Have a sit down with Alejandro Zozaya, the CEO of Apple Leisure Group—the umbrella company to Apple Vacations, Travel Impressions and AMResorts, among other brands—and you’ll walk away optimistic not only about the company’s very bright future, but also about the future of the travel industry in general and the role of the travel agent within the industry. “I think that in five years,” says Zozaya, “we will still have travel agents account for more than 50 percent of our sales, and that’s a lot of sales. In terms of passengers, we are currently moving 1.6 million, so I think that we will go to 3 million passengers, and I see us having 50 hotels. I see us being the experts in the region—the most important player in the region, Mexico and the Caribbean—in terms of leisure product.”
Take a look at the programs that Apple Leisure Group has launched this year under Travel Impressions, which it purchased early last year, and you’ll see that Zozaya is not just throwing numbers and statements out there—they are committed to the growth of all their brands, because although they initially didn’t truly grasp “the uniqueness of the business of Travel Impressions,” points out Zozaya, “we went from a message of Apple Vacations is buying Travel Impressions to Apple Leisure Group is buying Travel Impressions and Travel Impressions is as important as Apple Vacations.” Yes, he admits, there is an overlap at times with Apple Vacations and Travel Impressions, but there’s clear differentiation, he clarifies. “There are geographical markets that Travel Impressions sells that Apple Vacations doesn’t touch, and yes, when it comes to the Caribbean and Mexico, there is clearly an overlap, but there is differentiation within the product as well. There is a lot of value added that we give on the Travel Impressions side, distinctive promotions that have a different price…[both brands] don’t have the same exact ingredients.” He does point out, however, that sometimes they need to do a better job at training travel agents in the differences within each brand, because there are travel agents who are loyal to each brand, and they need to understand each brand better, so that “the overlap is less confusing.”
When it comes to Travel Impressions, for example, travel agents can now book charter flights as well as Impress Me Deals, which offers an opaque pricing strategy that has been designed to help agents save their clients a bundle provided the client is willing to be flexible when it comes to the hotel choice. The charter flights, or Dedicated Vacation Flights, are point-to-point flights to Jamaica, Mexico, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic via Aeromexico, AirTran Airways, Frontier Airlines and JetBlue available from 24 U.S. gateways. This allows vacationers to spend more time in the resort, says Zozaya, adding that, for a lot of people, including travel agents, “charter might mean lower quality, but this program means traveling on good airlines, with good service, where the customers are coming back happy, so travel agents start to lose their fear of recommending it and they are making money off of it.” The Impress Me Deals, says Zozaya, allows travel agents to sell “a particular type of package without them telling the customer which hotel they will be staying in, just the category. And this opens up short-term bookings. Travel Impressions traditionally has had a longer booking window, but at the same time we can also have a product for those who are booking last-minute in order to increase the volume base and for travel agents to make more money.”
Apple Vacations, meanwhile, added a collection of villa properties to its portfolio at the beginning of this year, targeting upscale travelers and taking advantage of the existing expertise of The Villa Experience. Villas range from 1-bedroom luxury hideaways to a 1,000-acre estate in Tuscany, which can accommodate up to 150 persons. And both companies are offering the Every 6th Passenger Flies Free, offered in conjunction with the tour companies’ risk flight programs. The promotion is applicable to all packages booked in conjunction with Apple Vacations’ Exclusive Vacation Flights or Travel Impressions’ Dedicated Vacation Flights. To qualify, agents must book group stays for a minimum of 20 adult passengers sharing 10 double occupancy rooms by Oct. 31, 2014 for travel Aug. 16 to Oct. 31.
Being up to speed on these programs and the added value they provide consumers is what helps a travel agent break through the crowd, because, as Zozaya notes, “a travel agent can’t be an intermediary any longer, unless he truly adds value. They have to be more destination savvy, and savvy in how to make the overall experience more pleasant and more convenient.”