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Sunday,  July 21, 2024 10:10 AM 

On Location: From “prove it” to doing it – travel pros sound off on the “new” Ensemble in Vegas

On Location: From “prove it” to doing it – travel pros sound off on the “new” Ensemble in Vegas
From left: Hidar Elmais, Melissa Tolmie, Lesley Keyter, Ann & Gregory Luciani. (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.

Last year, when Ensemble announced that it was rebranding with a new look and stronger value proposition, members were skeptical.

Who could blame them? The consortium, coming out of COVID, was fresh off a major acquisition deal that transitioned it from a cooperative to a privately-held company, resulting in a leadership shake up, a brand overhaul and promises of new technology and marketing solutions.

Ensemble, which was purchased by the Navigatr Group in May of 2022, also ushered in a cast of new faces.

Now-President Michael Johnson, at the time, was still somewhat new to the travel industry.

READ MORE: On Location - Delivering the “new” Ensemble – awards, growth & can-cans at “Horizons” in Vegas

Just three years earlier, in 2019, he was executive vice-president of Travel Edge (a Navigatr company), pivoting from an 18-year-long career in luxury retail, where he worked for brands such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor and Hudson’s Bay.

Today’s “new” Ensemble, supporting Johnson, is an executive team of fresh, senior-level talent, with cross-platform experience.

From left (of Ensemble): Shahla Lalani, SVP, marketing; Beth Butzlaff, SVP, partner relations; Kristina Boyce, SVP, operations; Michael Johnson, president. (Pax Global Media)

It includes Shahla Lalani, senior vice-president of marketing; Beth Butzlaff, senior vice-president of partner relations (who joined Ensemble just two months ago) and Kristina Boyce, senior vice-president of operations.

David Harris, former CEO and Chairman of Ensemble, also exited the organization this year. 

"Prove it"

For members – particularly those who attended Ensemble’s 2022 conference in Miami, where the big changes were announced – it’s been a lot to unpack.

Just ask Hidar Elmais, founder, owner and operator of Travel Gurus Canada, an Alberta-based travel agency that’s been in operation for just over ten years.

From left (of Travel Gurus Canada): Hidar Elmais, Melissa Tolmie and team in Las Vegas. (Pax Global Media)

“We were a little bit weary,” Elmais said, speaking to PAX at Ensemble’s 2023 “Horizons” conference in Las Vegas last week. “And rightly so. They came to us and said, ‘You don’t own the company anymore. It’s gonna go private.’ And then some guy named Michael comes in and he doesn't have that much experience with travel agents. So, he had to learn about us, and we had to learn about him.”

This past year has encapsulated that exact dynamic, which Ensemble’s President identifies with. 

“When we acquired Ensemble, there was almost a ‘prove it’ mentality,” Johnson told PAX. “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."

Big promises  

Since that 2022 conference in Miami, Ensemble has unrolled a long list of deliverables, including new print consumer magazines – called 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.

In addition, a key part of Ensemble’s strategy has been its ability to onboard members to its proprietary ADX (Agent Digital Experience”) platform.

Ensemble President Michael Johnson welcomes conference delegates at Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino. (Pax Global Media)

This tool was launched in 2014 by TripArc (another 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).

These are things Elmais, over this past year, has been paying close attention to.

The Travel Guru founder joined Ensemble in 2018 because “we wanted something that was forward-thinking." 

Fast-forward to now, and “we didn’t realize there would be so much more,” he said.

“They made a lot of promises last year, and they’ve put it all together,” Elmais said. “The new technology, the training…it’s unbelievable. I don't think any other consortium has the plethora of options and tools that actually help us as a company.”

Central to Ensemble’s transition has been a commitment to listening to members, added Elmais’ colleague, Melissa Tolmie, general manager of Travel Gurus.

“They really take feedback from the agencies and try to implement it in all the things they come up with,” Tolmie said.

Canada on the scene

Ensemble’s 2023 conference, “Level Up,” unfolded at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino from Nov. 2-5, welcoming more than 800 owners, managers, and advisors as well as preferred partners.

