BTN interview: Ulla Hefel Böhler, chief executive, Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold
Taking up her new role as chief executive of both Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold in early summer last year, Ulla Hefel Böhler was faced with a choice.
Either she could allow the companies, both subsidiaries of the Travel Corporation, to continue for another year in their current guise, or she could announce her arrival with a radical overhaul.
Stick or twist, that was the question.
So, which did she choose?
“Which do you think,” laughs Böhler over coffee in London.
“The choice was between making changes to product, messaging and branding, either really quickly, or to wait a whole year,” she continues.
“Travel is such a cyclical business; I was not prepared to wait for a year, which is obviously a long time, so as a team we decided to act quickly.
“Between May and August last year we went through a complete rebranding, both at Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold.
“The brochures were completely redesigned, the language reworked, the imagery; it was a very busy summer!”
The results were a hit, with both Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold bringing their positioning into sharper focus under new leadership.
But, while the success might have been quick, it was not a surprise.
“The nice thing is that I was new to the role, but I have been with the Travel Corporation for almost 15 years,” Böhler continues.
“Having that background, having been involved with a number of different brands, from Uniworld, to Trafalgar and others in different roles, it helped me understand the culture and mentality of the company.
“This experience has been invaluable, but, as with any new role, the first year has been a steep learning curve.
“Now, having done the cycle once, it has been a rewarding year.”
Böhler’s career has focused on travel, with past roles including director of operations and program services at cruise brand Uniworld, and director of operations at Trafalgar, Insight Vacations, Grand European Travel and Brendan Vacations.
She also previously spent time as vice president, operations and special projects, at the Travel Corporation.
Now, a year into her current role heading up the two companies, both are continuing their upward trajectory.
Luxury Gold recently launched its 2019 brochure, featuring four new trips to Russia, America’s north-west and New England, plus two new Britain and Ireland itineraries.
The brochure has been reimagined for 2019, to give it the look of a glossy magazine, bringing the destinations and journeys to life via a collection of stories crafted by individuals passionate about food, wine, history, music, art and of course, travel.
The brand now offers a total of 55 luxury guided journeys across the world, with extraordinary VIP experiences guaranteed.
Insight Vacations has also revealed its North American itineraries for next year, with more detail to come on worldwide plans in the coming weeks.
Böhler continues: “For Luxury Gold, we have launched the 2019 programme.
“After feedback from the trade and our consumers, we decided to move this forward, September was seen as too late.
“We challenged ourselves to condense the 12-month cycle into nine months this year to launch earlier.
“There are some exciting innovations, with five new itineraries, of which I am perhaps most proud of Ultimate Ireland.
“Of course, we stay at Ashford Castle, from our sister brand Red Carnation, for two nights, while there are afterhours visits to museums in Dublin, with the developer who shares his personal story of the location.
“Another is the Remarkable Russia for Luxury Gold; Insight Vacations has always gone to Russia, but we did not have anything in real top end sector.
“This comes on the back of the World Cup being such a positive experience; perhaps last year, people said they would not travel this year as they thought it would be too busy, but it has really come back strongly.
“Despite the political situation, Moscow and St. Petersburg have such a strong draw that people still want to travel there.”
Böhler is also quick to differentiate the two brands.
Offering premium escorted travel, Insight Vacations has been crafting journeys for 40 years.
Through meticulous planning, detailed preparation and boundless passion, the collection of itineraries showcases the most outstanding destinations in Europe and North America.
Meanwhile, as global leaders in luxury travel with expertise accumulated over nearly 100 years, Luxury Gold epitomises exploration in some of the world’s most spectacular destinations.
“Luxury Gold has been around since 2012 and it took us a few years to work out really what we were as a brand,” explains Böhler.
“Originally it was Insight Gold, a section in the Insight Vacation brochure with an elevated product, which we changed every year.
“Only the past two years has the brand been clearly defined and then last year we felt it was time to separate the two entirely.
“The offering is different, the price point is different.
“The decision was well received, and we have seen some fantastic growth of Luxury Gold since the split.”
Luxury Gold seeks to be at the real top end of the market, offering a real sense of exclusivity.
“For example, if you were in Venice, of course you want to see the Doge’s Palace, but with us you are not going to visit with thousands of other people during the day, there will be a private opening at 19:00 in the evening,” adds Böhler.
“At night, the big old key comes out and you are ushered in with a local expert and just a few others from our group.
“The same in Vienna and the Schönbrunn Palace, we do not go with everybody else, but have a private opening and visit.
“Every itinerary has at least one private, exclusive experience.
“In addition to that, we have the Chairman’s Collection, which is a handpicked collection from our chairman Stanley Tollman; an even more over-the-top experience.
“For example, here in the UK we tour the gardens of Alnwick Castle with the Duchess of Northumberland.”
Both Luxury Gold and Insight Vacations, however, focus on similar source markets.
Böhler explains: “In a nutshell we really cater to any English-speaking client, obviously, because of sheer size and volume, the two biggest source markets are the United States and Australia, followed by Canada.
“Then of course there is the United Kingdom, South Africa and Asia, including Singapore, Hong Kong and India.
“Anybody who would like a premium guided vacation operated in English, we are there for them.”
She adds, while the company tends to attract older travellers, anybody is welcome.
“We are an ‘open age’ brand; Contiki for example is very clearly defined by its under-35 policy, but we welcome everybody.
“Baby boomers are our key demographic, but over the last few years the spectrum has definitely gotten wider.
“Our guided vacations are now so different from an old-school coach tour that we see families, even honeymoon couples; it’s not a coach trip of old people,” she smiles.
Most of these guests are also signed up through trade partners, a theme common across the Travel Corporation.
“Over 90 per cent of our business comes from our partners in the trade; we are a very trade-centric business, always have been, always will be.
“That is part of our success story and I have no intention of changing that.
“Of course, everything is available online, but if you want to buy a luxury holiday you want to trust the travel advisor who knows you and can pick the right experience for you.
“Everybody is so time poor nowadays, nobody has the time to spend hours researching what is the right hotel and what to do.
“If you try and replicate one of our experiences, the amount of time it would take you to plan it would be overwhelming.
“A lot of our itineraries, too, you would not be able to arrange yourself, due to connections we have.”
Find out more about Insight Vacations here, while there is more on Luxury Gold here.