Signature Ascending

Alex Sharpe was named president  and Ceo of the Signature Travel network in September 2013.
Alex Sharpe was named president  and CEO of the Signature Travel Network in September 2013.

It’s just over a year now that Alex Sharpe, president and CEO of Signature Travel Network, has been in his executive position, leading a network of 195 member travel agencies that generate a collective $6 billion a year. The agencies, comprising 442 locations in the United States and Canada, and now Brazil, use the cooperative for its marketing, technology and member service programs. And while Signature has been around since 1956 (it started as a West Coast consortia before expanding dramatically), one could say 2014 generated the most intense changes for the network.

That’s because the organization lost its long-time leader of 22 years, Michelle Morgan, who passed away last September following a long battle with cancer and succumbing subsequently from complications that stemmed from a bone marrow transplant. Just days later, Sharpe, then Signature’s COO, stepped into the role of president and CEO as Morgan’s hand-selected successor.

We caught up with Sharpe and Signature’s executive vice presidents, Ignacio Maza and Karen Yeates, to delve into how Signature has evolved over the past 12 months.

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“This whole last year has been about engagement,” says Sharpe, who has been traversing the country to meet with Signature’s member agency owners face to face.

If you know Sharpe and his down-to-earth, affable and outgoing personality, you won’t be surprised to hear he’s been on the circuit, but do not doubt that his motivation for the travel was clear, to get up close to his members, many of whom had seen Morgan as their personal mentor, cheerleader and hero.

“There’s a huge void when you lose someone like Michelle. She tied everyone together,” says Sharpe.

Flash Back: Michelle Morgan passed away on September 17, 2013. Though her serious illness led her to a path of long-term treatment in Houston, her passing surprised everyone. All assumed the fierce determination and drive that manifested in every project she took on would eventually lead her back to her former life as a devoted mother, grandmother and the leader of Signature.

Sharpe recalls at first feeling torn when the Signature board named him president and CEO just days after Morgan’s passing. But he couldn’t dwell on emotions, since the group’s Annual Owners Meeting was about to convene in Washington, DC, bringing together the leaders of many of the top travel agencies in the country. There was no question of allowing mere grief to serve as an excuse to cancel the meeting. Morgan wouldn’t have approved of such an act, for that’s not how she had run Signature, moving it forward at times via sheer grit and willpower over her long tenure.

Case in point: In 2001, that same Annual Owners Meeting was set to convene days after 9/11. Not attending probably seemed like a no-brainer to many of Signature’s travel agency owners as they struggled to keep their businesses afloat in a world that was in temporary paralysis; family vacations and corporate travel had come to a dead stop, meaning the travel companies that thrived off such business were facing the quandary of surviving.

But show up they did; they had no choice after Morgan called each agency owner personally and demanded that they attend so as a group they could set the course on how their travel agencies could take on the rugged new landscape.

“She demanded it,” says Sharpe, who in 2001 had not yet joined Signature (he was still in the midst of his 13-year tenure at Regent Seven Seas Cruises)—but he has indeed heard the stories. In fact, he says when Morgan passed away, the many letters and e-mails he received from Signature’s members spoke of what a fighter Morgan was. Comments such as, “She wouldn’t let us quit back then; if it weren’t for Michelle, we wouldn’t even be in business anymore,” were common, he says.

The Signature Travel network Team gathers in Marina del Rey.
The Signature Travel Network team gathers in Marina del Rey.

With the legacy of that fighting spirit in hand, Sharpe as of press time had visited 70 of Signature’s 190 agencies this year and he’s spent quality time with more than half of them through small group gatherings.

We asked Sharpe, who had been with Signature for four years before he was named president and CEO, for a snapshot of what the network looks like today. He sees it as remarkably diverse, perhaps more so than other agency groups, with an array of online, offline and super-luxury agencies in its portfolio. There’s also a good mix of corporate and leisure business. Many are selling “contemporary” travel products, but Sharpe sees many of them growing their business by upselling. “They’re all pushing to sell more deluxe and luxury, and are growing that part of their business, but for some, their foundation is selling, for example, Alaska cruises, and they sell tens of millions of dollars of those. That’s what keeps the lights on. We have to serve them all,” he says.

