VPN Services Case Study
ICE Connects Clients to a World of Travel and Leisure (Cont'd)
We had to have a very strong technology base in order to scale the transaction sets that were coming through from the millions of cruisers and timeshare owners.”
John Rowley, CEO and Co-Founder, International Cruise & Excursions
About International Cruise & Excursions
International Cruise & Excursions Facts
Efficiently connect a fast-growing global travel service with an ever-changing clientele of timeshare owners, loyalty club members and leisure travelers
Global MPLS network connects worldwide locations and helps push incoming, SIP-based toll-free calls to contact center specialists; cloud solution economically expands capacity to handle bursts in web traffic
Ability to serve demanding customers with top-quality service and a broad array of travel and leisure offerings; ease of supporting ebbs and flows of web traffic
Global travel and leisure services
More than $610 million in annual transaction revenues
International Cruise & Excursions, Inc. (ICE) is a worldwide travel and leisure organization with a global network of innovative travel alliances including top corporations, resorts, cruise lines and leisure travel providers. ICE provides cruise and travel programs, unique membership reward and loyalty programs, as well as cruise and vacation fulfillment services to major corporate brands. The company serves more than 55 million consumers worldwide via a proven e-commerce platform, state of the art call centers, and customer service and fulfillment operations.
ICE connects affinity group members with travel and leisure opportunities, providing white-label support for the brands that sponsor those groups. Data integration means ICE understands both the member and the many travel and leisure offers available to them. The company serves clients with over 800,000 Web pages of information, ten global contact centers and some 1,300 customer service agents. The volume of reservation requests varies during the year and can spike when commercial clients make special offers to affinity group members. ICE must respond quickly to these changes by re-routing traffic, adding agents and expanding its data processing capacity on demand.
ICE is all about making connections, and the AT&T virtual private
network that enables those connections is central to its success. This global
MPLS network links ICE’s worldwide locations so that client calls are routed
AT&T IP Toll-Free Service to the right contact center or agent. The VPN also supports the robust data requirements within the centers as well as those of its home agents who are networked into the workflow as if they were on site. To help handle the spikes in Web traffic, ICE employs AT&T Synaptic Compute as a Service SM with VMware vCloud® Datacenter Service, a cloud-based solution, which enables the company to efficiently increase its Web capacity during peak times.
Where Others Were Competing, ICE Found Value
Founded in 1997, ICE was based on a keen insight: people who own timeshares are into vacations, but might want to try something different, like a cruise.
If we don’t have enough capacity to handle the forecasted or projected load, we can spin up a virtual environment within the AT&T cloud for the duration of that campaign to handle the additional Web traffic.”
Rob Curtis, Executive Director of IT, International Cruise & Excursions
“Our original vision was to create a cruise exchange product whereby you could exchange the use right in one of your timeshare or vacation ownership weeks or the equivalent points for a cruise,” said CEO and co-founder John Rowley.
“It more than doubled their opportunities for what they could do with their vacation ownership,” said Marcia Rowley, Chief Marketing Officer and co-founder. “This was very desirable, not only to the timeshare owner, but also to the developer because from a B2B perspective it made the product much more appealing.” What followed was 16 years of explosive growth.
Connecting with Carnival Cruise Lines, the world’s largest cruise provider, ICE quickly became an innovator and market leader in the cruise industry. The company developed proprietary software to convert timeshare value into a digital currency that could then be cashed in on a cruise. “We needed to automate everything right from the beginning, because this is a fairly sophisticated barter transaction,” John Rowley said. “We had to have a very strong technology base in order to scale the transaction sets that were coming through from the millions of cruisers and timeshare owners.”
Who else needed cruise connections? Members of commercial affinity or loyalty groups run by credit card, banking and other firms who were racking up points that they could cash in on cruises. With its extensive cruise industry relationships, ICE was a great choice to provide travel opportunities. It established relationships with American Express, Singapore Air, USAA, the United States Government and a host of other leading organizations.
More Travel, More Fun
Corporate partners and consumers soon requested the addition of high quality hotels, full-service travel benefits and lifestyle activities worldwide. Over the years, ICE added more than 130,000 resort and hotel options, a full-service travel platform and its newest innovation, the Lifestyle Collection, which offers golf, skiing, shopping, resort and hotel stays, dining, entertainment, concierge services and more. Users include businesses with multiple small office locations as well as the most sophisticated multinational companies.
Today ICE has relationships with more than 190 commercial clients and their millions of affinity group members, plus hundreds of cruise, travel and lifestyles service providers. When members decide to explore the options available to them, they are transferred seamlessly to a website or contact center run by ICE, but branded for the client. Because ICE representatives are speaking on behalf of their clients, only the highest quality of service will suffice.
