The Ensemble Travel Group has two co-presidents, but until last month the consortium founded in 1968 never had a CEO. That all changed with the appointment of David Harris, an industry veteran who sold his Toronto-based travel agency to take on the new position.
Skift talked with Harris to get his thoughts on what’s next for Ensemble, where he will work with co-presidents Libbie Rice and Lindsay Pearlman. Harris already had deep involvement with the consortium, having served as chair and vice chair of its North American board.
“I bring the perspective of having been a travel advisor and agency owner for 35 years, which means I’ve experienced first-hand all the changes and challenges facing advisors,” said Harris. “I’ve been on the ground in the industry for a long time.”
Harris got his start at M. Ross Harris Travel, a leisure-focused agency founded by his parents in 1982. He purchased the agency in 1995, expanding it with consumer-facing brands, including Orion Travellinx and Voyageur Travel.
Travel agency management expert Robert Joselyn of the Joselyn Consulting Group believes that Ensemble was wise to create a CEO position and select Harris. He is also enthused that Terri Jo Lennox, president of Calgary-based Travel Time, became chair of Ensemble’s board of directors last year.
“I see this as a move by Ensemble to get more of the grassroots agencies involved with top management and decision-making,” he said. “These are people who have run travel agencies on a day-to-day basis for many years.”
Better, Not Bigger
Where does Ensemble, which has 850 member agencies in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, stand in the overall consortium landscape?
According to a 2017 survey of consortium membership by Travel Weekly, which found that 77 percent of travel agencies belong to a consortium, Ensemble ranks fourth in membership. With seven percent of agency membership, Ensemble is behind Travel Leaders at 29 percent, Signature Travel Network at 18 percent, and Virtuoso at 11 percent.
Moving up in the membership ranks doesn’t appear to be a big priority for Harris.
“Our goal is to provide the best service — it’s not about being the largest consortium,” he said. “Not every agency business is the right fit for our model. We have a long-standing relationship with our members and suppliers. We want to make sure they are not one of thousands but are integral to our business. It’s about remaining relevant.”
Among Ensemble’s most distinguishing characteristics is that a strong portion of its membership and leadership, including co-president Pearlman, board chair Lennox and CEO Harris, is Canadian. Of its member agencies, half, or 425, are based in Canada.
While Ensemble has also added agency memberships in Australia and New Zealand in recent years, Harris said global expansion is not a major objective. However, the consortium expects to soon announce the addition of a large New Zealand agency.
“Continued growth is important, but we know our greatest strength remains here in North America,” he said.
Speaking as a travel advisor, what does Harris view as the most pressing issues facing agencies, and how should a consortium address them? He noted that training, especially on developing sales skills, has become a bigger priority for Ensemble, a trend that he wants to see get even stronger.
“The travel advisors of 2025 will see even more emphasis on selling exclusive and niche products,” he said. “Specialization is very important. Finding a niche that works for you. It’s a learned skill. It’s our goal to make people better able to leverage and sell into specific areas than they’ve done in the past.”
Harris noted that while most training for travel advisors used to focus on product and destinations, sales training and understanding consumer behavior is now paramount.
“Product information is still important, but customer-centric training has overtaken it,” he said. “Understanding consumer behavior is at the core of travel agency business. Even strong businesses fail if they can’t anticipate consumer behavior.”
Another priority — for Ensemble and the industry at large — should be helping advisors create more consumer awareness of the value they bring to the table, Harris added.
“We need to make sure consumers have a better way to find, distinguish, and leverage advisors’ expertise,” Harris said. “We need to do a better job on educating consumers and in promoting the value of travel advisors.”
One way to accomplish this is to emphasize how much investment is at stake for a travel purchase in comparison to most other kinds of transactions made by consumers, he added.
“The average airline ticket might be $400 or $500 and a tour package $2,000 or more,” Harris said. “So to not have advocacy and support is a risk that most consumers are not prepared to take. They may not even be aware that there is a risk. As an industry we could do a better job in promoting how valuable our resources are in being able to support our customers.”
New Priorities for Consortiums
Joselyn sees a growing emphasis on sales-focused education as a major trend not just at Ensemble, but at consortiums across the board.
“Consortiums used to be all about commissions and negotiating, but now it’s just one of the pieces,” he said. “The education area has really developed, and many have developed their own in-house training programs and technology. They’ve taken over from the old travel schools.”
While a key benefit of joining a consortium to gain access to higher commissions remains, Joselyn noted that sophisticated data technology now enables suppliers to single out the agencies they want to cut the best deals with.
“It used to be that consortiums could negotiate for enhanced commissions on an equal plane, but now suppliers can see who is really selling their product and who is riding on the coattails,” he said. “If I look at any consortium and see that 20 percent of the members generate 80 percent of my revenue, who am I going to focus on? It’s more up to the individual agency than it used to be.”
For many agencies, access to the training that consortiums provide may be the biggest motivator to join one, Joselyn added.
“Training is a huge cost for a small or mid-sized agency, so agencies should carefully consider how the consortium’s training fits their needs,” he said.
Is it necessary to join a consortium? Joselyn believes it is, especially for smaller players.
“It’s kind of a like a hotel not belonging to a larger organization,” he said. “You can do it, but it’s going to be a tough road.”