Growth Toward Luxury

He notes the launch of Signature’s true move toward luxury occurred when Ignacio Maza, executive vice president of the network, who was hired 10 years ago, opened its New York office and launched the Global Hotels & Resorts’ amenities program and an international local guide network that handles customized ground operations for clients. Maza had held executive stints at two major competitors, American Express and Virtuoso, and over his tenure has helped Signature grow substantially from being a primarily West Coast-based organization. The addition of the hotel and land programs alone provided virtual turn-key tools to travel advisors who want to serve luxury clients.

If you attend a Signature meeting, you’ll get the vibe that it’s a tightly knit group of sincere and savvy business owners who truly value the network’s technology, marketing and network services. They enjoy each other, as well. Signature reports that it has a very low turnover rate, perhaps because its agencies are carefully chosen to ensure they’re a good fit. It tends to not grow membership organically as it has a required threshold of $2 million in annual net revenue with its preferred cruise, tour and destination suppliers to even be considered for membership. In fact, Signature signs just 10 agencies a year, turning down the approximate five to 10 monthly applications it receives.

“It’s got to be a good match,” says Sharpe, who recalls Morgan telling him on his first day on the job that he could sign any agency he pleased, but he should know that he was “the person who would be standing on stage introducing them to our membership.”

So what’s a good fit for Signature? An agency that meets its membership requirements must want to embrace the network’s programs, including its marketing and technology initiatives. Barring that, the network won’t be able to grow the agency’s sales and, as a result, the agency would not provide any benefits to Signature’s cooperative business model.

Alex Sharpe addresses the network in las vegas after michelle morgan’s passing.
Alex Sharpe addresses the network in Las Vegas after Michelle Morgan’s passing.

If they’re game, “and if we plug them in to our technology and marketing and our supplier relationships and we grow them, they get their fair share and everyone else gets more because we achieve more of our supplier goals and overrides,” says Sharpe. “That’s what we’ve seen. New agencies that have robust databases that can be plugged in to Signature’s direct-mail program, its consumer publication distribution and its e-mail marketing programs, can see their impressions [in the consumer marketplace] increase a thousand fold.”

Earlier this year, Signature added an engagement team to create a CRM (customer relationship management) program for its consultants. Each morning, the network’s team opens the CRM so it knows what it needs to follow up on for each member. “We’re practicing what we’re preaching,” says Sharpe, who reports the network is constantly heralding the benefits that can be reaped when its advisors populate their ClientBase and Res Cards programs with detailed information on their clients so direct marketing programs can be customized to them as specifically as possible. There’s a reason to encourage such detail: Signature reports that it conducts 95 percent of its members’ marketing efforts on their behalf, using the robust data that’s been collected on their clients.

“We tell our consultants they have to engage with their customers and collect all this information because it’s going to make them mightier from a marketing perspective. That’s what this business is all about,” says Sharpe.

Signature is always raising the bar on the technology it delivers to its members. Last year, it introduced the first phase of Client Reach, a CRM program that keeps the advisor engaged with a client consistently after a trip has been booked using a series of e-mail messages customized for each traveler. The customized prompting comes from information stored on the client’s Res Cards, which means the more data stored, the more robust the prompting to the client with offers of ancillary services, such as shore excursions and travel insurance. The best part? The advisor receives a commission on those programs sold through the Client Reach sales efforts. The program also prompts final payment reminders, welcome home messages, and requests for referrals and surveys for feedback. That program is being further enhanced (see technology sidebar, p. 64) and meanwhile, other new programs developed by Karen Yeates, Signature’s executive vice president of information technology, and her team continue to be implemented by membership, such as Cruise Track, which automatically electronically notifies a Signature advisor when a cruise booking is eligible for a new add-on promotion or a price decrease. That information allows the advisor to proactively notify the client with the news of an enhanced offer.

Fast forward, a year later, and Signature has just wrapped up its Annual Owners Meeting in Carlsbad, CA, where Sharpe, with the help of other executive leaders at Signature, was able to lay forth the network’s strategy going forward. It has welcomed new members and elected a new board of directors. And perhaps in its boldest move, it has just mandated that its members join ASTA (American Society of Travel Agents), the trade association that serves as an advocate for travel agencies in legislative issues, frequently stopping regulatory obligations that could potentially increase expenses to agency balance sheets.

“ASTA is our trade association. If we don’t support it, who’s going to?” asks Sharpe. The requirement goes into effect January 1.