“They are mainstream companies that have been around for decades,” said John Rowley. “Early in our evolution we had to put in place just the highest service level call center. American Express, USAA and the Wyndham group all rate the service, the product set and the value that we provide to their members. That keeps incredible discipline in our organization.”
Marketing the World
It’s ICE marketing’s job to give potential travelers the information they need to make the best travel choice and to encourage them to contact the company to take the next step. It sounds simple, but it’s not.
“Our job is to translate a very complicated world of travel and vacation options into one interface where the consumer can find the best value for their money,” said Ross Crowder, Senior Vice President of Marketing. “That happens by simplifying the process, selecting where the best deals are and then putting that in a form where a consumer can easily digest that information.”
Ten years ago that information showed up in customers’ mailboxes as a quarterly 128-page booklet. Today electronic newsletters, weekly emails and calls from the contact center have taken over. ICE has more than 800,000 Web pages, including growing video content.
It’s not just the complexity of the ICE business that creates a technology challenge. Business conditions constantly change. Members gain and spend points. Cruise operators fill cabins . . . or don’t. Commercial clients may schedule their own travel promotions to their members.
As the details change, the data ICE provides consumers are updated, and sales channels need to be prepared to respond. And travelers change too. In November and December, they tend to focus on holiday activities—then pivot in January, February and March to book their summer vacations.
To offset the fall slowdown, ICE is a major player in the “World’s Biggest Cruise Sale,” held during a week in October. “All the cruise lines try to stir up business then, which is traditionally the beginning of the slow season,” said Crowder. “The number of phone calls, Web visitors and transactions are exponentially higher when compared to the preceding week, and that’s a challenge for our IT guys.”
Embracing the Call
Travel takes time, and whether you pay in cash, timeshare days or award points, the costs can be significant.
While many travelers are comfortable going online to book a room or airline flight, they often want more information—and a reassuring human voice—before committing a week or more and thousands of dollars for a cruise. These are important buying decisions, and ICE treats customers with care. As customers move closer to a decision, ICE marketers share more information through email and outbound calls.
The content-rich ICE website gives travelers a sense of the range of choices available. Then, when it’s buying time, makes it easy to contact a knowledgeable service agent.
“It’s up to our sales group and our agents to qualify the customer, identify their needs and then best match them up with the right experience,” said Mark Wilson, Vice President of Product Marketing. “Our agent can guide the member into finding the right option.”
Here’s where ICE steers a course different from many service firms. “ICE is a bit unique,” said Wilson. “We want the phone call. We’re not focused on just trying to sell an airline ticket. It’s about a broader experience.”
Highly Skilled Agents
By identifying where inbound calls come from and the number called, the SIP (session initiation protocol) capabilities of the ICE network make it possible to route those calls directly to teams that support specific commercial clients.
High-profile clients are served by dedicated teams, a factor that can make the difference in meeting the high expectations of customers. Because ICE operates within the client’s brand, it is critical to duplicate the service levels that brand’s clients are used to.
“These customers have high expectations of the service they receive—they're very knowledgeable and they're very savvy,” said Jeremy Rowley, Executive Vice President of Sales. “It takes someone very skilled with a certain behavioral profile to service and sell to this clientele.”
Other ICE agents are trained to handle calls for multiple brands. Again, it’s essential to know where the call is directed. The AT&T network delivers that information, providing both the caller ID and the toll-free number the caller dialed. The ICE call management system then routes the call to the right agent trained to help.
“Caller ID is core to the business,” said Crowder. “When the phone rings what shows up on the display will set a whole process of things in motion. One, what value propositions will the agent integrate into their sales presentation? Will the caller be using American Express points or will they be using USAA’s currency or will they be trading a timeshare?
“Two, which one of our underlying business partners will receive credit for that transaction? And three, when they answer the phone how do they greet the customer? Then we get to a more micro level of specific phone numbers tied to specific campaigns that will let the agent know right off the bat what the customer is calling about.”
Handling a Global Marketplace
Customer calls are routed to agents in one of ten ICE contact centers, or to agents working from home. Most offices serve a single market, though the U.K. contact center also handles continental Europe, and the Mexico center takes calls from part of the U.S. and Central America. Smaller offices in Spain and Portugal serve those markets. An Australian center processes calls from there and parts of Asia. Other offices take care of other Asian nations.
An important sales team objective is to work with customers in multiple languages—the total today is 25. One strategy that helps make this possible is to enable agents with special language skills to work from home.
Sophisticated call routing programs channel customer calls over the highly secure AT&T Virtual Private Network to the home-based agents, who log in and operate just as they would working at a contact center. The computer terminals in home offices connect directly to the ICE data system.
