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By Jennifer Prendergast

Between April 24 and May 2, Vacation.com played host to almost 1,250 travel agents, agency owners and preferred suppliers aboard Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas for their annual international conference with the theme: Think Bigger.

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Over eight days, attendees participated in five general sessions, had access to over 95 training and information sessions and had two hours to meet and network with each other at the Preferred Partner trade show.

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Like every year, Canada was well-represented with a delegation of 140 agents and suppliers who “always wave the flag extremely well,” according to V.com president, John Lovell.

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At the opening general session, the company revealed its latest news and initiatives that are revolutionizing the way members do business.

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Cruise Holidays Join the Club

Present for the first time at the event were some 102 Cruise Holidays travel agents. Earlier this year, Cruise Holidays’ 200 agencies were integrated into the Vacation.com family, where they will have access to V.com’s direct marketing programs, cruise booking tools, air program and agent portal.

“Cruise Holidays is like a small family,” said Lovell, “But we wanted them to have access to the larger family as well—but still keep up that uniqueness that makes Cruise Holidays’ travel professionals what they are.”

Agent Snapshot

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One strong focus throughout the conference was the launch of Agent Snapshot, a program that went live on April 26, 2015. Agent Snapshot is a revolutionary initiative that allows agents to create their professional profile that highlights their specialties and past-client reviews. Starting in Q3 this year, Vacation.com will be commencing a consumer campaign aimed at referring potential clients to an agent in their area that specializes in the destinations and experiences that they are looking for.

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“Vaction.com has been conducting support and training throughout the year to ensure that agents get their Snapshots completed and published,” explained chief operations officer, Tiffany Glass. This has included hiring a professional writer to create over 600 bios for agents and a staff photographer to take professional headshots at conferences and events.

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A ratings and reviews site has also gone live and it is moderated by V.Com on behalf of the agents, and a template email has been available for agents to send to their clients to request submissions. “We’ve been thrilled with the response,” Glass added. “One agent even has over 100 reviews on her profile.”

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The profiles and reviews are a fast way to generate a lot of content that is needed for organic web search,” Glass explained. Over 800 profiles were completed and ready to go consumer-facing on the April 26 flight date.

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The Millennial Market

Meanwhile, Lovell addressed some of the greatest challenges facing the travel trade right now: “One of the biggest challenges is really connecting the online consumer with the expert offline. Recent studies published in the last 12 months have talked about the renaissance of the travel distribution channel. The consumer is looking for that expert who can give them the professional guidance that they need.

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“The millennials really buy based on reviews. The technology is now available for us to be able to match consumers with the expert guidance they need to get the biggest return on their vacation dollars. But once you start researching, you become confused very, very quickly because everything looks great—so consumers need that professional who can really guide them through the process.”

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Senior vice presided Kevin Weisner weighed in: “One of the unique things about the millennials is that they are looking not at doing the bucket list 50 years from now, they’re looking at doing it today. They need to have the reassurance that they’re getting the right type of product—and they’re perfectly comfortable asking for help.”

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He added that travel agent use is higher among millennials than it is among baby boomers, Gen X and Gen Y.

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Chief marketing officer Stephen McGillivray added: “This generation has grown up on validation. Today trust is at an all-time low. People don’t necessarily trust individuals, but what they do trust are crowd-sourced reviews.”

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McGillivray stated that that the professional travel agents who have built their knowledge-base and expertise working with the baby boomers are now perfectly positioned to help service the needs of this next wave of world travellers.

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To date V.com’s marketing and outreach efforts have been directed towards their members’ existing customer lists. “This is our first push into finding new customers,” added McGillivray. “Even for our vendors, our efforts have essentially been moving share from one line to the other. They’re happy to take it, but they all want the same thing: new customers for these retailers.”

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The goal isn’t to grab consumers right as they’re ready to transact, added Lovell. “The people coming are into the site are looking for help expertise, not a transaction. This will give us the opportunity to demonstrate just how valuable we can be to them.”

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The agents’ response was enthusiastic: “It’s amazing to have the full power and support of Vacation.com behind us; to help us navigate this internet landscape,” said one agent from Toronto.

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During the final general session, it was announced that next year’s conference will be held from May 22 to 26 in Fort Lauderdale—so mark your calendars now.

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