A Surprise Career Move

Just a few years ago, Sharpe had no idea that he’d be working at Signature, much less leading it. He was happily ensconced at Regent Seven Seas Cruises as the senior vice president of national, key and international accounts, where he managed consortium partnerships, high-volume agencies and international partners. One day, Signature’s Morgan, who had been chatting to him in a motherly fashion about finding life balance and not traveling so much from his home in Fort Lauderdale, where he resides with his wife and three children, broached the topic of Sharpe being her successor. She was 62 and approaching retirement and was once again facing health challenges. Sharpe, completely surprised by the conversation, a few weeks later found himself meeting with Signature’s executive board. By the start of 2011, he had joined the network as executive vice president, overseeing vendor relations for land and cruise, alliance partnerships, member recruitment, and developing strategic sales and marketing initiatives. A year before Morgan passed away, he was named COO. “Her cancer had come back in the form of leukemia. She and the board wanted to make sure there was a clear picture [of succession],” he says.

We asked Sharpe, who still resides in Florida and travels two weeks out of each month visiting Signature’s Marina del Rey offices as well as its member agencies across the country, if after a year of heading Signature he’s found the life balance that “Mama Michelle” Morgan, as he fondly referred to her, wanted him to have.

“There’s certainly value for the days that I am at home, in knowing that at 3:30 my three kids are walking through the door and that I can spend 10 minutes with them and hear about their day and talk about their homework,” he says. He takes great confidence in knowing that Ignacio Maza runs the New York office and that Senior Vice President Karryn Christopher, who runs marketing and supplier relations for Signature, now runs the Marina del Rey office.

Sharpe marvels that over her tenure, Morgan grew Signature’s annual revenues from a combined $30 million to its current $6 billion level, but he admits that his management style differs from hers. “She was brilliant in finding talent and allowing them to manage their area and she was the connection between all the departments. She would give them lots of latitude, but they didn’t mix a whole lot.” Sharpe says his is more of a “distributive leadership” style, where team members, who all have knowledge of the business, have more of a voice across the board.

From our perspective, Sharpe is more than pleased to have the group he works with to move Signature forward.

“I feel like Signature has an incredible bedrock on which we stand,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “It’s an amazing team that complements each other in many ways, with a desire to deliver for our members every day. And most importantly, our members are a vested group of entrepreneurs who will continue to challenge us to stay at the leading edge well into the future. It’s really a great place to be.”

Signature Travel Network

President/CEO: Alex Sharpe

Executive Vice Presidents: Ignacio Maza and Karen Yeates

Offices: Marina Del Rey, CA and New York, NY

Structure: Signature is a member-owned cooperative comprised of 195 member agencies in 442 locations that collectively generate more than $6 billion in annual travel sales.

Website: www.signaturetravelnetwork.com

Ignacio Maza: We’ve Only Just Begun

Ignacio Maza, executive vice president at Signature Travel Network, sees luxury as providing one of the greatest opportunities for the group’s advisors. “There’s the traditional luxury traveler but there’s also the aspirational consumer who might not travel with luxury products all the time, but for certain occasions, nothing but luxury will do, say, if they’re getting married, celebrating an anniversary or taking their family to celebrate a milestone,” Maza says. 

Ignacio Maza opened the newyork office and launched the network’s move to luxury.
 
Ignacio Maza opened the New York office and launched the network’s move to luxury.

Above all, he notes, opportunity stems from the fact that consumers’ tastes have been educated and elevated. “People are savvier than they ever have been before. They’ve had a taste of a premium product, and they want it. They want a certain taste, a certain level of quality. The consumer’s appetite for luxury is bigger than ever.”

To keep up with this demand, Signature has added a number of luxury hotels, destination specialists and tour operators to its preferred supplier mix. For example, Signature reports it is now the largest account worldwide for African Travel, Travel 2 and Ker & Downey.

Then there’s the network’s Global Hotels & Resorts Program, which offers about 850 properties; that’s up from the 150 it launched with a decade ago. Properties, which are selected by a hotel committee of member agencies well versed in the hotel sphere, are contracted to deliver value-added benefits to clients of Signature agencies, such as free breakfasts, upgrades or airport transfers. The program is designed to have good coverage in main destinations such as New York, London and Los Angeles, and to provide a choice in terms of experience, price point and atmosphere. “Not everybody is the same, so luxury has to be delivered in many shapes or forms,” says Maza, noting for example that in Paris, the program includes Le Bristol, which has a very traditional French design and décor, as well as the new Mandarin Oriental, which delivers a more “modern luxury” slant.

