When Jack Ezon was in high school, his father used to tell him, “Don’t complain, fix it,” when things weren’t going quite his way. That sage advice has followed the CEO of Embark Beyond throughout his career in travel.
Case in point: Embark, based in New York City, had its one-year anniversary this past March 1 just as the COVID-19 crisis brought travel to a standstill. Business until then had been booming for the young company. Earlier in the year it had finalized its merger with Brickell Travel, bringing annual revenue to about $175 million in pre-COVID sales ($45 million in events / celebrations, $35 million for FIT, $65 million in corporate and $30 million in entertainment). After COVID struck, Embark, like other agencies, endured weeks of chaos, cancelling trips, seeking refunds or trying to get clients home from overseas.
That’s enough to faze anyone, but Embark immediately took on the battle cry that it was time to step up, not down, even though reality was harsh.
“We didn’t stop investing in our future,” Ezon tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “We saw the opportunity. The world was put on hold and, so, we continued to build our foundation even stronger.”
It makes sense that the executive team at Embark, whose client base comprises ultra-high-net-worth international Gen Xers and Millennials, had the wherewithal to pause in a practiced manner. The company, which has 66 in-house advisors (40 on the corporate side, 26 on the leisure and events) and 30 independent contractors, was founded by Ezon, Julie Danziger and Eli Ashear, who had worked together at Ovation Vacations in New York for several years. Carole-Anne Hughs, along with Mitch Rodriguez and Maikel Rodriguez of Brickell Travel Management, which has lucrative air contracts, came on board afterward and together they have formed a formidable management base with experience in navigating the highs and lows of the industry over the past few decades.
One of Embark’s core standards is to “continuously innovate to stay relevant by embracing new ideas and taking measured risk.” There’s no fear of failure as failure can sometimes fuel growth and encourage other successful programs, says Ezon.
Jack Ezon with Brickell president Mitch Rodriguez.
This spirit of “innovative thinking rooted in traditional hospitality” has been a driver in steering Embark through the COVID storm. “Throughout the lockdown, our daily lineup and morning meetings never stopped,” says Ezon. “We continued talking to clients and partners and developed some lucrative programs that helped us thrive, such as designing Frette masks for hotels, a private summer camp program and a mini-moon program for couples who couldn’t take their honeymoon.”
Embark’s events team even chartered cargo planes to ship masks from China to the U.S. while its marketing and events team worked to orchestrate a virtual conference for media and advisors with over 1,500 attendees to help jumpstart travel.
Engagement with the customer during the months of quarantine was a priority and, so, the company hosted Instagram Live safari game drives and cooking classes in Tuscany. It even provided travel-inspired digital download coloring books to clients’ children to keep them entertained.
Many will recognize Jack Ezon easily; he is an industry icon who served as president of Ovation Vacations for 15 years. During that time, he says, the agency experienced explosive growth (100 times grown in annual sales) and Ezon made close industry connections with global industry leaders. His deep-dive quarterly trends reports have become a “must-read” for media and industry executives. He initially created the in-depth reports on where clients are going and what they’re looking to do for his team but fell into sharing them as the industry requested to receive them regularly.
Sharing is part of his essential ethos.
“I do believe equilibrium is a given, and just like a rubber band everything comes back to its natural state. We’ve seen time and again that things bounce back,” he says. For that same reason, during the COVID-19 crisis, Embark has been focused on giving back to the travel community by leading virtual industry roundtables on the travel crisis as it emerged. “Our peer outreach is aimed at bringing people together and inspiring greatness in the travel industry as a whole,” says Ezon.
Laying Embark’s Foundation
It was four years ago that Ezon, Ashear and Danziger recognized the need to build relationships with global lifestyle and fashion brands to open the world up to their clients. Embark was subsequently formed with that cornerstone and currently has relationships with Frette, JetSuite, Jetlinx, Northrop & Johnson and The Core Club.
“These relationships not only deliver qualified new clients but help us position our company and our advisors with the lifestyle of our clients,” says Ezon.
With Frette, for example, Embark created a dream sleep program where it provided all of its clients flying overnight with monogrammed Frette pajamas for their flight and a gift certificate of $1,500 toward their own Frette linens at home. In addition, it’s currently creating a “Dream Sleep” section on its website for clients to find hotels featuring Frette. Frette, in turn, will host in-store travel related pop-ups and jointly market “dream sleep trips by Embark” to their customers, which will drive new clients to Embark’s independent advisors.
