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Wednesday,  June 12, 2024 10:35 AM 

“It was extraordinary”: TTAND conference wraps up in Jordan; G's Bruce Poon Tip delivers keynote


“It was extraordinary”: TTAND conference wraps up in Jordan; G's Bruce Poon Tip delivers keynote
The Travel Agent Next Door's conference in Jordan wrapped up over the weekend. (Pax Global Media)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

“Travel has an opportunity to be a transformational industry that can change people’s lives,” said Bruce Poon Tip, founder of G Adventures

The Travel Agent Next Door’s (TTAND’s) 2024 “Trailblazers” conference and 10-year anniversary event wrapped up on Sunday (June 9) in Aqaba, Jordan, with an invitation to look at travel differently.

After eight days of activities – a program from June 2-9 that started with conference sessions, and then transitioned into an epic adventure through the Middle Eastern nation of Jordan – nearly 300 Canadian travel pros were left with a new perspective on how travel can be a force for good.

But it was TTAND’s keynote speaker, G’s creator, who drove the message home.

Bruce Poon Tip, founder of G Adventures, was TTAND's keynote speaker in Jordan. (Pax Global Media)

“With a vacation comes big responsibility,” said Poon Tip, a celebrated entrepreneur, author and philanthropist, addressing delegates on a stage at Aqaba’s Mövenpick hotel, where TTAND’s closing session was held.

READ MORE: “The experience of a lifetime”: Friisdahl & partners gear up for TTAND conference in Jordan

Through community tourism – a concept G Adventures has pioneered since its inception nearly 35 years ago – travellers have the ability to not only transform themselves, but also transform others, Poon Tip explained.

That power, however, isn’t reaching its full potential, he lamented. The travel industry, he said, has lost its way, putting capacity and amenities (like go-karts on cruise ships and thread counts in sheets) ahead of actual destinations and the people who live there.  

“We’re all born explorers,” Poon Tip told the audience. “But somewhere along the way, we became consumers of culture instead of participants of travel and culture.” (Pax Global Media)

“We’re all born explorers,” Poon Tip told the audience. “But somewhere along the way, we became consumers of culture instead of participants of travel and culture.”

Made-in-Canada G Adventures, which sponsored TTAND’s conference alongside the Jordan Tourism Board and Royal Jordanian Airlines, is guided by a belief that travel, when done purposefully, can be the greatest form of wealth distribution the planet has ever seen.

The small-groups operator keeps track of this by applying a “Ripple Score” to its tours to show what percentage of money stays in a destination. 

Poon Tip reviewed some of G’s own travel-for-good projects that, over the years, have transformed communities – and consumer attitudes.

Initiatives like Planeterra, a not-for-profit, founded by Poon Tip in 2003, that fuels entrepreneurship in the destinations that G visits, alleviating poverty.

In Peru, for example, G will take its guests to villages on the way to Machu Picchu, stopping at Planeterra-supported projects, such as the Ccaccaccollo Women’s Weaving Co-op, a group of 45 Quechua-speaking women who have made a sustainable business by mastering the art of weaving.

The Ccaccaccollo Women’s Weaving Co-op in Peru. (Pax Global Media/file photo)

As PAX learned during a visit to that co-op last year, the flow of customers to this rural village has transformed the lives of locals.

Other G-led projects include a tree-planting initiative called Trees For Days, Project 300 (Planeterra’s mission to uplift 300 communities by 2030), its Change Makers incentive for the trade,  its GX community tourism summit (this year, it’s in India), and a must-watch documentary, called The Last Tourist, which looks at tourism’s darker side (read PAX’s review here).

 Bruce Poon Tip, founder of G Adventures, spoke at TTAND's 2024 conference in Jordan. (Pax Global Media)

But being a socially-conscious traveller isn’t just about showing up. It’s about embracing a certain mindset, Poon Tip told the room. Which is where travel advisors come in.

“The number one thing you can all do, when your customers are sitting in front of you, is help them understand that travel is privilege,” Poon Tip told agents. “Travel is not a right. If you feel you have a right to travel, and demand a certain service, then that is the wrong attitude.”

