|Ellen Bettridge with the team at American Express’ travel office in Cambridge’s Harvard Square. Bettridge says the office serves as a testing ground for new American Express Travel initiatives and programs.|
Ellen Bettridge leads the American Express Retail Travel Network by, above all, being a partner.
Wanted: “A Girl Friday.” It sounds like the title of a detective pulp, but for Ellen Bettridge, vice president of the American Express U.S. Retail Travel Network, those three words helped launch her career in the travel industry. The curious phrase was actually a job advertisement Bettridge answered after moving from Spokane, WA, to New York at age 22. “It was for a travel agency called Better Travelers in Mamaroneck, NY,” Bettridge tells Luxury Travel Advisor, as we sit overlooking the Statue of Liberty on the 36th floor of World Financial Center in downtown New York.
As high up as we are, it doesn’t quite rival Bettridge’s seemingly meteoric rise in the travel industry. She never acknowledged wanting a career in travel; rather it appears to have found her. “When I got on the plane in Spokane, my dad said, ‘I don’t think you’ll ever come home,’” Bettridge says. She was right. After receiving tutelage at Better Travelers, Bettridge applied for a job with American Express and became an agent at its office in Stamford, CT. Within two years she was named a Pacesetter, the recognition awarded to top-producing travel professionals across the American Express Representative Network.
Her experience working as a travel agent gives her the credibility—and knowhow—needed to lead a network of travel agencies. After all, to gain respect, you first need to earn it. “I learned and know exactly what the travel agent has to actually do,” Bettridge says. “I get what they have to go through. So, before I put out a new marketing or training program, I know how they will take it in. I’m equipped to walk in their shoes, because I have.” She still reaches back to her travel agent days for motivation. “The thing I really took to heart is: operating as the underdog, I always need to work harder than the next person,” she says. “I live by that everyday.”
Now, in her current position, which she assumed in July 2007, Bettridge oversees the growth of American Express’ company-owned U.S. travel service offices as well as sales, account management, card integration and product development initiatives for AmEx franchises or U.S. representative offices.
We ask Bettridge if there is a fine line between American Express-owned offices and rep offices. “With owned offices I am their boss; from the franchise’s perspective, I am their partner—someone they depend on and look up to,” she responds. With that responsibility comes plenty of travel. Bettridge is on the road constantly meeting with rep offices (she also meets four times a year with an advisory board). “I try to figure out what they need to succeed,” she says.
One of the more ingenious, yet simple, initiatives was “Pay With Points,” a program which allows American Express cardmembers to spend their membership rewards at both American Express-owned travel offices or at U.S. rep offices. Not only has it helped drive revenue, it’s also spurred new business. “We can drive new customers to someone with the program,” Bettridge says. “Not most other folks can say that. It has been particularly great during these challenging times because it gives people the opportunity to easily redeem points for vacation. This year, we see people using their points to upgrade more. It gives us more reason to teach agents how to upsell.”
It appears American Express agents have gotten the point. Bettridge recounts the story of a travel agent in an American Express-owned office in Pasadena, CA, who booked a Centurion cardmember on a South Pacific vacation. The itinerary included pre-arranged meals, tours, activities—notably a dinner at La Villa Mahana in Bora Bora, a small exclusive restaurant with only five tables. In this case, membership definitely came with privileges. It seems that the traveler had a friend on the trip, who didn’t book through American Express and, consequently, was shut out of many places and activities. “The cardmember actually called his agent, asking if she could pull some strings and gain access for his friend,” Bettridge says. The agent, Sharon Lee, made some calls to various contacts and general managers and—voila!—the friend was in like Flynn. (Lee also gained a new client.)
Indeed, Bettridge has focused on the luxury traveler—through Gold, Platinum and Centurion card initiatives. “Look at our supplier roster,” Bettridge says, listing off Abercrombie & Kent and Regent Seven Seas Cruises among others. “It starts there—that’s who we want agents to be selling.” Making sure agents know how best to sell these suppliers comes down to training. American Express’ On Demand training tool can be relied on. “It allows agents to understand the products as well as the benefits of being an AmEx cardmember,” Bettridge says.
As important as training is for agents, putting it into practice effectively is key. “It’s about being a consultant,” Bettridge says. “Luxury is totally in the eyes of the beholder. Our consultants need to figure it out with each customer and take each up to the next level. A traveler might be in one luxury place at 30 years old, another when they are 50 and so on as their income or style changes. You need to understand the customer.”
Another thing Bettridge recognizes is how and where to build the network. That’s where the power of the American Express card comes in. “It’s about being where our cardmembers are,” she says. Undoubtedly, American Express Travel’s ace in the hole is the power of its brand. Leveraging the strength of the American Express card is a large part of Bettridge’s strategy. “We want access to affluent cardmembers, which we can, in turn, drive into agencies,” she says. “I’m always paying attention to where our cardmember base is growing.”
|The American Express U.S. Consumer Travel Network. Top row: Christopher Besendorfer, vice president, online travel; William Dyer, director assistant; Laurie Farquhar, vice president, customer experience and service capabilities utility; Ellen Bettridge, vice president, retail travel network; and Steve Gorga, president, Travel Impressions. Bottom row: Claire Bennett, senior vice president and general manager, and Audrey Hendley, vice president, marketing and strategic partnerships.|
When targeting a particular agency, Bettridge looks for leadership, but above all else, a true partner. However, the questions she always asks are, “Is it where our cardmembers are? Will it be a win-win when we market there for new business?” While American Express is a household name, Bettridge is clear that growing the network just for the sake of getting bigger is not her aim. “We are not about being the largest,” she says. “We want to be tight and work forward together. We’re more successful that way.”