It was the first time the entire consortium had been together since the acquisition and overhaul of the brand and, unlike last year’s conference (which hosted mostly owners and managers), hundreds of travel advisors attended – including a strong contingent from Canada.  

More than 800 travel pros attended Ensemble's 2023 conference in Las Vegas. (Pax Global Media)

Travel Gurus, which will soon open a second brick and mortar agency in Calgary, adding to its store in Edmonton, had its full team of seven million-dollar agents attend this year’s event.

Winnipeg, MB-based travel agency and host agency Fareconnect had 50 of its independent contractors in tow.

The company, which celebrates 20 years this year, held a “conference within a conference” – meaning, Ensemble allowed them told hold their own symposium, at the Paris Las Vegas, within the main event.

Fareconnect held a "conference within a conference." (Pax Global Media)

“Our ICs feel blessed and accomplished being here, between us going one-on-one with them, meeting suppliers, and getting proper training from Ensemble,” said co-owner Cindy Gaudet.

Fareconnect, in particular, has experienced 60 per cent growth in its advisor network over the past three years, growing its roster from 120 to 420 people who are mostly new to the industry, Gaudet shared.

“We believe in Ensemble,” Gaudet told PAX. “We believe in everything they produce for agents to train and make their business better.”

From left: Rick Gaudet, Fareconnect; Ian Elliott, Ensemble; Sevi Anagnostis, WestJet Vacations; Kristina Boyce, SVP, operations, Ensemble; Michelle Lanoue, WestJet Vacations; Cindy Gaudet, Fareconnect. (Pax Global Media)

On the conference itself, Lesley Keyter, owner and founder of The Travel Lady Agency based in Calgary, AB, said Ensemble did a “good job” at involving destination management companies (DMCs) this year. 

Some of the DMCs that participated included WildMongolia, Metropolitan Touring, Decouvertes, Tahiti Nui Travel, Pure Germany, Switzerland & Austria, Big Five Tours & Expeditions and Island Routes. 

On the “new Ensemble,” Keyter, too, was at first skeptical when she heard about the consortium’s transformation.

However: “I must say, I'm happily surprised by what has transpired,” she said. “I think the promise to be open and transparent is really there on the table.”

Keyter, who has been a member of Ensemble for more than ten years, added how the company is “very techie now.”

Lesley Keyter, owner and founder of The Travel Lady Agency. (Pax Global Media)

“There are tools that track your sales, you can see how you’re trending against the market and your co-Ensemble people,” she said. “That's a good thing.”

Payouts have also been more transparent, she said, and Ensemble is “giving us money more quickly compared to the old Ensemble.”

In addition, the new leadership team is “very refreshing,” Keyter said.

“It's a very young group, with a lot of women as well, which supports Women Leading Travel & Hospitality [an association Ensemble joined this year],” she said.

Travel Edge represents 

The Navigatr-owned Travel Edge Network, which joined Ensemble in July of 2022 following the acquisition, had 70 travel advisors in Las Vegas.

Nadiya Makarenko, the luxury host agency’s senior vice-president, said big events, like Horizons, is something advisors “have been asking for.”

“It’s been a great experience,” Makarenko told PAX. “We're definitely going to attend every year.”

From left (of Travel Edge Network): Amanda Grewall, Nadiya Makarenko, and Gavin Miller at Ensemble's closing gala. (Pax Global Media)

On Nov. 1, in Vegas, Travel Edge hosted a pre-Horizons event, which was attended by the leadership team and suppliers, to discuss future plans and reflect on achievements, “because we’ve had a very successful year,” Makarenko shared. 

“We finished half a billion in sales,” Makarenko said, noting how premium and luxury products “always sell,” the strength of multi-generational travel, a “spike” in cruise bookings, and the increased use of private jets. 

READ MORE: On Location - “People make travel better”: Ensemble tackles ChatGPT at conference in Las Vegas

It all comes as Travel Edge prepares a new program, called “Venture,” which will launch soon.

Makarenko said it’s targeted to new-to-industry professionals who are looking at travel as a second career. 

