Delta Vacations University Returns After Two-Year Absence

Just as demand for travel has spiked, demand for a place at Delta Vacations University (DVU) also spiked after a two-year absence because of the pandemic. The two-day educational event took place in Atlanta last weekend and, according to tour operator executives, it sold out in 2 ½ weeks with more than a thousand travel advisors coming from all over the country to convene at the Georgia World Congress Center.

The theme of DVU this year was: “Experience. Connections. Go Beyond.” Kama Winters, who became president of the company in June, said that Experience referred to the company’s expanding number of destinations, including several Greek Islands, as well as many new activity options. Connections revolved around the conference itself. – how the operator connects with its advisor customers through new technology and new ways to serve them. “This is all about being easy to do business with,” said Winters, “and that extends to clients who are seeking to connect with friends and family and new places.”


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And Go Beyond refers to extensive rebuilding at the company in the last year with more than 300 new hires, a full 50% of the staff. With resources now in place, said Winters, the next step is connecting even more closely with parent company Delta Airlines to create seamless connections.

Delta Vacations offers products wherever the airline goes and so it has recently added programs in Tahiti, Cape Town and Tel Aviv, as well as the Greek islands of Corfu, Mykonos, Santorini and Rhodes. More destinations will be announced soon, said Winters.

In Tahiti, said Patricia Christensen, vice president of product development for the U.S. and Europe, the operator has been offering limited products through a partnership with another carrier but has now added more hotels on several islands. And the company added many “outdoorsy” domestic destinations In the U.S. during the pandemic and a lot of them turned out to be popular – and remain so even as travelers are able to go elsewhere.

Europe will be a focus this winter, said Winters, after a summer when demand was overwhelming. In response, a lot more Delta air service has been added for the season.

And suppliers are also getting a fresh look with Delta Vacations only adding four- and five-star hotels except when there is no alternative but to have a three-star property. Brian Canning, chief marketing, product and experience officer, said 90 percent of what advisors book is four-star and above and the company is emphasizing quality over quantity. Winters added that there is also extensive upselling currently into premium cabins on aircraft and to more expensive categories in hotels.

Another trend, said Kristen Molloy, vice president of sales, is travelers going beyond the usual hubs to places they might not have visited in the past. “Everybody’s pandemic dream was different,” she said, “and now people are branching out and trying new things.”

Delta Vacations, said Canning, is helping advisors guide clients who might be seeking something new – working with them to sell destinations they may not have traditionally sold. One important resource, he said, is SkyMiles Picks, which is based on data from SkyMiles members who answer post-trip surveys. With 25 million active members, said Canning, the data is massive, and the reviewers’ top picks are refreshed every month.

With this continuing feedback loop, said Canning, “we can see what advisors are doing.” If they are not booking a certain hotel or destination, he said, “we will stop offering it.” He said the operator is making a massive investment in customer experience, creating an entirely new customer experience team to ensure that every step of the trip goes as well as possible.

In addition to premium products, said Eric Fandek, director of product development for Latin America and Caribbean, customers are asking for private experiences and the company is adding more of those all the time. They might mean night swimming in a phosphorescent bay in Jamaica, making your own wine in Nassau, a private tour of Chichen Itza or a private surf lesson in Waikiki.

As for DVU itself, said Winters, there were new classes and more workshops this year, some just for owners and managers. All invitees are Diamond account advisors, meaning they are hitting both revenue and growth goals.

Kama Winters, Delta Vacations
Kama Winters, Delta Vacations (photo courtesy Delta Vacations)

According to Winters, the operator is fully recovered as far as operations, and she is ready to stop talking about 2019 as a baseline, but rather to set 2022 as the basis for comparisons in the future. Still, she noted that the company had faced extensive challenges during the pandemic, losing 60% of reservations and service center staff. Of the 300 new hires, 200 are in those areas. Rather than hiring locally, she said, a national campaign was launched to find the best people who were hired and trained virtually. The results have been solid, she said, with telephone hold times now at two minutes and new employees performing about as well as experienced ones.

Winters said the summer’s operational issues are “behind us” and that was reflected in the very minimal number of cancellations over the Labor Day holiday despite the fact that demand was up 15-20% in some areas.

One other new option for advisors and their clients, said Winters, is a partnership with a company called Affirm which enables customers to buy now and pay later – a flexibility feature that, she said, has been very helpful with upselling.

As for the uncertain economy, Winter said the Delta Vacations customer tends to be recession-proof, so the impact of inflation and other issues has not yet been felt. “Travel is almost a necessity to this audience,” she said.

Next year’s DVU has been set for September 29-30 in Minneapolis.

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