On the success Express

EXPRESS Travel Group (ETG) has had a strong year, with ongoing growth within its italktravel & Cruise, Select Travel Group and Independent Travel Group brands continuing to drive strong performances in terms of passenger numbers, TTV and supplier sales. CEO Tom Manwaring told attendees at last month’s Independent Travel Group Forum in Shanghai that overall revenue was up 11%, on a 5% uplift in passengers indicating higher air yields — partly due to a significant shift towards sales of premium cabins across the business. Average gross domestic airfares transacted by ETG were up 7.6% year-on-year, while international fares rose 5.9%, he noted.

Over the last year 32 members had joined the group, comprising a total of 58 additional outlets boosting overall agency numbers to 756, Manwaring said. “Clearly they’ve found something good about what we do,” he added. Europe was a key area of growth, with the Independent Travel Group and italktravel now comprising almost 60% of ETG’s sales, versus 40% for the more Asia-focused Select Travel Group. Hotels TTV has soared 47% in the last financial year, while cruise sales are up 31% across the group — just ahead of touring which saw a 27% increase.

A range of key initiatives were unveiled during the conference, including a revamped Express Rewards program which is being replaced by Express Incentives — a smartphone-based solution allowing members to receive payments directly into an electronic wallet. Rolling out in February 2019, Express Incentives provides full app-based transaction history, with contactless transactions and funds available immediately. Also new for ETG is a fully enhanced Express Academy training facility, which now offers a range of specialist pathways to enhance the skills of consultants in relation to destination knowledge, fares and ticketing, customer service and supplier information. The platform, detailed by ETG’s agency support centre manager Alisha Dopper, also allows agency managers to create teams and leaderboards, tracking the progress of staff.

ETG is also revamping its membership structure, with agencies classified as Ruby, Emerald, Silver, Gold and Diamond and a range of benefits such as membership fee discounts, access to digital in-store displays, ticketing rebates, a “refund bank” and more depending on TTV and sales growth each year. The launch of a new booking engine by sister company Creative Cruising was also a highlight, with the Odysseus-based platform incorporating a cruise comparison tool enabling consultants to review up to six sailings side-by-side. Creative Cruising also offers live bookings with a range of cruise lines alongside wholesale and retail airfares, live hotel inventory and exclusive package deals. Another major new offering from Express Travel Group is its Express Pay platform, offering users the ability to transact credit card payments on behalf of clients with the full protection of the AFTA Chargeback Scheme protecting agents against chargebacks in the event of supplier failure. Agents are also able to incorporate a B2C version of the system onto their own websites, allowing clients to make payments 24/7.

Finally, italktravel franchise agents were given a sneak peek at a brand new itinerary building platform. The system enables a travel consultant to simply input a start and end point, with a smart algorithm automatically creating and pricing dynamic itineraries using preferred partner content for travel consultants to present to their clients. The Australian-built platform uses client preferences to tailor-make a package, with elements such as a river cruise, accommodation, touring, self-drive or any combination thereof. It will be available to the wider Express Travel Group network in 2019, with Manwaring quipping that the innovation was “probably the travel industry equivalent of what Elon Musk and Tesla have done with revolutionising the electric car!”

The Independent Travel Group conference also featured plenty of conviviality, including a personal appearance by Wendy Wu Tours founder Wendy Wu, who brought her 81-year-old Shanghai-based mum along to see what the fuss was all about. The Travel Corporation, which affirmed a multi-year sponsorship deal and enhanced support for the Express Travel Group, sponsored a fabulous opening night cocktail party, while suppliers pulled out all stops for a product marketplace and “speed training” sessions. The gala dinner on Saturday night was sponsored by Expedia, and featured a range of awards for top achievers.

Next year Express Travel Group will for the first time host a combined conference for italktravel, Independent Travel Group and Select Travel Group members in Bangkok from 15-18 August.