Travel Firm Expands Its Horizons

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For many online travel companies, building strong customer relationships means helping those customers build their dream vacations with just a few clicks. The relationship typically starts with the reservations and ends well before the trip even begins.

Illume, Boston, has always billed itself as a unique travel operation, focusing not only on the reservation and ticket side, but also on the trip as a cultural and religious experience. Yet the company realized it needed to expand beyond its niche of faith-based travel in light of 9/11 and other travel industry issues, so it embarked on a rebranding strategy.

Illume began work with Sametz Blackstone Associates, Boston, on the rebranding in 2002. Web traffic has increased 18 percent since the site's relaunch last summer, and sales have risen since the rebranding began as well.

The first step was to look at the company's history to determine its direction for the future, said Andrew Maydoney, vice president, research and strategy for Sametz Blackstone.

"It really started with a lot of discovery work, a lot of investigation and discussion and really looking at many complex issues," he said. "We started peeling back the layers of the history of the organization itself and looking at the value of the travel programs to the people participating."

Illume splits its customer base into two categories: the travel sponsor (who could be a community leader, church organizer or college professor) and the participants (those for whom the sponsor is coordinating the trip). The company still focuses on both.

"We didn't change the organization. We simply repositioned it," Mr. Maydoney said. "Where it was very Euro-centered, they are now looking at cultures all over the globe."

To test the new message on potential customers, Illume and Sametz Blackstone created postcards to distribute at conferences the Illume team regularly attended. The postcards contained a URL linking to a temporary Web page.

"[The Web page] set up the positioning of global citizenship and had links to topics related to it," Mr. Maydoney said.

This new global citizenship positioning looks to offer trips based on cultural interests beyond religious themes.

Prior to the rebranding, the site at www.travelillume.com offered basic travel information. Visitors could access and download PDF files of sample itineraries. The new site, which officially relaunched last summer, aims to appeal to prospective customers regardless of their culture or interests. Pull-down menus let site visitors customize their search by type of journey (such as global citizenship or religious) and destination (including continent, country and city). So if a visitor wants to plan a trip around art culture, he can search that specific topic.

The Web experience grows even richer once the prospect becomes a customer. A custom page is built as a resource for the customer's planned excursion.

"The Web page contains all of the relevant information about the destination," Mr. Maydoney said. "It has the relevant travel documents in PDF form and other forms they will need for their travel on that page. It's a very customized travel resource center that's built onto the Web site that becomes the travel resource center for that group."

Illume also used mail to build its brand and customer base, developing five specific points of contact with customers. The first official communication Illume sends is typically an invoice that includes a letter about the customer's upcoming journey and a bookmark to inspire travelers to tap additional informational resources in preparing for their trip (The Web site has a bibliography to guide visitors, Mr. Maydoney said). The second contact is a postcard that directs the travelers to their customized travel resource center.

Once the trip is planned, Illume follows up with a mailing that includes travel-related documents and items such as tickets, an itinerary and luggage tags.

Illume strives to build relationships with customers even after their trips. As the final steps in its "five points of contact," the company sends "welcome home" cards and even invites travelers to contribute photos and stories from their trips. Their contributions are included in a travelogue appearing on Illume's home page.

Mimi Ashley, vice president of Illume, said the program has helped Illume increase business 20 percent.

"More importantly for us, it's also the level of satisfaction and tuning in to the goals of the organizations we serve," she said. "We find that business has increased, but business has also been referred."

Referrals grew 15 percent as a result of the rebranding. And feedback received by Illume staff suggests customer satisfaction climbed more than 80 percent.

"We have a stronger connection with [the trip planners], they have a stronger connection with their institution and the institution has one back with us," she said.

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