“We try to give [our advisors] a choice in pricing and in different neighborhoods, to give them a menu that will satisfy 90 percent of the inquiries coming in,” says Maza, who adds that demand from properties seeking to participate in the program is quite strong.

Traditionally, a physical book format is used for the hotels program (which will hit the market the earliest it ever has, at Thanksgiving). It’s also available on a website with more than 17,000 pages that provide member advisors with all sorts of details and contact information for onsite representatives who can assist in making the Signature client’s stay more personalized. A microsite for the program is about to be launched, making it a snap for advisors to e-mail customized pages from it to their clients.

Maza hails Signature’s sophisticated central database, which is used for its direct-marketing efforts on behalf of member agencies, as one of the network’s greatest assets. That program has been made even more robust by the purchase of data from outside sources that provide a full view of its members’ customers. “Do they own their home? What kind of car do they drive? Do they have children at home? It enables us to be more and more targeted as to who gets what marketing and when,” says Maza, who says that Signature also has a dedicated luxury direct-mail program, which includes luxury publications that inspire members’ clients to travel.

Over the decade, since he’s joined Signature, Maza says the network has very much become a key player in the luxury space.

“In fact, with some of our key accounts, we are either number one or number two. We’re right up there in terms of production and very, very proud of the headway that we have made.”

He concurs with Sharpe that Signature’s major push these days is in engaging with its members. “We’ve always prided ourselves on having a very tight-knit community. Because we only have 195 members, we can wrap our arms around them,” he says. Regional meetings consisting of seminars and workshops across eight cities in North America assist with further engagement, as do a series of recognition programs. The Summit Club for the top 20 member agencies in terms of Signature preferred sales will enjoy an incentive trip to Turks & Caicos in January; the top-producing Horizon Club will travel to China in May. A river cruise on the Danube has been scheduled for next fall for those who cannot travel to China.

“Regardless if you have $3 million in sales or $100 million in sales with Signature, we really try to focus on each member. We understand that one size does not fit all. When we roll something out, we have to be very sensitive that everyone is going to need something different and so we try to create programs that are flexible.”

Along those lines, the network is completely revamping SigNet, its internal website for consultants who will now be able to customize the entire dashboard. “Whatever you want to see, you will see,” says Maza. “Say that you sell only cruises, then only information related to cruises is going to show up on your screen every day. We have 6,000 consultants and every single one of them is different.”

Adding to the mix is Signature’s first member in Latin America, PhD Travel in São Paulo, Brazil. Maza says it’s premature to speak of further international expansion; such moves will be made one step at a time.

He also agrees with Sharpe that new Signature members have to be a good match. “We want people who join to be happy—and stay. It takes so much work as an owner/manager to change affiliations,” he says.

The results of the network’s efforts to create that balance was apparent at Signature’s Annual Owners Meeting in Carlsbad in September. As is the custom, the entire Signature team gathered on stage to hail the executive management of its membership. On this day, the group received a standing ovation.

“If that was not the ultimate tribute, I don’t know what else to say,” says Maza. “It’s humbling to have these owners who are running such businesses give us a standing ovation. It’s love and we love them right back.”

Overall, the entire atmosphere at the meeting was very upbeat, he reports. “The members are feeling very confident about the future. We have had growth this year, but the growth for 2015 far exceeds that of 2014. That’s across the board and particularly for luxury,” he says. “We’re really very bullish about this business. We think that there is nothing but opportunity ahead.”

Technology Reinforces Link Between Advisors and Clients

Karen Yeates, Signature’s executive vice president of information technology, is enjoying the fact that its member agencies are now able to reap the benefits of programs for which she and her team have been laying the groundwork for some time.

Moving to a consolidated single database and constantly pushing to ensure the information on client Res Cards is as robust as possible has not necessarily been a fun process, she recognizes. “It’s great to actually see it come to fruition now,” she says. “Now we can layer in all this amazing technology that will make our members look great and make them so much more connected to their clients.”

Karen Yeates keeps technology efforts keenly focused on end goals.
 
Karen Yeates keeps technology efforts keenly focused on end goals.