“It’s a big investment we’re making for the next year,” she said.

Not a popularity contest

Ensemble’s 2023 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 attendees at last Thursday’s opening session. “Our goal is to push you forward…our role at Ensemble is to support you, not brand you.”

Gregory Luciani, president and CEO of TravelOnly, said he “100 per cent agrees” that Ensemble has delivered on its promises.

 Ann and Gregory Luciani of TravelOnly at Ensemble's closing gala. (Pax Global Media)

“Like everything, it takes many years to get to where we need them to be, but I think the trajectory is right on path for them to accomplish the goals they've set, which aligns with our goals, so that we can make more money together,” Luciani said.

The “strength” at Ensemble, for Canadian agents, is the organization’s cruise program, Luciani said.  

“I know they're working on their hotel program, and if that can be as competitive as cruise, it’s going to be extremely successful,” he said.

The push to use ADX

As for Ensemble’s ADX booking platform, TravelOnly has been slow to implement the technology due to the host agency’s ties to Softvoyage, Luciani said.

However: “It’s still a great tool, and it's something we're seriously pushing to our members now.”

Speaking with PAX, Michael Johnson said ADX, which is optional to members, was “built by leisure advisors and agencies” over the last decade.

“It’s a tool, we believe, that responds to the needs of the existing advisor, as opposed to an outside influence,” he said. “We have seen evidence that it drives measurable value and can improve agency yield.”

Travel advisors "level up" with on site ADX training in Las Vegas. (Pax Global Media)

And some members are seeing this. The agents at Travel Gurus, for example, aren’t trained on any GDS, “so to have that technology brought to us, in case we need it, is an extra tool,” Hidar Elmais explained.

“It’s huge,” he said. “We can control files, we can do more corporate. That’s something ADX has brought to us. We can compete with any big agency.”

Lesley Keyter has also taken time to learn ADX, calling the experience “a bit of an eye opener” because it “really enables us to earn more money,” she said.

New partnership with Jamaica

This year’s Horizons was also about showcasing new partnerships.

Spotted in Las Vegas was Angella Bennett, regional director for Canada at the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB), which recently formed an alliance with Ensemble to spotlight Jamaica's luxury experiences and hotels in the North American retail market.

READ MORE: Jamaica Tourist Board & Ensemble team up to promote luxury travel

As part of the partnership, which was revealed in April at JAPEX, there's also a new platform, called “Villas of Jamaica,” which features more than 100 properties.

Angella Bennett, regional director for Canada at the Jamaica Tourist Board. (Pax Global Media)

“We chose Ensemble because they bring technology and a community of agents that are very selective,” Bennett told PAX. “It brings longevity in the market.”

The move is linked to Jamaica’s historic role in being a luxury destination during the golden age of travel in the 1950s and 60s, Bennett explained.

Over the years, Jamaica has seen a “modernization” of luxury, attracting new, high-end clientele, she said. 

Angella Bennett, regional director for Canada at the JTB and Issia Thelwell, senior group sales manager at Half Moon at Ensemble's closing gala. (Pax Global Media)

“It’s the right time to reposition luxury in Jamaica,” Bennett said. “The unique, authentic and bespoke experiences that [luxury clients] are asking for. This is where the [Ensemble] partnership has come out.”

Jamaica is now embedded in the Ensemble universe.

The destination, next June, will host “Beyond,” a new reward and recognition trip for Ensemble members, at Half Moon resort in Montego Bay. 

Out with the old 

Ensemble announced several new initiatives in Las Vegas.

A redesigned member portal, for one, will launch in early 2024, the company is upgrading its “UofE” training academy, and members now have access to a new tool that allows them to build fully-customizable websites.

There’s also 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.

Next year’s Horizons conference, meanwhile, will be held at the new Resorts World Las Vegas from Sept. 16-19.

“Our whole industry has opened back up and everyone's excited,” said Melissa Tolmie at Travel Gurus. “We're excited to grow with [Ensemble] and build stronger connections with suppliers for the future.”

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