At last year’s Ensemble Horizons conference in Miami, the 50-year-old former member-owned travel agency cooperative had only recently been acquired by industry giant Navigatr. About 400 members and suppliers gathered to hear the new vision for the company, which executives described as ‘changing all four tires of the car at once.”
Ensemble Horizons 2023 has just wrapped up, and it was an elevated affair, with increased energy, heightened confidence and a little bit of swagger. The tires have been changed, and the Ensemble-mobile is ready to roll.
With advisors and ICs invited to this year’s event – last year was owners and managers only – there were some 850 attendees at Paris Las Vegas. As a truly North American consortium, there was a strong Canadian presence among the group.
A much larger and deeper Ensemble team organized four days of general sessions, supplier presentations, one-on-one meetings, ‘fireside chats’ with leaders, a rollicking off-site party at Brooklyn Bowl and a glittering Moulin Rouge-themed gala dinner and awards show.
There was strong supplier support too, with increased attendance and an enviable array of donated travel prizes.
“Last year we were talking about programs we were planning and developing,” said Ensemble president Michael Johnson. “A year later, we’re talking about things we have delivered, rolled out and executed.”
Johnson’s opening address began with a series of inspirational goals such as: ‘higher hopes,’ ‘better tools’, ‘rising revenues,’ ‘bigger ambitions’ and ‘wider horizons.’ “The goal is to transform Ensemble into something completely new for the industry,” he said.
At the heart of the new vision is technology, research and data, harnessed and interpreted to support the human side of the equation, the advisors who help bring clients’ travel dreams to life.
“People make travel better,” said Johnson. “You’re the facilitators, you’re the magic. Our goal is to push you forward. Our role is to support you, not brand you.”
Johnson describes this year’s Vegas conference as Ensemble’s “coming-out party.” He says the past year was about stabilizing and rebuilding, while the year to come is about growth in areas including tools, training, marketing, technology.
“We want to show our members that we can make a measurable impact on their business,” said Johnson. He pointed to new industry research from Travel Weekly that reveals it takes advisors 11 years to earn the median income of $60,000.
“The economics of selling travel is a travesty. How hard it is to earn a respectable income is insane. That has to change,” Johnson said.
Ensemble is also looking to grow its member base, something that wasn’t a priority over the past 12 months. “We didn’t focus on growth in year one, and that was a controversial decision,” said Johnson. “But I think it was the right one. We’ve delivered on our promises, and now it’s time to grow.”
Coming out of the pandemic, a much leaner Ensemble needed to recruit dozens of staff to equip the company for the future. With the financial support of Navigatr, they sought out the best marketing, technology, data, IT and advisor support people they could find.
“We had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build an all-star team,” said Johnson. “They’re highly competent, true professionals, but they are also warm, authentic people and they’re fun people to be around.”
Senior vice president operations Kristina Boyce is an integral part of Ensemble’s leadership team, praised for her warmth and authenticity as well as her experience and keen intelligence.
Boyce told TravelPulse Canada that a “very busy” year and a pumped-up team has allowed the company to make “massive enhancements” in the services provided to members. The consortium’s learning platform, Universe of Ensemble or UofE, will be relaunched in improved form in the coming days. A completely rebuilt member portal will be launched in early 2024.
“We were still really new last year. We took the time to reshape our programming, enhance our technology. We’re connecting the whole ecosystem to make our travel advisors more efficient and productive,” said Boyce.
“We were in ‘prove it’ mode. Now we’re in build mode. We delivered on every promise we said we would in year one.
The group’s marketing program has also been completely rebooted under the direction of SVP Marketing Shahla Lalani. That includes the impressive Range magazine and a wide variety of other tools to help advisors entice clients. “Our goal is to amplify the tools at your disposal,” Lalani told the Horizons audience.
Ensemble members may not physically own the company any more, but Boyce says they are fully engaged, and full-throated in their opinions.
“Our members are very open with feedback. If they’re not happy, we know it. They want Ensemble to thrive. You can tell from this conference. Everybody’s working hard, present and engaged. They’ve made an investment, they’re here to learn.”
Conversations with Ensemble members from both sides of the border support the assertions of executives that they are delivering what they said they would.
“We feel like a lot of promises were made, and they have fulfilled them and then some,” said Hidar Elmais, President of Alberta-based TravelGurus. “They’re forward-thinking, that’s why we joined Ensemble in 2019. It was member-owned then, but I think it’s actually better now. Decisions are clear and concise. The leadership is more clear. They’re amazing people, leaders and mentors.”
Jeff Oestreich, president of California-based full service agency and host agency Goldrush Getaways, says Ensemble has made tremendous progress since the Navigatr acquisition.
“They have built a team elevated above any other. They have a true passion for the success of members. The best is yet to come.”