Customers today want much more from travel, and their travel advisor, than ever before, he notes.
“The talk with our clients is shifting from what I call conspicuous consumption to conscious consumption, which means, ‘I’m OK to spend, but I want to spend it smartly, and I want it to be purposeful. I want it to reflect what’s important to my life and to have meaning.’ For many people the key thing they are looking for, especially when they travel, is to connect,” says Ezon. “As much as our phones put people together and there’s Instagram and Facebook, people crave human connection. Whether it’s connecting to ourselves, connecting to the people we’re with or the places we go, if we can show how what we’re selling helps people connect in some way to whatever they’re seeking, the possibilities are endless.”
Along with that quest for value comes the fact that clients will put their hand up if they feel something is simply overpriced. “We see people starting to push back on prices that seem to be escalating beyond what’s being reasonable,” says Ezon.
It’s an interesting phenomenon. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, the agency was seeing a huge growth in its celebrations market, and clients were booking trips for up to 100, 200, 300 or 500 people.
“However, that same customer who’ll spend a couple million dollars to do a party will push back to spend $2,500 on a regular room for a small trip if they don’t feel it is a good value,” says Ezon.
That stems from the fact that people have worked hard for their money, but they also simply want transparency in what they’re getting.
“I actually find the more wealthy you are, the more paranoid you are about getting ripped off,” says Ezon.
Sales Training: The Embark Beyond team meets with Cindy Novotny from Master Connections. Delivering five-star service to clients is part of the Embark ethos.
Specializing in the Client
On the other side of the equation, certain clients are looking for Embark to fulfill much more than travel for them.
“It became more about fitting those experiences into clients’ life goals and having broader conversations with them,” says Ezon. “They were looking at luxury travel as part of their overall holistic personal life. Travel is just one word in a sentence that is their private lifestyle. To be able to gain confidence and trust and build that relationship, we need to speak to them about their private life, about them...not just one thing they do in their private life.”
That all comes down to specializing in the client, says Ezon, and that’s what will keep the travel advisor relevant as technology makes transactional experiences more efficient.
How do you get close to your client? “It’s listening to the cues and it’s listening to what people aren’t saying and asking questions that don’t seem intrusive but are probing,” he notes.
“You also need to understand what their priorities are in life outside of travel, because things need to be meaningful for them. We don’t just want to have frivolous trips. Yes, there are times in people’s lives for that, but if you can find out what people value, you can sell anything, because we all know there’s a difference between price and value. But the key to delivering value is to understand what’s valuable to that specific client,” says Ezon.
Program in the Works
Embark Beyond was just rolling out its independent contractor program (IC) in early March and continues to refine it. The company currently has 30 ICs but the plan is to grow the network with the Embark Collective, which allows ICs to qualify to become owners in the company, if they wish. The business model, similar to that of a law firm’s, harkens back to Ezon’s previous career as an attorney. The plan is for the unique model to attract “forward-thinking people looking to stay ahead of the curve while investing in their long-term relevance,” he says. A major component of the tool chest is an educational and resource platform comprising a multitude of insider itinerary planning tips for more than 150 destinations; they actually drill down to specific rooms advisors should request at a property. Restaurant lists, shopping guides and other insider experiences have been exhaustively researched by the Embark team to create the platform.
It lets Embark advisors start off with sample itineraries and cut and paste to customize them. In some cases it provides several hotels in a destination and recommends what type of client a hotel is right for (or not right for). It might provide useful intel such as “Villa No. 7 has bunk beds, so be careful,” or “the view is not good from this room.”
Creative Approach: As part of its annual “staff swap,” Embark’s team members work all departments of a luxury hotel; here they compete for the most creative turndown at The Carlyle, A Rosewood Hotel in New York.
Wholesale and tour partner programs with high margins are also part of the Embark Collective as is the opportunity to tap into the expertise of the company’s marketing and business development teams, so ICs can build their businesses professionally.
Should they go the partnership track, ICs would make passive income from the profitability of the entire firm, says Ezon. That ownership model may one day be available to other travel entities, such as DMCs or technology companies.
