Published on Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Boosting travel agent engagement with The Travel Corporation Velvet Collection

In conversation with TravelMole publisher, Charlie Kao, Ellen Bettridge, Global CEO of Uniworld, discusses the philosophy behind new integrated luxury multi-brand sales division TTC Velvet Collection and what it means for travel advisers.



TravelMole: What is the Velvet Collection?

Ellen Bettridge: During this down time, we took an opportunity to look at our businesses and I think the one thing about TTC that always holds true is that they're continuing to look at their businesses and evaluate them, and figure out how do we best support our travel advisors so they can best support our customers.

So what we did is we brought together all the premium and luxury sales teams for African Travel, Red Carnation, Uniworld, Insight and Luxury Gold. We looked at all of their sales teams and we looked at who were they servicing today, and we saw an amazing overlap. So we saw that 56% of the time, we're all visiting the same travel agencies. Talking to the same people, so it's an opportunity for us to have to look at how we have really a strategic account manager overseeing those accounts.

Then we took the smaller accounts that maybe only give us one or two bookings a year, and we're going to provide them with the support of what's called the Partner Services Coordinators. We have a team of them that sit here in Los Angeles and they're from all the different brands. They're all cross-trained as our district strategic account managers so that they can best service our advisors. Now, the other thing that we did, that's absolutely one of the things we probably should have done years ago, is we looked at our sales force data. There was never a place where they all interject together to be able to look at an account holistically.

So now we're looking at those accounts from one view, and that's from the Velvet Collection view. So together with our sales force data, they can actually go in and use the strategic training that they've received, something, we call CSP (Consultative Selling Process) and they'll go in and they'll talk with that agency about, "Oh, I see, last year you sold so much Red Carnation, so much African Travel, wait a minute, why aren't you selling Uniworld?"  And so it's an opportunity for us to open the doors and have new conversations with people and to drive more business for both them and for us.


TravelMole: That makes so much sense

Ellen Bettridge: It does make sense. And that's the thing about it. I think that even if there wasn't Covid, this makes so much sense.  When I saw that 41% of the agencies sold only one brand, that's was it. So, yes, you had 59% who sold more than one brand, and if you just move that number slightly, just think about how much more business we can have and actually deepen the relationship.


TravelMole: What might be the new normal for luxury travel and how will you help the travel agents be ready for that, whatever a new normal is for luxury travel?

Ellen Bettridge: I think you have to have advisors who are willing to go with it. They've got to be willing to change and to adjust their strategies as they move forward. I think they're very smart to pick a partner. To have a partner that they fully understand every aspect of what they're doing, have a strong communication and a strong relationship with those partners. Maybe it will not be all things to all people. Maybe a little more specific as to how they're best supporting their customers, through an organization like TTC, where you actually have the best of Uniworld,. You're able to offer them a credible African safari. You're able to give them beautiful hotel stays.


TravelMole: How are bookings doing for 2020 or even 2021?

Ellen Bettridge: Obviously 2020 is coming down to a slow end. Here at Uniworld, we are still hoping to operate a few voyages in Egypt. So I have quite a few passengers booked for the holiday time in Egypt and we're working very closely with our partners to figure out how we can make that happen if it's the right thing to do. So it's just really assessing all the different points. So we're making that decision very shortly. But then I look into the next year and, from a river cruising perspective, we're very fortunate because we don't really get started until the end of March.

So we have a few months to take a deep breath, get everything in order, across our ships, we're actually spraying all our ships with something called premium purity and it's across the Red Carnation hotels as well. So this is actually a coding that goes across all of the services that actually helps to create a self defense against bacteria, spores, viruses sticking to surfaces, so we're going to be doing that. Then of course, we're going to have, the temperature checks and we have people wearing masks and doing the social distancing. I look at bookings and I don't think our customers are too afraid, 2021 looks actually quite strong, especially starting, probably around June. I look at 2022 and we had never even been opened this early before so I'm very pleased at 2022.


TravelMole: African Safari tours: I would think they would make people feel safer because they are smaller groups kind of traveling in a bubble by themselves.  Has that come to fruition? Is that what consumers are thinking?

Ellen Bettridge:  I'm glad you brought up the bubble travel idea because I agree with that, but I actually see it across all of our brands. When you're on a coach, you've only got 40 passengers on that coach, that becomes your little bubble. When you're on a river cruise, the average is 130 passengers, and that ship is always close to land. It's the same people that you're with the entire time on our ships. We're also so fortunate because we have more than one dining venue, therefore we can actually ensure that we do have the social distancing that's necessary. I actually think river cruising is going to come back strong. I agree with you on African Travel as well because once again, it's that little bubble, it's a small group of people going out together who are traveling together. Whether it's on coaches, whether it's on our ships, African safaris, all do create that bubble travel, unlike some of the other very large travel vessels that are out there.


TravelMole: What's happening at Red Carnation hotels. Have they been open and what's going to happen in the coming year?

Ellen Bettridge: They're having kind of a staggered opening. In South Africa, the properties are open and doing very well and incredibly busy. There's a few open in London. The one in Switzerland is open. So they're slowly opening and the great news is that guests trust us. If you stayed at a Red Carnation or you've been on a Uniworld Ship, you know the level of service and the level of care that we put there, and it really comes from our incredible team of people. They're our family and we take such good care of them and they want to take care of our customers. They're all desperate to go back to work and we've done our very best to take incredible care of them during this time.


TravelMole: Tell me more about the Luxury Gold brand.

Ellen Bettridge:Luxury Gold is probably a little notch above Insight, Vacations. They're smaller groups, a little more intimate. They're staying in destinations a little bit longer and it's really about how they have more exclusive experiences within a destination.


TravelMole: And the mode of transportation?

Ellen Bettridge: It varies, it could be a train, it could be a coach, it could be private cars. It all depends on how many are in the group and where they're going.


TravelMole: And from the food standpoint, is there an angle to that with Luxury Gold?

Ellen Bettridge:  So the food is about finding the most amazing restaurants that they can find along the way unlike the Uniworld Ship or Red Carnation where we control every single aspect of it within our little bubble. We have on board the Uniworld Ships outstanding food, driven by Mrs.Tollman. So we think of the Red Carnation as floating Red Carnation hotels, which is something I'm incredibly proud of.


TravelMole: Including the interior design?

Ellen Bettridge: Absolutely. Please go on our website and take a quick look and you can see the most incredible ships that we've built, We just launched a new ship, actually. She's going to be down in Italy spending most of her time in Venice, but then spending a night over in Burano. People will be able to go up to the river from there, to get to Bologna, and come back to Venice. The ship is then docked on the other side of Venice. You're really are right in the heart of it and the views that you have from the ship, looking at the city are amazing.  This new ship is very special.


View interview here

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