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TPI - 728 x 90 - February 2024
Avoya Travel - 232x 90 - February 2024

Event – CoNexion 2023 – Cruising to Success

Nexion Travel Group Continues it’s Movement with Empowering Travel Advisors to New Levels of Success!

 

Attended By: Joanie Ogg, CTC, MCC – Co-Founder – FindaHostTravelAgency.com 

 

What an amazing 8 nights we all had celebrating CoNexion 2023 aboard the spectacular Celebrity Equinox! Yet another “Pinch Me Moment in the travel industry”. What other career would allow you to cruise the beautiful Caribbean for more than a week and be able to call it work? To say those of us in the travel industry are lucky to do what we do would be an understatement. My sincere thanks to Jackie Friedman for allowing Travel Professional NEWS to cover this great conference.

While the environment and weather were perfect, everyone who attended worked hard and learned so much during these 9 days. The ship is truly spectacular and the crew on board could not have possible been better. We were chased for a day by a hurricane as we passed Cuba the first full day at sea, but our Captain took good care of us and made sure that we found the perfect seas and perfect weather for the remainder of the trip. Join me on our journey as we cruise to success through CoNexion 2023.

Starting out my journey from home in Arizona, I was ready to enjoy some time away from our record-breaking heat wave. I always fly in a day early when cruising from the East Coast, just to be sure no flight delays or schedule changes cause any havoc to the cruise plans. Those of us who arrived early enjoyed a night at the Hilton Ft. Lauderdale Marina Hotel.

Saturday, August 19th

Everyone made their way to the ship and embarkation was seamless. Within 20 minutes of arriving at the pier, I was on the ship and settling into my beautiful balcony cabin and getting ready to attend the Opening General Session. All of the General Sessions took place in the beautifully appointed Equinox Theater.

Jackie Friedman, President of Nexion Travel Group and Mike Foster President of Nexion Travel Group – Canada welcomed the Nexion Members and the supplier partners and gave us a brief overview of what we could look forward to for the week.

As is standard protocol for CoNexion, Jackie challenged everyone in attendance to create new connections and meet 30 new people over the course of the week. She expressed her sincere gratitude to the Celebrity Cruises team for all they had done and were doing to make the week onboard the ship the best it could be. She thanked the Nexion Advisory Board and also shared her sincere thanks to all the preferred suppliers in attendance.

Robbi Hamida, Senior Vice President of Agency Operations entered the stage wearing a Ship Captains suit complete with Captain’s Cap and all. His personality and stage presence is always electric and so entertaining.

 

 

Robbi introduced the first NEXTalk for the week. NEXTalks take place throughout CoNexion and feature Nexion advisors who share their expertise and success. Mary Krueger, CTC, ECC is the owner of Mary Krueger Travel, LLC from Minneapolis. Her presentation shared how to scale your business. She felt overextended and not able to accomplish all her goals due to being so busy with tasks that perhaps might better be handled by an assistant. This would free her up to focus on selling and less on the operations side as her business grew. She hired two employees to accomplish this task and an accountant to handle the finances. This new-found time allowed her to double her profits fro 2018 to 2023. She encouraged her fellow agents to consider this as an option for their businesses as they continue to grow their clientele.

Laura Hodges Bethge, President of Celebrity Cruises and Jackie Friedman were next up. Since the event was taking place in the theater, they took advantage of the many effects and technology available. They actually rose from under the stage on a platform to have the Executive Chat.

Laura is new to her role as President and she shared with the audience her career history with Royal Caribbean and then her new role with Celebrity. She shared how important she feels it is to really get to know the positions and duties of the people you lead. Her history with the Royal Caribbean family is rich to say the least. When asked who influenced her the most, she said her Mom first and foremost but followed by her peers Vicki Freed, Michael Bailey and Jason Liberty.

Jackie asked her what she would like to say to the advisors in the room. She shared that as entrepreneurs they should always focus and have great perseverance. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and never ever give up. Remind yourself of how capable you are and stay connected with us at Celebrity Cruises.

This was the conclusion of the first General Session and everyone was encouraged to go and enjoy the ship and rest of the day.

Sunday, August 20th

Today was a day at sea and there was a full schedule of meetings and events for the advisors and suppliers to learn and connect. The General Session took place in the morning from 8:00am  – 10:30am in the Equinox Theater.

