Questex boosts travel arm

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A soft economy after 9/11, the loss of airline ticket commissions and the rise of online booking services whittled the number of advertising pages in the b-to-b travel niche, leaving publishers scrambling to maintain the bottom line in a contracting market.

But this triple threat did not sink the industry, and publishers at Questex Media Group, a newly minted company that acquired its travel arm from Advanstar Communications in 2005, has embarked on an aggressive launch schedule aimed at scooping up market share.

"When we walk in front of a supplier, we've got three weapons in the arsenal," said Kerry Cannon Jr., group publisher, referring to a combined event, print and Web strategy. "It's portfolio solution-oriented rather than ad pages."

That strategy included the introduction of three new events and the launch of Home-Based Travel Agent magazine, a combination that delivered 67% growth in an arena where Cannon stated simply: "Hell, flat is growing."

Questex responded to the marketplace, tailoring events to meet new needs.

"Travel agents have shifted to the changing market demands," said Alan Kay, spokesman for the Travel Industry Association of America. "A lot of people who worked at big agencies have opened smaller shops."

That decentralization created a hard-to-reach market in an industry that emphasizes face-to-face connections.

"We are very focused on home-based agents," said John Severini, president of Trafalgar Tours. "The challenge is identifying them and getting them linked."

Questex provided that link, he said, launching the bimonthly Home-Based Travel Agent magazine, a Web site and a trade show.

Home-Based Travel Agent Expo, which drew more than 2,300 attendees to Las Vegas in December, coincided with the company's industry-leading Luxury Travel Expo. Questex scheduled the shows at different times of the day, allowing suppliers to have face time on both floors in an intensive marketing push it dubbed Travel Week.

That push will get bigger next year, Cannon said, with the media company inviting other industry groups to piggyback on events.

Questex also launched the Incentive Travel Exchange, an appointment-based show that deviates from the traditional role of an event as a demonstration of the size and might of a magazine's readership.

"Usually the magazine gets to pound its chest and say, 'Look what we produce,' " said John McMahon, group publisher. "The appointment-based show—I bought my way into the market. I paid for 70 of the best buyers to meet with 70 excellent suppliers."

The invitation-only event works like speed dating, McMahon said, with brief meetings scheduled for prematched clients.

Suppliers pay to attend the event, pulling travel money out of sales budgets instead of the marketing budgets that usually fund shows, opening up a new stream of revenue rather than simply repositioning dollars already earmarked for events.

The simple model makes return-on-investment tangible for participants, as well as show organizers, McMahon said.

"It's going to take a bite out of it in industries that make sense," he said. "We are looking at this model within all of our vertical markets to see where we could do this."

The company will launch regional appointment-based shows in 2008, he said. With ticket commissions gone and general travel information available online, a travel agent's greatest value comes from the size of the Rolodex and the level of expertise offered, said TIA's Kay—a climate that creates a push for specialization and education.

Questex responded with a regional Luxury Travel Expo Mexico, and the company has its eyes on the development of shows in China and Europe, McMahon said.

The Mexican government approached Questex about developing the show this year, McMahon said, and a burgeoning luxury market meant it made sense for his audience.

"The smart ones are specializing," he said. "This is where they go to get the knowledge, the relationship."

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