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More than 1,100 of travel's most forward-thinking insiders will gather for our annual Skift Global Forum in New York, September 27–28. In just a few years, Skift's Forums — the largest creative business gatherings in the global travel industry — have become what media, speakers, and attendees have called the “TED Talks of travel.”
Skift Global Forum 2018 will take place at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall in New York. This year's Forum speakers include CEOs and top executives from Uber, Airbnb, Delta Air Lines, Hyatt Hotels Corporation, Marriott International, and many more.
If you’re a billionaire, a celebrity, a law firm partner, or a pro athlete, your personal assistant probably has on speed dial a travel advisor at Ovation, a leisure travel agency that specializes in serving elite clients.
The New York-based company plans vacations that can typically cost $2,000 a day in accommodation alone. A couple of years ago, a pair of Ovation clients dropped $1,850,700 on a month-long trip..
Over time, President Jack Ezon has grown the leisure business from $3 million to more than $400 million. Ovation Vacations has been a key brand for Ovation Travel Group, a $1 billion business and the sixth-largest travel agency group in the U.S.
Given his expertise, Ezon has his finger on the pulse of luxury travel trends.
The following conversation will give you a preview of what to expect later this month when Ezon speaks on-stage at Skift Global Forum in New York City on Sept. 27.
Ezon covers below the unusual structure of his new venture, how consultants can thrive in the era of artificial intelligence, the biggest problem facing the travel industry, and why he hires so many millennials.
Skift: This summer Ovation announced some changes. Tell us more.
Ezon: We are sunsetting the Ovation Vacations brand, as I transition away from Ovation to launch a new concept in the luxury travel and lifestyle space called Embark.
Embark is emulating a law firm in structure. Instead of building an independent contractor model, we aim to build a partnership model where forward-thinking travel advisors can become partners in the firm.
Under the plan, all partners will own a piece of our host agency. We recognize the need to give millennial-minded employees a career track to recruit and retain the brightest talent.
Why not treat travel advisors like other professionals – lawyers, doctors, accountants, financiers — most of whom flourish with a partnership business model?
Skift: Will the Embark brand focus on luxury travel?
Ezon: Yes, we will launch focused on luxury travel.
But we will aim to evolve as advisors to our clients, helping them enrich their lives personally – guiding them in finding their purpose, their legacy, their passions and adding zest to their lives. We aspire to help people embark on their journey to greatness however they choose to interpret it.
Already, you see, as we build trust and confidence, our clients have been asking us for things ranging from planning a birthday party to staging an engagement, helping them find an apartment, an interior decorator, or curating their art collection. We see natural extensions of that. We intend to engage lifestyle verticals in providing seamless and trusted experiences for a client’s personal needs and aspirations.
We are so serious about service that one of our partners is Master Connection, the leading training company in hospitality that built training programs for Ritz Carlton, Four Seasons, and Aman. We want to offer similarly intuitive intelligence and flawless high-touch service from the moment our clients call us.
Ultimately, we see Embark as a platform that will partner with other companies like air experts, technology firms, and even local bespoke guide and touring companies. As you can tell, part of my ethos is to stay in my lane and grow through strategic partnerships.
Skift: How is the leisure travel segment changing?
Ezon: For several years we have recognized a shift in the marketplace. Our clients are either becoming transactional and going digital or relying on us more and more for advice.
With the maturation of artificial intelligence (AI) and the massive consolidation on all sides of the travel industry, I am quite concerned about the first group of more transactionally minded clients.
I don’t see a sustainable long-term value proposition for human agents in the transactional space — even in the luxury world.
The latter group is the most profitable. They promise longevity and loyalty, valuing us as a trusted advisor in their lives — often going beyond travel.
Skift: Many members of the next generation aren’t familiar with the value of hiring travel advisors. What have you learned so far about what this customer segment is seeking from Ovation and advisors?
Ezon: Interestingly, our niche has always been focusing on the next generation of luxury travelers.
When I escaped being a lawyer 18 years ago, I was an anomaly in the travel space. Just 25 at the time, I was about 25 years younger than the next youngest travel advisor. I focused exclusively on selling to my generation.
Today we focus on millennials. Last year we launched a trip-planning service for millennial-focused online travel magazine Fathom.
Skift: How old is your staff?
Ezon: The average age of our advisors is 28. And while you may laugh that they are just kids, they come from sophisticated backgrounds, are probably better-traveled than you or even me, and they work their butts off. Some of them are responsible for closing $5 million in business a year by catering to A-list celebrities, royal families, and Fortune 500 billionaires.
Skift: Do the millennials feel entitled?
Ezon: Yes, they are millennials, and they feel entitled. However, with the right incentives — and the right selection of talent— they work 24/7.
Skift: What’s the biggest problem in the travel business?
Ezon: The biggest problem in the travel business, is, despite it being one of the largest industries in the world, we probably have the most antiquated technological infrastructure in the world.
I mean, you should see the faces on some of the youngest, most technologically savvy kids that start working with us. Every one of them is always in denial – always – when they see the blue screen. They just think we are checked-out as an industry to think the GDS [global distribution system] is an acceptable backbone for distribution. They think it’s kinda pathetic.
And then there are the CRM [customer relationship management] tools – or lack thereof.
I think building robust CRMs that can help humans make better decisions for selling and touching – while seamlessly sharing information with our supply partners — is the most critical piece of new piece of technology we, as an industry, need to integrate.
Skift: How else has Ovation Group been investing in the future?
Ezon: We have invested significantly in our Skylark business which is a hybrid model of self-service and human-assisted — and which I think is the future of luxury travel.
Our clients want the benefit of DIY [do-it-yourself] whenever they want, but also want a human to help them decide which hotel in Paris is right for them.
They are overwhelmed by content TMI [too much information]. They want someone to get them to the top of the Eiffel Tower without waiting in a line or to find a scavenger hunt through the Louvre with their kids when it is closed to the public.