“The next phase for us is, as we're able to get more online training, to then start hiring across the country,” said Nick Kuhl, VP of Inbound Sales & Operations. “That will give us an opportunity to be tremendously selective and really get the best of the best.”
Handling inbound calls is just one piece of the puzzle. Other teams of agents make outbound calls to follow up on previous customer contacts or in connection with promotions.
These are not cold calls— warm is more accurate. “We call customers that have an existing business relationship with one of our partners or, have done business with ICE at some point in the past,” said Ed Kazarick, VP of Sales, The outbound business is productive, and Jeremy Rowley is clearly proud of what they do. “There are not many outbound call centers that sell $140 million in packages with an average price point of $2,500,” he said. “The skill set that we have to find to sell that package is probably one of the biggest challenges we have.”
Connecting, and Knowing
The global AT&T Virtual Private Network helps provide the precise call routing that makes for successful interactions with customers. It also makes vital connections between the various ICE locations, enabling them to redirect customer calls from one contact center to another and provide uninterrupted service around the clock. “We’ve used the AT&T network,” said John Rowley, “and it allowed us to really support all of our international markets.”
“Our inbound toll-free numbers are SIP based and that offers a lot of routing power,” said Rob Curtis, Executive Director of IT. “There’s also a very elaborate workforce management and call management system in place that captures metrics for the volume of calls that we handle.”
“Once a call enters our realm our routing takes over and disseminates it according to where and how it needs to be processed. Our packet-based switching mechanism in the MPLS cloud gives us the ability to make changes on the fly. We’re not dealing with the hub and spoke type scenario where if we lose a spoke we’re dead in the water.”
The network helps ICE respond to fluctuating demand—and to emergencies. “The diversity of that MPLS cloud affords us the ability to transparently route toll-free traffic where it needs to be,” Curtis added. “We consider such seamless flexibility to be the norm, just because we’ve operated under this technology for so long.
“As an example, a few weeks ago a hurricane caused flooding in our Mexican building, which houses about 80 individuals in a call center,” he said. “We were able to dynamically change the call routing to handle those calls out of our Scottsdale and our Orlando locations, completely transparent to our end users.”
Equally important are connections with information. It could be the ever-changing inventory of cruise availability, the names of affinity group members and their point totals, the outcome of a specific customer contact or trending customer interest in a potential new vacation offering—information is crucial. The VPN provides access to these critical resources to help better serve its callers.
Another advantage: because it operates across the globe, the VPN will enable ICE to readily expand and serve commercial clients and travelers, providing them with the same consistent experience in parts of the world it does not currently cover.
Ready for Change
It’s not just the flow of customer calls that changes— demands for website content can also swing widely, and that too requires flexibility. Adding servers to support such a fluctuation can be costly and time consuming.
“This is an area where AT&T Synaptic Compute as a Service comes into play,” Curtis said. “If we don’t have enough capacity to handle the forecasted or projected load, we can spin up a virtual environment within the AT&T cloud for the duration of that campaign to handle the additional Web traffic. It affords us a very low cost, high availability service to augment what we physically provide.” The service, which is efficiently integrated with AT&T VPN, accelerates page loads and provides greater responsiveness for customers. This comes in handy during crunch times like the annual cruise sale.
The ICE website is posting more video content to dramatize travel opportunities. Compute as a Service can also help support these growing bandwidth requirements.
Making the Journey Together
Like many companies, ICE has seen its customers shift to mobile access, and AT&T is helping with the transition. “For an entity with our growth profile I think mobility is going to be key,” said Ted Davault, Executive Vice President of Technology. “Well upwards of 20 percent of users are on mobile-based browsers. We’re making sure that the existing application suite, as well as short term deliverables, are fully Web enabled and capable.”
“AT&T is heavily involved in mobility and has provided a lot of added value on the mobility development front that we are able to leverage,” said Curtis. “As a result, we can continue to embark on best practices to stay ahead of the curve.”
Working closely with AT&T is standard practice across the board, and helps ICE understand and manage the complex and fast-changing flow of business.
“We recently walked through the different real time dynamic reporting that’s available to us through the AT&T BusinessDirect® portal, to give us visibility into our usage and traffic patterns,” Curtis said. “It’s that peering partnership, that understanding that AT&T has about ICE’s business; they work with us collaboratively to help ensure that our network topology is able to meet our ever-growing demands.”
“The historic knowledge of ICE’s business that they possess is dumbfounding to me,” he added, “and that’s not just a testament to their level of attentiveness to us as a customer. It’s a testament to the AT&T account team that ICE has engaged with over the years, and it just I’m pretty proud of the relationship.”