Apple Leisure Group (ALG) is emerging from its April 2018 merger with Mark Travel Corporation, a little battered and bruised, but stronger for the lessons it learned integrating a large competitor.
At the company’s recent Ascend Conference in King of Prussia, Penn., attended by about 450 travel advisors, executives apologized for persistent customer service issues and gaps in offerings that are now being filled.
But Apple also put on display the vast array of enhanced services the merger has allowed it to offer agents, including a bulked-up VAX VacationAccess booking engine that includes all of the company’s tour brands in one place.
Jackie Marks, ALG Vacations' executive vice president of trade sales and engagement, kicked off the two-day Ascend Conference apologizing for disappointing service levels over the last 17 months.
“It was our challenge to bring together two organizations,” Marks told attendees.
“We had a very difficult year,” she said, compounded by challenges like sargassum seaweed on Caribbean and Mexican beaches, negative media coverage for the Dominican Republic, and the Boeing MAX aircraft grounding.” Those issues forced ALG to shift human capital away from merger integration projects.
But some of the challenges “were self-inflicted,” Marks added, making for a “perfect storm” that caused agents to communicate their dissatisfaction “very passionately at times.”
“We’re grateful that you did,” Marks said. “Why are we so grateful? Because it meant you cared. You took the time to tell us what was broken. You took the time to tell us what needed to be fixed.”
Focusing on upping its operations staff and cross-training customer service representatives on the company’s many brands, ALG has reduced call hold times. “We’re not there yet. We can’t profess we’re over the finish line,” but ALG is “starting to feel the momentum, the changes. We’re excited about 2020 in a way like never before,” Marks said.
Cautious for the future
As a result of the Mark Travel integration experience, ALG vowed to be more cautious as it looks at future mergers and acquisitions, Executive Chairman Alex Zozaya stated during a press briefing.
“We have to digest what we have on our plate,” Zozaya said. “We don’t want to have another huge distraction.” But if a “great opportunity” was to arise, “we will take a look. But we need to be more cautious.”
The Mark Travel integration was “big, tougher than we expected. We have to be careful to not run before we can walk in the right way,” Zozaya added.
While the Mark Travel merger was difficult, said John Hutchinson, ALG leisure group president, the experience also educated ALG about how to absorb a large company, and provided it with better assets for future acquisitions.
“Five years ago, when we bought Travel Impressions and tried to integrate them with ALG, we didn’t have the technology platforms that could help us integrate the brands and inventory. The Mark acquisition brought us that platform,” Hutchinson said.
“What we are excited about, as we work through the issues we had here, is that we will have the platform for us to do more on that front and do it more efficiently than in the past,” Hutchinson said. “It allows us to consolidate other opportunities if they do come along.”
Leveraging expanded resources
Benefits of the merger were on display in a handful of announcements ALG made at Ascend.
For example, Apple announced it will launch in November a new rewards program, WAVES, allowing travel advisors to earn points on purchases across all ALG Vacations brands. Agents can redeem points for Travel Rewards such as hotel stays, airline seats, or VAX air credit, or convert points to dollars loaded into a Virtual Visa account.
The company will reward top WAVES earners via a tiered agent recognition program known as Wavemakers that will provide additional benefits including exclusive promotions; fam trip discounts; up to 300,000 bonus reward points; elite customer service access with dedicated phone line and email contact; and marketing support.
In VAX, the company has added automated inventory requests available to all Caribbean and Mexico groups traveling in 2020 and beyond. Agents also will have the ability to add additional rooms from originally contracted room categories, as well as book pre- and post-trip room nights outside of their contracted room block.
Rooms placed on request will be automatically sent to the travel advisor’s designated “Service Pod” for follow-up action with the hotel, sparing agents the need to email requests. Agents can also add scheduled air or ALG nonstop flights to existing land-only groups.
Additionally, the company unveiled ALGV360, a new online marketing tool offering agents a variety of marketing assets that can be customized with their logos and contact information. The platform also provides social media assets that can be easily used for paid and organic posts.