Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Inspirational. That’s what I’ve been hearing from Ensemble members when I’ve asked them to describe this year’s Ensemble Travel Group conference, taking place in Seattle. With the overarching theme of Travel With Purpose, the members have been privy to inspirational stories from activist and motivational speaker Spencer West; an eye-opening talk about climate change by Brett Tollman, chief executive of The Travel Corporation, a leader in sustainable tourism through its The TreadRight Foundation; and a lively chat with husband and wife team Alley and Scott Svenson, who founded the Seattle Coffee Company as well as MOD pizza, whose mission the couple say, is to create positive social impact in the lives of employees and their communities.

Adding to those inspiring stories was the announcement that Ensemble Travel Group would be the first consortia to offset its carbon footprint through a new parternship with the non-profit organization Cool Effect. That, advisors told me, made them truly proud to be an Ensemble member and noted that it’s a game-changer. The conference has been so inspiring for all attendees that last night, during the conference’s black-tie gala, one preferred supplier who shall remain nameless told me this was the best Ensemble conference they’ve ever attended.

Ensemble Travel Group’s CEO David Harris, and Cool Effect’s director of marketing Jodi Manning.

Perhaps, although if you know him you’d know he’d never take credit for it, part of the conference’s success is due to its new CEO David Harris, who started in this position just a few months ago. During his remarks at the opening general session, Harris spoke about his plan for Ensemble, including the five fundamental pillars: Build skills and training; create unique product offerings; innovative partnerships; analytics that create efficiency; and a holistic approach.

In regard to “skills and training,” Harris said, “we will build more education opportunities so you have the means to improve your operations and selling skills. Profitable, long-term growth starts with developing the skills our agency owners and advisors require. This is evidenced by the evolution of our U of E platform, along with our significant partnership announcement with ASTA, and The Travel Institute in which Ensemble is leveraging its partnership to bring developmental skills to our members.”

Touching on unique product offerings, Harris pointed to how Ensemble is “working diligently to provide members with merchandise product packages that only you offer. Giving you the tools, offerings and access to build those unique ‘stories’ and itineraries—for your clients. So if your client wants to travel to a remote island off New Zealand, our tools will allow you to share the kind of advice and special touch you can give clients directly and in real time…that an OTA or app cannot.”

To improve supplier partnerships, the consortia has hired a new vice president of supplier relations who will start with the organization on Nov. 12. The fourth pillar, analytics, said Harris is one of the most important, because, as he mentioned “data is king. We can give you a lot of power by giving you access to information across the entire membership, showing you new ways to analyze that data. And to validate our commitment to this pillar, we now have three analysts working in this area. Whether it’s layering in member reporting, supplier sales info and purchase behaviors…or giving you the tools to plan your business more effectively, we’ll be focusing on trend analysis and ROI for every initiative.”

And lastly, when speaking to the “holistic approach,” Harris noted that “Ensemble needs to provide value for those members and suppliers that is truly holistic. As much as we are going to do to tap the full value of our organization, we need to represent more than just a check to you.

The whole premise of our relationship is that we provide you with services that you often can’t obtain on your own.”

After his opening remarks, we took a few minutes to chat with Harris, who touched on the Travel With Purpose theme as well as the importance of travel advisors being good storytellers, which he had mentioned during the opening remarks as being crucial for success.

Paloma Villaverde de Rico (PVR): Why is this year’s theme, Travel With Purpose, and sustainable tourism as a whole so important in terms of the travel industry?

David Harris (DH): Having been someone who’s worked in the industry for as long as I have—over 35 years—it’s impossible not to appreciate or understand the magnitude of just what travel and tourism means to climate and sustainability. I recall being under a 747 in Toronto on the ramp with Air Canada and the dialogue was around the stats…. The stat I recall most prominently is that a 747 will burn more jet fuel from the time it leaves the gate until the end of the runway before it takes off then I will burn in my car in a lifetime. So you can’t help but wonder what the overall impact is to society and the globe and climate change. Travel and tourism is the number one employer of people in the world, so in terms of its relevance and significance, we can’t ignore this any longer. Obviously, there’s a lot of talk about this publically now, everyone is getting on board with this and it’s time that our industry does, too.

PVR: What have you heard from the members on the theme?

DH: When you hear from someone like Brett Tollman from The TreadRight Foundation, and you see what they’ve invested and some of the benefits that are coming from those investments, it’s hard for people not to sit up and take notice. The buzz that I’m hearing is that they are appreciative for the need to be a participant and a contributor and not just paying lip service to something that is this significant.

Hopefully there will be impact. It’s too much in its infancy to be able to quantify what the benefits will be in the longer term, but to at least acknowledge that we should be doing something is the first and most important thing to do.

PVR: During your talk at the opening general session, you spoke about storytelling and the importance for travel advisors to be good storytellers. Can you speak to that in more detail?

DH: I can say as a former agency owner, that personal connection is the one thing that connects consumers with an advisor. Whatever that is to be able to tie something personal into that—whether it’s some place that an advisor has been to and that a customer is interested in, or even if it’s sharing a personal challenge…to be able to share those personal situations with a customer will endear that customer. It has to be done appropriately and there’s a skill to that, of course. I think the vast majority of our members and advisors are appreciative of the fact that we can no longer be order takers. Even being asked for a particular product and just delivering that product without them talking about all the other things that they can be doing to enhance the value of that trip, whether it’s an upgrade, or travel insurance, or excursions, or different elements or components to that trip, will add not only massive value for the customer and further endear them to that agency, or advisor, but also ensure the advisor and the agency is maximizing their potential ROI on that transaction. It becomes a win-win.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a group client, a leisure client, or a corporate client, the same skills apply, and if it’s done properly it becomes the base for growing that business. One of the operational things that was a part of my former business was that after a trip was completed by a client, our advisors were required to follow up on the trip by asking questions such as ‘How was the trip? You know anyone else who might like that same trip? or What can we be looking for you in the future, or do you have others that you can refer to us?’ These are things we are training our advisors with through our U of E programs at Ensemble. These are selling skills, and we’ll assist them to be better at what they do and that endears them to us, which is the goal at Ensemble.

For more information on Ensemble Travel Group, visit