Robbi Hamida welcomed the enthusiastic crowd of advisors wearing his suit of the day. Delta Airlines and Delta Vacations was up next and Tamika Marine, Manager of Global Sales in New York for Delta Airlines and Vince Marsala, Host Account Manager at Delta Vacations. They gave out some amazing prizes to the audience and the mood for the day was definitely on a high note.

Next up was Globus Family of Brands followed by Allianz Partners. Jackie Friedman rejoined the stage and shared her passion and support for the Family Bonds Foundation. Be sure to read my interview with Jackie where we discuss in detail the history and the mission of Family Bonds.

 

 

Jackie invited Peggy Glick, Key Accounts Manager with Celebrity Cruises to speak about being a recipient of a grant from the Family Bonds Foundation last year. Peggy lost her home to fire and thanks to Family Bonds, she was able to get back on her feet. She was very passionate about her gratitude to everyone who donates to this cause. Her message was very heartfelt.

Moving through the morning we heard from Vicki Freed, Senior VP of Sales, Trade Support and Service with Royal Caribbean. Travel agents Love Vicki Freed and her enthusiastic and empowering words always hit the mark. Her presentation focused on how travel professionals need to have a game board to build and grow their business. Every travel advisor needs to ask questions before ever recommending product was one of her many tips. She also spoke about the Icon of the Seas and the amazing waterpark and new innovations that are the signature of Royal Caribbean.

World of Hyatt was up next followed by Carnival Cruise Line, Director of Sales Alicia Steuart, Senior Director of Sales with Carnival Cruise Line. She spoke about how to inspire your customers with the gift of the perfect vacation on Carnival. It is always such a joy to see Alicia present. Her sincerity and positivity is contagious.

Next up was another NEXtalk presented by Seth Wayne owner of Cruise With Seth. His talk focused on the importance of building group business. This CoNexion was his first year anniversary with Nexion. His previous career was as a meteorologist. In his first year he has already grossed more than 10Million in sales. Be sure to check out my one on one interview with Seth.

Virgin Voyages was next on the agenda and shared all that is new with Virgin for 2024 and he shared a fun video about the “No Kids Policy” on Virgin Voyages. A twist that no other line has introduced but that seems to be a huge success for Virgin.

Jackie Friedman shared the prestigious Ambassador Award next. These are the key elements of the award.

  • Embraces Nexion programs and events
  • Always willing to help others
  • Viewed as a coach and mentor
  • Strong supporter of preferred suppliers
  • Represents Nexion ideals and core values

The winner this year was Christy Bartlett, owner of Daydream Cruise and Travel of Roundrock, Texas. I had the opportunity to interview Christy later on the voyage, so be sure to take the time to read her inspiring words.

The final speaker in this General Session was Katina Athanasiou, Senior Vice President of Sales and Service for the Americas at Celebrity Cruise. Her presentation and enthusiasm was electric. Victoria Rios, Director of Industry Relations & Cruise Programs with Nexion Travel Group joined Katina for a Fireside Chat to share more information about her plans in her new role and what inspires and motivates her personally and professionally.

The General Session for the day was over, however the day’s work for the advisors continued on with the first series Workshop Rotations from 11:00am to 3:30pm. Here is a list of the amazing options agents had to choose from.

  • The Bots are Taking Over, or are they? What Chat GPT and AI could mean to you.
  • The Ultimate Royal Caribbean Update
  • The Allianz Advantage
  • Tips to Effectively Close Online Leads and Build Client Rapport
  • How to Highlight Your Value and Earn More with ALG Vacations
  • Travel Advisor’s Training to Easy Content Creation
  • Types of Business Structures and What they Mean
  • Press Your Luck with United Vacations
  • Excel Your Sales on Excel Class with Carnival Cruise Line
  • The Best in the Galapagos with Celebrity Cruises
  • When the Unexpected Occurs Do you have a plan?
  • Grow Your Sales with Tips from our Partners
  • Google Business Profile – Your Secret Advantage
  • Make Ship Happen with Virgin Voyages
  • Growing Your Holland America Line Business through Personal Branding
  • Embracing Diversity
  • The Perfect Pitch
  • What is New and Exciting at American Airlines Vacations?

