TravelOnly’s 2023 Symposium at Sea saw a hurricane of activity – both literally and figuratively.
The cruise-centric conference, which took place aboard Norwegian Escape from Oct. 22-29, was forced to make some last-minute tweaks to its voyage to Bermuda in order to avoid slamming into Hurricane Tammy, a tropical cyclone that stirred up the Atlantic Ocean last month.
The symposium’s 50 attendees – a mix of new and experienced TravelOnly advisors, their guests, as well as all-star suppliers – still got to see Bermuda, albeit on a shortened schedule, before returning to its starting point, Manhattan Cruise Terminal.
Oh well, ship happens. While the approaching hurricane led to some unexpected scheduling changes to TravelOnly’s agenda, it was no match for the power of networking at sea.
The family-owned-and-operated host agency told PAX (which was originally set to cover Symposium on location, but couldn’t due to flight and scheduling complications) that the conference, as a professional development event, was a big success.
"This year's Symposium at Sea was truly exceptional,” said TravelOnly’s President and CEO Gregory Luciani in a company statement. “The energy on board the Escape was unmatched – each session, each meeting, and each conversation opened new doors for learning and opportunities. Even a hurricane couldn't dampen our spirits. Our agility in turning challenges into opportunities is what sets TravelOnly apart."
Speaking with PAX one-on-one at Ensemble’s conference in Las Vegas recently, Luciani added how Symposium “checked all the boxes.”
“We couldn't be happier in terms of supplier and associate engagement and the quality of the ship,” he said. “We wish we could have spent more time in Bermuda, but of course, safety first. I was impressed with how the captain was able to maneuver the ship into warm water, so we were still able to enjoy the cruise.”
Making big waves
And it was still a good time to meet as TravelOnly’s cruise sales make big waves.
In an interview with PAX last month, Luciani said TravelOnly’s cruise sales have been “off the charts.”
“The cruise market in Canada is ripe and people are ready to get back on ships. We want to make sure we’re at the forefront,” he said.
Cruise travel, for many years, has been a priority at TravelOnly, which, in 2017, introduced “Cruise TravelOnly,” a niche brand that helps agents expand their ability to sell and earn higher commission on cruise products.
Associates that register with the program can brand themselves as cruise specialists and position themselves as a trusted source in the marketplace.
Cruise TravelOnly slowed during the pandemic years, but with travel’s rebound in full swing, “we have more cruise specialists than ever before,” Luciani shared.
“The cruise market is the fastest growing market for us, offering the highest profit margin,” he said.
Focus on AI
TravelOnly’s Symposium at Sea, which turns cruise ships into classrooms, offers agents access to training sessions, team-building activities, and one-on-one meetings with suppliers, creating multiple opportunities to learn from the best and grow their business.
“The conference was not only a testament to the resilience and adaptability of the travel industry, but also showcased the spirit of innovation that TravelOnly embodies,” the company said in a recap.
Luciani, for one, had a chance to showcase TravelOnly’s recently-unveiled AI Assistant tool, which creates blog posts, social media feeds, and marketing plans with rich imagery and point-and-click prompts.
“It’s the most exciting technology we've launched to date,” Luciani told PAX. “Like a lot of technology, it's sometimes difficult to get people to embrace it, but with AI, everyone sees this as a great opportunity. And it’s so easy to use.”
Luciani said his team is trying to get as many associates trained on AI as soon as possible, “so they can see the power.”
“We've already had some use it and say: ‘This is amazing. I’ve already saved thousands of dollars. I don't have to hire PR people, or someone to manage my social media. It can do it all for me,’” Luciani said.
Learning from the best
Symposium is also about travel advisors helping other travel advisors.
TravelOnly has a mentorship program that connects experienced and successful agents with new and rising stars within its network.
Several mentors were at Symposium, assisting with training, and sharing processes that, in some cases, “have taken a decade to develop,” Luciani said.
“There's a camaraderie among members where they're really helpful to each other,” he said. “Companies will spend years, and millions of dollars, to develop a corporate culture like this. Whereas we're enabling and fostering a culture that already exists.”
“What epitomizes the success of Symposium at Sea is that collaboration and connecting on a higher level.”
No rain on this parade
The itinerary changes at sea brought on by the hurricane didn’t dampen spirits.
Ann Luciani, Gregory’s mother and company CFO, noted how the collaboration between advisors, suppliers, and the Norwegian Cruise Line team “transformed what could have been a setback into one of the most memorable highlights of our event.”
“The scavenger hunt orchestrated by NCL, and our suppliers was a brilliant showcase of camaraderie and the can-do attitude that TravelOnly is known for,” Ann said.
Several activities took place during the week, including Don Terris's engaging workshop on leveraging YouTube for travel marketing and Marc Geuzinge's eye-opening sessions on travel photography, which equipped advisors with tools for captivating modern audiences.
As the voyage to Bermuda was shortened, the event’s quick-thinking hosts, Cindy Girard of Norwegian Cruise Line and participating suppliers, organized an exciting onboard scavenger hunt that turned the ship into a playground of adventure.
The week also included a Halloween pub crawl and exclusive supplier dinners, ensuring that it was not only a productive business venture, but also a social triumph.
In a statement to PAX, Girard called the experience "amazing."
"We are very grateful they selected NCL for their 2023 Symposium at Sea so their advisors could experience our beautiful Norwegian Escape first hand and, of course, or renown 'Freestyle Experience.' We cannot wait to welcome onboard our mutual guests for an unforgettable vacation experience," she said.
Girard said her favourite moment on board was "probably on the last evening, during the cocktail party in Spice H20."
"Our adults-only section in the open air at the back of the ship, when we were fortunate enough to witness a grandiose sunset over the wide-open ocean, was a truly magical moment," she said.
Moving it to April
TravelOnly extends its heartfelt thanks to Norwegian Cruise Line for their “exceptional hospitality and to all the industry suppliers and advisors who made the symposium not just an event, but a milestone in the travel industry's calendar.”
As for next year’s Symposium at Sea, the event, Luciani said, will take place in April, outside of hurricane season.
“We're going to keep that consistent, year after year, so our associates can start planning their groups around our Symposiums. We want to make it as attractive as possible to attend,” he said.
Moving Symposium to April has already generated interest, selling 60 cabins within the first week of its reveal, Luciani said.
Next year’s conference will take place aboard the new Sun Princess and sail the Caribbean out of Fort Lauderdale.
“An insane number of people have already registered for that Symposium. It's going to be bigger,” Luciani said.