Of particular note is the implementation of Client Reach, the CRM program launched in January, which uses the data stored electronically on client Res Cards to automatically prompt final payment reminders, welcome home greetings and requests for referrals. It also “dings” the advisor to offer clients ancillary services such as travel insurance and shore excursions, which are commissionable if sold through the program.

Cruise Track is another new program enabled by the synching of Res Card data. “As new Res Cards come in we’re automatically setting up tracking for them and notifying the agents if new promotions for the client’s cruise have been added or if there have been pricing or itinerary changes,” says Yeates.

If the price of a cruise has gone down since it was purchased, for example, the advisor can ask the client if they want to use the savings to upgrade to a more premium accommodation. Such a capability enhances the value proposition of using a travel advisor, she says.

“They can tell their clients with confidence that ‘this is what we do for you as a service. We belong to an association that tracks this information automatically and we’re acting on your best interest,’” says Yeates, who adds this is especially vital for dealing with affluent clients. “People used to think luxury travelers didn’t care what they paid for a trip, but they absolutely do. They want good value and they want to be sure the person representing them is acting in their best interest.”

Signature has a closed Facebook page for its advisors that has been lighting up with members posting about how much they’ve been able to save their clients using the Cruise Track program, says Yeates, adding that the best part is such posts have been spurring advisors who aren’t yet using Res Cards to ask how they can start doing so.

“That’s so much better than our standing on stage and telling them to use Res Cards,” says Yeates. “Until they hear a real story about how it works, they just don’t have the motivation.”

Still to come for Client Reach will be automated reminders that a passport is about to expire; the advisor will also be reminded through the program to start talking to a client well in advance about where they’d like to celebrate an upcoming special anniversary. Also on the horizon? The ability to send automated messaging to clients whose Res Card data show they’ve been quoted a price for a trip but for whom the sale was never closed.

“The next generation will be able to send messaging to those clients and say, ‘Thank you for giving us the opportunity to provide you with this information. If you book this with us, here are all of the things that you’ll get.’ That’s when we’ll promote things like Cruise Track and other added incentives for them to book with us,” says Yeates. She says this new feature will encourage those advisors who don’t even start building a Res Card for clients until they’ve actually booked them on a trip. “This will be an incentive for them to start building their Res Cards earlier; we’ll be able to track the conversion in sales on those clients for the advisor,” she adds.

In another venture, Signature recently completed a test with Celebrity Cruises that encouraged clients to book promotions that were available only on the ship. “Right before they left on the cruise, we sent them a bon voyage message with a specific promotion and we added to the pot what Signature would give to that client on top of what the cruise line was offering if they booked it onboard,” says Yeates, who says the messaging included follow-up communications during the cruise. “We’ll be working with the other cruise lines to do the same thing,” she adds.

The microsite for Signature’s Global Hotels & Resorts Program also falls under Yeates’ domain and will launch in November (see Maza sidebar. p. 62). The site will be fully responsive, intuitively working on any device, from a desktop screen to a phone. It’s engineered to fully integrate the member’s agency brand and the consultant’s name and photo on every page, which can be e-mailed to the client. The search filter through all of the program’s hotels is very fast, says Yeates. For example, properties within a certain distance of an airport can be searched using the airport code.

To get all this done, Yeates has 11 direct reports; there’s also an outsourced group of programmers. “We have a small but mighty team. I’ve always been careful about getting too big because I want to make sure that we stay laser-focused on priorities. Whenever you get too big, priorities start to spread a little bit. We’ve always managed to stay really tight to what our goal is,” says Yeates. “We may take on new technologies and developments that come into the marketplace, but the bottom-line goal is still the same, which is always about helping to reinforce the relationship between our members and our customers,and helping them to enhance the members’ brands.

Looking ahead, the cornerstone project for 2015 will be an itinerary management app that will enable advisors building FITs to send information in a standardized format to clients. Such trip information is currently being pieced together by advisors from a variety of websites, says Yeates. Two such apps are currently being tested by Signature’s technology committee; when one is selected, Signature will release a licensed version that’s completely proprietary with the network’s content, including the hotel microsite. Client Reach technology will also be layered into the app, Yeates adds, and a total auto-feed of the network’s Res Cards will be implemented.

Through the program, Signature customers will be notified in real time of a trip change; clients will also be able to e-mail PDFs of their itineraries to others. The partner selection will be made by the end of the year and the development process for the app will begin in January.

“It will be great for the consumer, and it will be great for the consultants, too,” says Yeates.

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