 

As you can see the opportunities for agents were simply amazing. I would have wanted to attend all of them! The remainder of the day was time for everyone to relax and enjoy the ship and the many activities on board. The final frosting on the cake for the day was the Welcome Party for Nexion on deck. The theme was a Nexion Under the Stars. Dancing and fun was had by all!

 

Monday, August 21st

7:00am wake-up call to get ready for the day ahead and all the terrific presentations we had to look forward to.  The General Session started at 8:00am with Robbi welcoming the advisors and suppliers in his suit of the day which was a Shark Suit. The advisors loved it and he then introduced Nick Brennan Quesnele, Vice President of National Accounts with Norwegian Cruise Line to the stage for a thought-provoking and enlightening presentation. Nick was then joined by Jackie for a FireSide chat about some of the programs Norwegian has planned for 2023 and beyond.

 

 

Regent Seven Seas Cruises presented next and they were followed by the announcement of the Preferred Partner Awards. Representatives of those that were in attendance joined the stage for a group photo and applause from the advisors. Our sincere congratulations to all those who were recognized.

 

Best contemporary cruise line Royal Caribbean

Best premium / upper premium  Celebrity Cruises

Best luxury cruise line Regent Seven Seas Cruises

Best river cruise line AmaWaterways

Best package tour operator ALG Vacations

Best escorted or fit operator Globus Family of Brands

Best luxury or fit tour operator Kensington Tours

Best specialty supplier. Project Expedition

Best rail supplier Rocky Mountaineer

Best resort partner Sandals and Beaches Resorts

Best domestic airline US United Airlines

Best domestic airline Canada Air Canada

Best international airline Delta Airlines

Best ground transportation Enterprise Holdings

Best travel insurance provider AIG

Best hotelier Marriott International

Best US supplier sales rep Alicia Steuart at Carnival

Best Canadian supplier sales representative Sandra Pennington at Celebrity

Best advisor technology My Nexion

Best supplier partner travel agent education Princess Cruises

Best supplier customer service call center Delta Vacations

Rookie of the year Via Tour

Marketing partner of the year Norwegian Cruise Line

Best overall preferred supplier partner AmaWaterways

 

The next presentation was Holland America Line and Rob Coleman the Vice President of North America Sales. He was followed by my friend Kris Endreson, Vice President of National Sales with MSC Cruises. The last supplier presentation for the morning was Cal Almauguer, Senior Vice President of Sales and Service Strategy and Operations for Princess.

One of my favorite’s at CoNexion is always Jackie Friedman’s Keynote address and this year’s did not disappoint. The theme of her presentation was The Entrepreneurial Mindset. She spoke about the any hats that travel agents must wear to operate their businesses. They are marketing specialists, travel experts, researchers, planners, salespeople, customer service reps, accountants and problem solvers. Entrepreneurs must own their success and she spoke about 8 important attributes that will enable success which included some of the following:

The Power of Passion

Innovation

Business Acumen

Adaptability

Innovation

Resilience

 

She talked about how entrepreneurs must own their success. Agents must be a savvy relationship builder and features are building trust and loyalty, because this helps to create brand advocates. She suggested that advisors have a growth mindset by being ambitious, goal oriented, tactical, analytical, and to be a continuous learner and to always embrace change. She shared that the best view comes after the hardest climb that is really what business ownership is all about.

Her word of encouragement and wisdom were the perfect close to the General Session and the perfect send off to the upcoming Workshop Rotations to follow which included:

  • Idea Exchange – Creating New Business

  • How to Earn More Commissions with Norwegian Cruise Line

  • Small Ships, Big Experiences, Amazing Destinations with Azamara Cruises

  • Underutilized Features in AgentMate that You May Not Know You Need

  • Branding you Social Profiles in the Travel Industry

  • Nexion Cruise Group Block Space Program

 

After lunch on their own, the agents then continued their learning experiences with Supplier Round Robins where they had a chance to sit with the suppliers and learn more about their respective offerings on a more intimate basis. This concluded the working part of the day and the rest of the afternoon and evening were free to enjoy all that the Equinox had to offer.

 

Tuesday, August 22nd

Today began with a General Session from 8:00am to 10:30am. We were scheduled to dock at about 11:00am in the beautiful port of Oranjestad, Aruba. The first of our ABC Island itinerary. Robbi welcomed everyone backhand the day began with a presentation by United Airlines.

