel Leaders Group; Roger Block, president, TLN; Christine James, VP, TLN Canada; Stephen McGillivray, CMO, Travel Leaders Group; Cory Voss, CIO, Travel Leaders Network. (Pax Global Media)

And groups are making a strong comeback this year after a soft 2023.

“Church groups, little leagues, dance teams…they’re all starting to travel again, which is great for the industry as we move forward,” Lovell said.

It’s a good time to be an agent because travel is a “growth industry,” Lovell continued.

“You look at the planes, hotels and cruise ships that are being built…and you can predict this industry is going to grow four-and-a-half to six-and-a-half per cent on an annual basis,” he said. “There's no other industry that can point to that type of growth.”

“Incredible growth” in Canada

In Canada, TLN increased its membership last year, welcoming 42 new agencies, said Christine James, vice-president, Travel Leaders Network Canada.

This represents more than CAD $28 million in preferred supplier sales (total agency sales amounted to more than CAD $167 million).

Canadian travel agencies who joined TLN in 2023 were able to join the network under one name: Travel Leaders Network. 

Last year, Travel Leaders Network announced it had won the rights to its name in Canada, bringing an end to the Canadian-branded TL Network and allowing Canadian members access to the better-recognized Travel Leaders Network name.

“We had another great year in Canada, adding quality members from our competitors who brought a good book of business,” she said.

Canada’s “Fun and Sun” segment, in particular, grew by 108 per cent last year, James pointed out.

At the same time, TLN Canada’s FIT touring business was up by 91 per cent, while river and ocean cruising increased by 42 per cent.

Looking ahead at 2024, TLN Canada is trending about 35 per cent on the books to where it was last year, she said.

“River is really growing”

Cruise, for one, is booming like never before, said James, noting how the segment’s growth, compared to the U.S., is still a new trend in Canada.

Contemporary cruises (Royal Caribbean, Norwegian and MSC, for example) saw 62 per cent growth in Canada last year, James said.

(TLN, notably, recently received Royal Caribbean’s Chairman's Award for Overall Achievement).

Other growth segments in cruise include premium (Holland America Line, Princess and Celebrity, for instance), which grew by 23 per cent, luxury (such as Seabourn, Silversea and Regent), which increased by 9.8 per cent, and river cruising, which was up by 24.2 per cent.  

Roger Block, Christine James and John Lovell spotted on board Royal Caribbean's Icon of the Seas during a recent preview sailing. (Pax Global Media/file photo)

“River is really growing,” James said, noting how suppliers are “all over the Canadian market.”

“The nice thing about Canada not having critical mass [like the U.S.] is that cruise lines look at us as potential for growth,” she said.

Cruise lines are expanding their BDM teams in Canada, too, which is boosting sales, James said.

Meanwhile, Canada’s largest host agency, The Travel Agent Next Door, which joined TL Network in 2021, has contributed to TLN’s overall success in the market.

“Their volume speaks for itself,” James said. “It’s a great gain for us and a great loss for their previous affiliation.”

(TTAND, previously, belonged to Ensemble).

The power of alliances

Roger Block said total sales for the entire network last year came in at roughly USD $635 million.

The tools and services available to TLN members helped achieve this number, he said.

This includes Agent Profiler (a lead generation solution), education and training (such as specialist certifications and supplier webinars), the network’s annual EDGE conference, corporate travel, cruise and marketing programs and publications that can be branded with an advisor’s contact info.

TLN’s “Leaders Alliances,” meanwhile, are thriving, Block said, saying that 500 members were participating in the program by the end of 2023.

“Alliances” are communities for top-producing agents in the categories of luxury, honeymoon and destination weddings, independent advisor networks and technology.

They were created to bring experts together and let members with similar strategies learn from each other, Block explained.

To join, agents must be nominated by their agency owner and complete an application.   

“We reject 36 per cent of applicants,” Block said, noting how there are minimum requirements (such as strong sales) for acceptance.  

The luxury alliance, for example, currently has 328 members, and those who made the cut have an average of $1.37 million in individual annual luxury sales.

These members have access to TLN’s own Luxury Forum and preferred access to events like ILTM and DUCO, as well as regular meet-and-greet events.

More Alliances are being planned and will be announced in due time, Block said. And because they’re not open to everyone, they hold a “significant value.”

“It truly showcases your expertise to the industry at large and to your clients,” Block said.

TLN’s training and learning resources, meanwhile, continue to expand.

Last year, the network held 133 supplier webinars, and currently, there are 1,305 on-demand learning sessions in the TLN library. 

“We averaged close to 35,000 advisors a month, enrolling in the various programs we offer,” Block said. “That, to me, shows the thirst our folks have to learn, serve their clients better, and increase their business.”

Other announcements that surfaced yesterday included TLN’s new Culinary Collection planner, a publication for premium and luxury cruise-selling travel advisors, and clients, that highlights cruise lines, but also a behind-the-scenes look at food and drink at sea.  

Upcoming events

In Canada, TLN-affiliated agents can connect with suppliers and each other at mixer events, which are held in various cities throughout the year.

Peak” (Programs, Education, Advisors and Knowledge) training events will also take place this fall in Vancouver (Oct. 8), Calgary (Oct. 10) and Toronto/Mississauga (Oct. 17).

Travel Leaders' international conference, EDGE, is set for June 8-11 at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Centre in National Harbour, Maryland (just outside of Washington, D.C.).

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