In fact, last year alone, American Express closed 16 offices and sold 12 others. For Bettridge, it’s really about being in the right places, like they are now with locations on such esteemed streets as Park Avenue in New York and Market Street in San Francisco. American Express is also roping in some rather high-end, high-revenue-producing agencies. In April 2009, Altour became part of the American Express Representative Network via a strategic joint program whereby Altour’s services will supplement the products and programs American Express already makes available. Later that year, in October, Altour acquired 12 previously American Express-owned offices. The purchase of the offices by an agency in the rep network was, indeed, an anomaly, Bettridge says. “We spoke to many suitors,” she says. “But it worked out great. One of my goals was to try and keep these offices as American Express.”
“It’s one of best things we’ve done,” says Alexandre Chemla, founder and owner of Altour. “When we joined American Express, we thought it would be bureaucratic, but they are flexible—ready to move.” And what of Bettridge? “Ellen is the driving force moving the network in the right direction,” Chemla says. “They have an entrepreneurial spirit.”
Bettridge says she is “absolutely” interested in augmenting the network with more luxury travel agencies. “We look at it as being partners,” she says. “We want to be the best, and agencies who join must truly be engaged.” American Express brought on eight new agencies this year. One of the most noteworthy being Directravel in Mahwah, NJ, which has more than 300 travel professionals and is one of the bigger corporate travel management companies in the U.S. “You could be with Virtuoso, Signature, Ensemble, Vacation.com, but we show them the services we have to offer and we’ll share with them so they can make their own decision,” Bettridge says. One of American Express’ rules is that their rep agencies can only be American Express-affiliated. “It’s a conscious decision,” Bettridge says. “We don’t want part of your business, we want it all.”
While growing the network at a brisk but scrupulous pace is key, one of Bettridge’s crowning achievements was the June 2009 opening of an American Express-owned travel office in Cambridge, MA, right in Harvard Square, which Bettridge promises is taking retail leisure travel services to a new level. There’s a cardmember lounge, unique virtual technology and special travel offers and events—in addition to service from American Express’ travel agents.
While walk-in is a very large part of American Express Travel’s business, steps have been taken to build call-in and click-in options as well. “We found our customers want to do all three, so we have to make sure we have services across all platforms,” Bettridge says. Its Fine Hotels & Resorts program was recently put online. For Platinum and Centurion cardmembers, the program has a slew of benefits: 4 p.m. checkout, $100 F&B credit, room upgrade when available, daily breakfast. It’s about a $450 value, which more than pays for the Platinum card’s annual fee.
American Express is also launching a new advertising campaign to underscore the value of being a cardmember. It’s about making sure cardmembers don’t leave anything on the table when they are booking a vacation. “We think it’s a great time given the travel industry is coming back after a tough year,” says Claire Bennett, senior vice president of the American Express U.S. Consumer Travel Network. “The timing is great to take advantage and remind customers of the benefits of booking with American Express Travel. We’ve had cardmember ads focused on travel, but never had travel-specific messaging focused on the consumer.”
All signs point to a travel comeback, but even when times were bad, American Express made it clear that being a good partner meant devising quick, practical fixes. “During the downturn we listened,” Bettridge says. “We made a bold step in the fourth quarter of last year and reduced our fees by half. My message to the network was, ‘we are all going through this together. How do we get you more customers?’”
During the rough times, many American Express agencies took it upon themselves to jumpstart bookings. One of the more cagey moves was made by Travel Authority in Louisville, KY, which instituted something called “5x12,” whereby each agent was instructed to call five people by noon each day. “It spread like crazy to other agencies,” Bettridge says.
Ingenuity like this has paid off. Bettridge tells Luxury Travel Advisor that the average American Express agency produces $25 million in sales, up from $11 million five years ago. In 2009, $875 million in new sales were brought to the network. “Our business is close to hitting 2008 numbers—it’s off only by 4 percent for owned offices,” Bettridge says. “My goal is to be back to 2008 levels by the end of this year.”
Injecting the travel industry with younger blood is also core to the survival and success of the travel industry. It’s also a new direction for American Express Travel, which has instituted a travel agent research assistant program, with an aim toward “bringing in young, bright, creative people that might not have travel in their background.” The travel agent research assistant (TRA) is given a year’s worth of training shadowing a travel counselor. In fact, one TRA, hired in the Cambridge office, was discovered in a Starbucks across the street. “It helps our top performers, too,” says Bettridge. “They can always use an extra hand. Plus, we are always looking to build our bench.”
Bettridge says she is looking to expand the program. Right now, it’s only being administered through the Cambridge office and through Centurion member agencies, whom Bettridge personally meets with every year. The research assistant program will be rolled out to all representative offices at the American Express Representative Travel Network Conference, September 26-29, in Phoenix.