Signature Travel Network mulls future growth in Australia

US-based luxury travel consortia evaluates best way forward down under

US luxury travel consortia, Signature Travel Network, is evaluating its next move in the Australian travel market, keen to extend its profile down under, building on the recent success of its alliance with TravelManagers and a historic pact with Magellan Travel Group.

Signature Travel Network comprises around 15,000 travel advisors in 450 locations around the globe – the bulk of which are in the United States – and its 270+ member agencies generated more than US$11 billion in annual travel sales. The bulk of Signature’s business comes from cruising, alongside a robust portfolio of 1,200 luxury hotels and resorts worldwide, 90 in-destination specialists and other programs.

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For the last nine years, Alex Sharpe has led the operation as President of the 67-year-old business. Sharpe has been at Signature Travel Network (STN) for the past 12 years, before which he had been with Regent Seven Seas Cruises (and its previous iterations) for 14. He tells LATTE he was “employee 17” for the brand operated under Frank Del Rio, working across charter, incentives, operations and revenue management before Del Rio moved him into sales. It was Sharpe’s position in sales that gave him exposure to Signature as a client.

Exclusive Privileges are among the benefits available to members of the Signature Travel Network consortia

Internationally, STN has 80 associate members (non-shareholders), most of which are in Australia along with a handful in Latin America and Europe. In New Zealand, Signature has a partnership with Quay Travel in Auckland. They each pay a fee to access Signature’s hotel and resort stable and DMC program.

Speaking exclusively with LATTE this month aboard Oceania Cruises’ new ship Vista, Sharpe confirms Signature Travel Network is already in discussion with potential new partners in Australia.

“We’ve had some really great conversations. What I always admire the most about the folks in Australia is that they are so business-oriented. They get it,” he said.

“They all build good companies focused on their teams and are business people. They want to know, How do we make more? How do we craft a better message? I get excited, I probably get too excited talking to them,” he quips.

While remaining cagey about any future Australian partnerships, and who he may have spoken to from Australia while aboard Vista, Clarke seems perplexed over the future of association with Magellan.

“We had an exclusive with Magellan early on. We thought the synergies were great. They were a cooperative, we were a cooperative.

“That lasted about 4-5 months before they were acquired by Helloworld, so that changed the dynamic quite a bit.”

“We’ve extended the agreement through COVID and we’ve been partners for about four years now, which has been good but Helloworld still needs to work out what it’s going to be after the pandemic, or Magellan within Helloworld,” he told LATTE.

Sharpe reiterates the newer arrangement with TravelManagers Australia has been “a great get for us”.

Alex Clarke, President/CEO of Signature Travel Network while aboard Oceania Cruises' new ship, Vista

“Super business people. I love the host agency model there. Really switched on from a marketing perspective and they know exactly what they wanted with us. The question for us now is, when do we do more, if we do more?”

On the topic of potential expansion, Sharpe says after a few major wins domestically for the consortia after the collapse of other players, the portfolio is at a size he is very comfortable with.

“I won’t say we’ve solved the US because there’s still opportunity and we’re doing some really good things there. But I think we have it well in hand. I don’t want to grow the US dramatically more than where we are.

“I think our biggest strength is the quality of the network, but then also the size of the network because not just me, but our whole team knows everybody and what they sell, why they sell it, why they don’t like this brand, what they need to make their business work, and so on.”

Having more numbers outside the US provides benefits for Signature’s partners, he explains.

“During COVID we realised that to serve our partners, having a diverse agency portfolio was good. Having a Europe agency that could sell in Italy, could sell Greece, or was in the UK, would have been more helpful.”

But returning to international expansion, Sharpe says: “My gut says that if we move on and expand, it’ll be in Australia, and or Canada.”

“Frankly, the partners we have in Australia, the individual, the agency owners, they’re so switched on, they’re so good. I talk to them for 10 minutes and I want to do more business with them. I want to serve them better, and that’s exciting.”

Exclusive Privileges are among the perks members of Signature Travel Network are able to offer their clients

Referring to Australia, Sharpe concedes that Signature has “been kind of below the radar screen there, for sure,” while raising the prominence of rival luxury travel network, Virtuoso.

“I was part of Virtuoso’s rollout in Australia. Regent was their biggest partner back when I was there so I spent a lot of time in Australia doing roadshows and different things.

“They know how to do meetings and PR better than anyone. I would say they’re probably in many ways more of a meeting company than they are a consortia. And I don’t mean that as a dig. What they do on the meetings side is brilliant. That’s just not us,” Sharpe says candidly.

“But education is a huge part of what you have to do. And these days, if you’re not out on the road, doing meetings or road shows, you’re not going to connect with advisors because so many of them are home-based.”

“We have to figure it out. Either way, we’re going to be in Australia, whether it’s in the current mode but more aggressively going after individuals versus trying to have just one relationship with Magellan, or whether we have an expanded offering,” he concludes.

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