A Focus on Service
The Embark executive management team believes that the client’s five-star experience should begin with their travel advisor and, so, they’ve launched Embark Academy, a training program aimed at competing with artificial intelligence, which is maturing rapidly.
“We need to be better than AI. It used to be you couldn’t Google these cool experiences and now you can Google almost any experience, right?” says Ezon. “We need to be those navigators, those advocates and really be a specialist in our customer and pair things well. It’s about how do we pair the best property to the client?” he adds.
The academy has “hard training” that does a deep dive into destinations or products like private jets or topics such as how to issue an airline ticket in the GDS or use the Sabre booking tool. “Soft training” is held multiple times a year and entails non-travel skills, such as selling, anticipating needs, hospitality and critical thinking. To deliver the experience, Embark has partnered with Master Connections Associates, which builds programs for Four Seasons, Aman, Belmond and Mandarin Oriental. The plan is also to roll out a mentoring program.
By all counts, Ezon and his Embark colleagues have a symbiotic relationship. “The biggest message is I might be loud and outspoken, but we’re all partners. It’s not about just me, it about them,” he says.
As they move forward together, he’ll likely intertwine this concept with the “Don’t complain, fix it” philosophy his Dad give him at an early age. “That was always the mantra that I grew up with and it has really helped me grow in my leadership, in my community, and in my company, and in the travel business,” says Ezon.
And, Embark will continue to be more than travel advisors to their clients; they’ll work with them achieve lifetime goals while getting them to where they want to go as the world reopens to travelers.
As they emerge from the COVID crisis, Embark advisors will forge ahead with sales training, keeping abreast of social media and enhancing knowledge of destinations and the GDS. “I don’t know what other agencies are doing, but I say this is not a time for us to go into hibernation, it’s a time for us to come to turbo-speed,” says Ezon. “It’s almost like the gift of time.”
He and his partners will also keep giving back to an industry they love. Their recent “New Travel Conference” was a huge success and Embark will continue to engage with consumer media to promote the ongoing use of a travel advisor.
“Somebody’s got to take the first step and say, ‘Guys, you’ve got to do something.’ We can’t all be looking on the sideline. Somebody’s got to get us all together. I don’t care if we’re competitors or even friends. We need each other now,” says Ezon.
Ezon says, “We need to give as much as we hope to get back.”
Embark Beyond’s Partnership Strategy
Jack Ezon says that Embark’s general concept is “to transition from Me to We — by aligning interests, its partners are incentivized to help each other and grow teams and resources for the greater good of the company, which ultimately benefits everyone.” Here’s the lineup of strategies for the company:
Partner with associates and independent advisors — with a goal to build their business and not just be a tool provider. Embark puts business and marketing plans together with each independent advisor, which is reviewed monthly by an MBA consultant who ran Fortune 500 companies. “Thinking about business from a strategic level puts our team on a higher playing field from others who mostly have transactional focus,” says Ezon.
Encourage entrepreneurship — Embark’s culture encourages entrepreneurship and works with its associates to fuel new business ideas and marketing opportunities. This way, successful ICs should have an opportunity to own the business and present themselves as more than just a “travel advisor” on their business card when they walk into a meeting.
Partner with brands to grow business — by aligning with brands that speak to the same clients and deliver qualified new business.
Partner with suppliers — “We don’t like being a vendor or buyer in a transaction,” says Ezon. “We aim to be partners helping to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. Many people forget that partnership is a two-way street. We need to give as much as we hope to get back.”
Partner with clients — transcend the transaction: Embark’s philosophy is to look beyond the immediate trip you are working on and build a long-term relationship for your client, focusing on their leisure life beyond travel.
Partner with your industry — practice “co-opetition,” remembering that the rising tide lifts all boats. “If we help elevate our competition with us, our industry will grow stronger bringing us along for the ride,” says Ezon.
Headquarters: New York City
Top Management: Jack Ezon, Julie Danziger, Eli Ashear, Ennio Gonzalez and Carole-Anne Hughs, along with Mitch Rodriguez and Maikel Rodriguez of Brickell Travel Management
Advisors: 66 in-house advisors (40 corporate, 26 leisure and events) and 30 independent contractors