Next up was another great NEXtalk featuring Jeff and Cindy Coggin with Coggin Travels in Newton, Georgia. Jeff comes from a rich history in the travel industry as his father (Bob Coggin is a well-known airline executive. They shared their secrets to success on how to Develop a Niche. They have had tremendous success with their travel business.

Apple Leisure Group Vacations was up next sharing all that is new and exciting, followed by another great NEXtalk with Tenna Dowd from Vacations for Canadians. Her topic shared great tips and insight on Growth Through Social Media.

 

 

CHUBB, a global leader in the provision of travel insurance products and services was next on stage followed by a wonderful presentation by Azamara Cruises. Charles Silvia, ECC, Vice President, Industry and Trade Relations joined the stage to share updates on CLIA and membership benefits with the advisors. Following CLIA were our good friends at AmaWaterways telling the advisors all about the new itineraries and offerings for 2024.

Heather Kindred, Vice President of Nexion Travel Group put the perfect ending on the General Session with an excellent Keynote presentation. Heather wears many hats at Nexion and is truly an inspiring woman with a wealth of knowledge and experience in training. She is a natural leader. Be sure to read my one-on-one interview with Heather.

It was a busy morning and very enlightening morning. Everyone enjoyed the rest of the day and evening either out exploring Aruba or relaxing on the ship.

On Wednesday and Thursday we all enjoyed the beautiful ports of Willemstad, Curacao and Kralendijk, Bonaire completing our days in the beautiful and magical ABC Islands. I spent much of my time working of course but I did venture out and do some serious GrandGirls shopping for my sweet Peyton Marie and Lyla Drew Ogg. Dolls, bracelets and other items helped my luggage gain a few pounds.

 

Friday, August 25th

After two full days of fun in the sun, we all made our way back to the Equinox Theater for the next General Session. The morning began with a Pam Meehan, Vice President, Hotels Program at Internova Travel Group and Robbi Hamida providing the attendees with an update on the program. The hotel program offers over 46,000 properties worldwide with the in-country DMC program including over 162 partners in 130 countries.

We enjoyed a brief video presentation message from my dear Friend Diane Petras, CTIE and President of the Travel Institute sharing the value and need for continuing education and encouraging advisors to take part in the many educational opportunities available through The Travel Institute.

Mai Da Pra, Senior Director of Marketing with Nexion Travel Group shared a marketing update. She spoke in depth about the Escape Magazine and all the new and exciting upgrades to the piece. She also talked about a social media tool kit that agents now can use to build their social media marketing efforts.

Eric Molina, Director of Business Development with Viking Cruises was followed by Karrah Bissett with Explore Effortlessly presenting a NEXTalk on the success she has found charging professional fees for her travel advising services. This of course is such an important topic and the audience was taking fastidious notes as she shared her invaluable information.

AIG Travel presented on the programs available with Travel Guard Insurance and they were followed by Dave Bowman, Vice President of Membership with ASTA. He encouraged membership and all that if offers to support the advisor community and the travel industry at large. He shared that between 2012 and 2021, ASTA’s efforts led to legislative and regulatory “wins” that saved the industry and estimated $720 million in new taxes, fees and other costs.

 

One of my favorites is when the Agent Awards are announced at CoNexion and this year did not disappoint. 281 Nexion advisors earned Circle of Excellence Awards this year. To qualify you must be an active Nexion Member who achieves a predetermined earned commission amount of preferred supplier partner sales of land and cruise. It was amazing to see so many in attendance and proudly accepting their recognition at the event.

David Ridge. Regional Director of Sales Wester Region for Sandals & Beaches Resorts shared some time with the advisors as well as C&F Travel Insured International. They were followed by Victoria Rios, Director of Industry Relations & Cruise Programs who shared the new and enhanced programs for the Nexion Advisors. Price Advantages, access to sold-out stateroom categories, access to extra amenities and on board credit are just a few of the amazing offerings.

