Alex Sharpe – group CEO – Signature Network – talks about this year’s annual meeting in Las Vegas – and the biggest challenges he faces moving forward…

At this year’s Signature meeting in Las Vegas, the audience was treated to an inspirational keynote address from Amy Van Dyken, a 6-time Olympic gold medal champion swimmer. Van Dyken made history as the most successful athlete at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia and the first American female athlete to win four gold medals in a single Olympic games.  How do you choose the keynoters?

The first thing for us is “What kind of keynote do we want?” We struggle with that from year to year, in finding the right message. Last year our keynote was Jason Dorsay, who we had done some work with. Jason does a lot of generational research and discussion. He is probably the foremost authority on not just millennials but generational research. He is a young guy himself. And we felt like that was an issue the members were struggling with a bit. That one worked out because we started him at the owners’ meeting the year before, and then we used him for a research project. So, he really used this as an opportunity to deliver the research. Plus, he is very entertaining. But more often than not we go with inspirational. The information that my team and myself deliver covers key trends and so on. But really for the front-line advisors we try to focus on inspirational. It’s one 50-minute talk. It doesn’t dominate the whole conference, but we feel like that’s a great opportunity there. We’ve had some really great speakers over the years, but I always joke, if I can get the food right and the speaker right, then it’s a home run for the meeting. Everyone says “Oh it was a great meeting”, If those two things don’t work well, we can do everything else perfectly and people will be disappointed.

Amy was a choice – some of our co-workers had heard her speak before – even before her accident – and she was very inspirational – and they said “You put her what she’s been through and roll her out in a wheelchair, and oh my gosh, it gives you another perspective that is just heart-warming”. So, we agreed as an internal team on her as a speaker. In addition to an inspirational speaker, we try and do a more business related – whether it be branding – or a way of thinking – or even economics – at the owners’ meeting – as those are travel agency owners – but here in Vegas we want to inspire.

What are the key messages your speakers have given the audience?

The keynoters… both of them… well Chris wasn’t a keynoter, but he was the MC and he did a great job and he will have a have a little bit more time tomorrow to speak. I think for Chris it’s about connecting cultures and visiting and traveling with purpose, which is something a lot of us talk about, but something that he has certainly done. And his TV show on PBS and National Geographic Channel are really very good… and so that was his message. For Amy, it was just “Know what do you want to get done, and don’t let the outside influences mess with you”, and that was the message she kept coming back to. Who are you to tell me how good I can be, how great I can be? And I think that’s important because we don’t want to set any limitations on the advisors. We just did a new class with new to industry – 26 people in our offices for a week – new advisors. And Ignacio, who is leading “luxury” for us was there to talk about luxury. Too many new advisers get told, “Well you will sell the easy stuff first… just sell the inexpensive stuff – sun and fun, charter flights, and three days on the islands or Mexico”. No, no, no! I don’t want them to think luxury is an Everest they can’t summit – a mountain too high. I want to teach them early to be comfortable to sell luxury – and we have so much support in our network behind them that they can do that. So, I think those were really the messages from Amy and Chris – it was all about travel with purpose and don’t let anyone set your limitations.

Training is very important within your organization…

It is because we can do it more efficiently and effectively from the center then any agencies can do on their own, and the beauty is everybody collaborates. Every time we do something we have managers or owners from agencies who come in and audit it, giving us great feedback. Some of our bigger agencies have their own training sessions, and we also send our team to them. Often, they end up teaching as well, but we want to see what they are doing so we can come up with the very best program. So that is the beauty of our organization… it is very collaborative.

Signature is a small organization. What are the advantages of being small and what is the vision of how this will evolve in coming years?

I think it is a huge advantage for us. Some of my competitors have wonderful organizations. They have 800 or 1000 or 5000 agencies in their network. I think of this group like my children. If I don’t know them and know their businesses, how can I be of any value to them? How can I deliver services to them if I don’t understand who they are and what’s important to them? We have been about the same size for a while. Every year, some agencies retire or sell, and then we add agencies. We don’t add them at a fast clip, but the strength of the agencies we’ve added has been tremendous. It’s not all about the huge agencies, but about the value of the agencies we bring to the table. Being a little smaller makes us nimbler. There is not a member in our organization that we don’t know intimately. So, when a supplier says I need help doing this, I can name people off the top of my head who have the kind of business that can deliver that for them. Short term business, long-term business, group business, honeymoon business… we know those folks and it’s not even just the agencies, it’s the advisors within the agencies. I think it allows us to be much more nimble and strategic in terms of connecting our supplier partners and our members and it allows us to have a high level of service by keeping it small. But when you look at the average production rate – average production is around US$7 million and our preferred sales per agency average mailing list is 24,000 names… and we know a lot about those names because of our technology in marketing. And then each has an average of 10,000 e-marketing names. So pound-for-pound as they say in the boxing business, we might be small, but we are incredibly mighty. We have high sales per agency, the biggest mailing lists, the biggest e-marketing lists. And so, for our supplier partners, every sales call is a worthwhile sales call. Every member might not sell every supplier, but the potential is there. So, I think that gives them confidence and I think we give better offers as a result of that, because it is not an offer that goes to everyone, because we are small. We are just 210 agencies in the US, so we can be a little more tactical for them and that is an advantage.

What do you see is being the key trends in the industry overall at the moment and how is Signature Network taking advantage of them?

The new product is just unbelievable in all phases of the business: hotel, cruise, tour… but they are all taking it to a new level, which is exciting for us. And the investment in the travel space is tremendous – unlike anything any of us have ever seen. I see a wonderful trend angling towards luxury. And also, luxury is taking on a few more nuances: luxury adventure, luxury family, as well as luxury in general. It’s the biggest portion of our business. It used to be just the whipped cream on top and we sold a little luxury, but now this is what really drives. So, it’s about how we build a pipeline for luxury in the future. Our focus and one of the reasons we moved Ignacio into his role and refilled the hotel roll with Richard as a seasoned professional was because we see that getting more and more important. The days of being agents and just brokers for any products are gone. It’s about how you add value and it’s hard to add value to inexpensive product. You can add some accessories on luxury product but in order to add value you need to have the kind a product that is not just driven by the price. That’s really where we going to be, that’s where we are today, that’s where were moving towards: more and more of that. As I look at the trends, it’s about continuing to move on, but finding the nooks and crannies along the way. We want to sell more luxury. It’s about where do we find it… and if you backtrack 10 years, what was the expedition or adventure business? What was that like? A handful of Uber Rich people who thought they were eccentric and would go out to do some new things, and some young kids that were looking to backpack and do what they thought was adventure. Now, it’s accessible to many, many more people. Hotels are getting in the game. They are building programs around active adventure and wellness, so how do we take that to the next level? How do we train? How we create a portfolio? That helps the advisors to find the nuances, the small parts of this business to really differentiate themselves between specialists. Luxury used to be a specialty. Now it’s like the ocean… there’s so much luxury out there, how do we find the little nuances for them? So that’s what we’re really focused on. Helping them reach those goals.

What are your biggest challenges?

The toughest thing is keeping up. There is so much out there. Ignacio is probably the best example of this, but we talk about it a lot – this idea of continuous learning. You never “graduate” this industry. You have to be learning every single day, and if you’re not, you’re obsolete. So how do we help make our advisors efficient enough that they can invest time and energy into learning? How can we get them time to read your publication? How can we get them time to read about a new property that’s opening or a new ship or a new idea? That is the big thing: how to continue to inspire them to continuously learn. Because if not, this business changes so fast so often that if they don’t keep up, they will be obsolete, and once they settle into a rut and they can only do certain things and they stop learning, the clock has started and the end is much closer. The big thing for us is to continue to inspire them, to continue to give them opportunities to learn. And if we do that, we will be good, but we can’t predict all the changes. I can’t predict my 11-year-old, let alone all the changes that are coming… but that’s the part that keeps me up at night… continuing to inspire and keep them learning.