Robbi Hamida, Senior Vice President of Nexion Travel Group stepped on stage to share his always spot on “Keynote”.  Robbi likes to mix up the good and the ugly in his presentations and he always shares very pertinent information with the advisors. He spoke a great deal about the unfortunate fraud epidemic the travel industry is being deluged with. He told us that Nexion alone had 62 attempts at fraud just this last year. Phishing, hacking, cloning and duping just to name a few are running rampant. He recommend agents use a VPN to also talk to professionals who are well versed in techniques to avoid fraud. The average fraud cost is $36,000.

Robbi wished a Happy 10th Birthday to Nexion Travel Group Canada and to Travel Leaders of Tomorrow. He talked about the updates on Nexion University and announced that there will be more than 36 face to face educational opportunities for Nexion members in 2024. There is certainly a great deal to look forward to in 2024.

Following the General Session were more Workshop Rotations for the agents to participate in such as:

  • Finding Passion and Success through Reinventing Ourselves

  • Come see why Princess is #1 in Alaska

  • Enhancing the Traveler and the Travel Professional Experience with Delta

  • Do a Double Take on Your Database with Regent Seven Seas Cruises

  • Scaling Your Business the RIGHT WAY for YOU!

  • Elevate Your Expertise with RIU Notes & Resorts

  • Internova Hotel and In-Country Partner Programs

  • The AmaDifference with AmaWaterways

  • Time Management that WORKS!

  • Instagram Story Post Strategies for Travel Advisors

  • The Future of Airline Retailing

  • The Benefits of Relationship with Sandals & Beaches Resorts

 

From 2:30pm – 4:30pm everyone had time to spend with the supplier partners in the Trade Show which was a resounding success. The evening was free to enjoy the ship and the many dining options and was followed by a Farewell Party on the Pool Deck. The theme was “Wear Your Favorite Nexion Color” and the party was enjoyed by all. While this was not the last time we would all get together for the conference, the next night would be busy with folks packing and readying for travel home the next day.

 

 

Saturday, August 26th

Today was the last formal day of the conference and another beautiful day at sea. The General Session featured more great content.  Karl Schaulin with Karl’s Kruise & Travel share his NEXTalk on building successful groups fro an immersive journey. What he learned from a Nexion Immersive Journey with AmaWaterways created $570,00O in sales. Karl’s “3 B’s” are to be choiceful, build relationships with Nexion resources and top suppliers and BE BOLD!

Riu Hotels followed with updated information for the agents on their many properties. Martin Mussey and Susan Gaines joined the stage to announce the following Nexion 2023 award winners:

 

Canadian Rising Star Sheila Gnish

US Rising Star Brittany Franey

Network Leader of the Year Debby & Joe DeWeese (San Antonio Network)

2023 Social Pro Joseph Fehlen

2023 Townie of the Year Denise Delvecchio

2023 Diversity Equity & Inclusion Robin Dandong

2023 Ray of Positivity Holly Malloy

2023 Shoot For the Stars Samantha Gang

2023 Accelerated Sales Seth Wayne

 

American Airlines presented next and then the moment so many of us had been waiting for was finally ready to happen. Our dear Dondra Ritzenthaler, Chief Motivational Leader joined the stage for her debut as a professional speaker. Dondra was most recently with Celebrity Cruises for many years and had just retired from that position a few months ago. Those of us who have the honor and the privilege to know Dondra personally, know that she is the “real deal”. One of the most gracious and wonderful industry friends I have had the pleasure to spend time with. She has always been an amazing presenter for Celebrity, but it was so exciting to see her on stage sharing her talent as a professional motivational speaker.

 

 

Just a few of the messages she shared in her heartfelt presentation on the importance of “Attitude” included:

  • Remove the Negative and Make Positive

  • Take Control of Your Life

  • Buffer Yourself from Toxic Negativity

  • Adjust your Own Attitude

  • Leave a Lasting Legacy

  • Build Supportive Relationships

  • Have Purpose and Passion

 

Dondra speaks and finds her way into your heart! Of course she received a much deserved standing ovation.

The final General Session ended with more prizes, more awards and great news from Jackie that the Family Bonds Foundation challenge she had put forth on day one of CoNexion had surpassed it’s goal and was now at $130,000.  Jackie shared her sincere and heartfelt thanks to her amazing staff and all those who had helped to make this CoNexion 2023 such an overwhelming success. She also announced next year’s CoNexion 2024 will take place in New Orleans, Louisiana from September 9th to the 11th.  I know I plan on being there and hope to see you there too!