TTAND advisor Arlene Gibbons meets G Adventures Founder Bruce Poon Tip in Aqaba, Jordan. (Pax Global Media)

Poon Tip – who was attending TTAND’s conference for the first time, and stuck around to meet with agents and sign copies of his books – admitted that G, as a niche product, isn’t for everyone. He’s not after volume (“Don’t send everyone,” he pleaded).

Rather, “engage with [customers] about different things,” he said.

“I want [travel advisors] to think that travel can be more. That it can be different,” Poon Tip later told PAX. “Community tourism plays an important role in the future of travel. I want them to spread the word to the right customers. Not every customer, but the right customers.”

Conference delegates gave Bruce Poon Tip a standing ovation. (Pax Global Media)

Bring on Jordan!

If there was a place for embracing new ideas, it was TTAND’s mega-conference in Jordan, which, in a way, functioned as a blown-up version of a G Adventures trip.

Normal G trips are capped at 16 people, so producing a multi-day event that could move nearly 300 attendees (227 agents, 37 supplier reps and 20 TTAND staff) to three different hotels, while retaining the values of a G tour, presented immense challenges.  

“This is our biggest-ever small group,” as David Green, global vice-president of sales and customer operations and managing director for Canada at G Adventures, put it.

Agents and suppliers unpack Jordan with The Travel Agent Next Door. (Pax Global Media)

To replicate the style of its traditional tours, G rallied its local Chief Experience Officers (CEOs, the company’s term for tour guides) to lead TTAND’s group through Jordan, an ancient country known for its archaeological sites, nature reserves, seaside resorts and coastal cities.

The upbeat team, supported by Atlas Tours, G’s local DMC, provided attendees with on-demand guidance every step of the way, whether it was background information about a region, help with local currency, or directions to the closest bathroom.

READ MORE: On Location: "The unexpected awaits": TTAND conference begins in Jordan, reigniting local tourism

The CEOs, as PAX has previously reported, are the heart and soul of every G Adventures experience. 

G CEO Khader (centre) guides agents in Wadi Rum. (Pax Global Media)

G Adventures CEO Ayman explains the history of Jordan on one of TTAND's buses. (Pax Global Media)

A go-go-go week

As for TTAND’s conference, it was go-go-go week of learning and eye-popping exploration. The program started with a portrait of community tourism in action.

Upon arriving at Queen Alia International Airport near Amman, Jordan’s capital city, from Toronto Pearson airport (on a private 787 Dreamliner, operated by Royal Jordanian Airlines, no less), attendees hit the ground running to visit two of G’s Planeterra projects in Jordan: Beit Khayrat Souf, a women-owned-and-operated café, and Safi Kitchen, which aims to preserve local culture and resources through community programs (TTAND also collected donation items for this organization).

Travel advisors arrive at Beit Khayrat Souf, a G Planeterra project. (Pax Global Media)

Here, agents saw first-hand how money generated by tourism creates new opportunities for local communities and marginalized groups.

READ MORE: On Location - TTAND announces supplier partner awards, company updates in Jordan

“This is what tourism is about,” noted Malia Asfour of the Jordan Tourism Board and Tourism Cares, who was also a speaker at TTAND’s conference. “Connecting locally and diversifying traffic from places that have overtourism to communities that will benefit from tourism dollars.”

Malia Asfour of the Jordan Tourism Board and Tourism Cares. (Pax Global Media)

The next few days unfolded like any other conference would. Well, sort of.

Southern Jordan’s high-end Crowne Plaza, which is steps from the Dead Sea, Earth’s lowest elevation point, where humans naturally float due to the lake’s high salt concentration, isn’t exactly ordinary.

G Adventures Hilary Arsenault (left) snaps a selfie with suppliers on the coastline of the Dead Sea. (Supplied)

The business-as-usual elements were expressed in the day-long supplier presentations, peer support groups, training sessions and one-on-one meetings that took place at the hotel. 

There were workshops led by guest speakers, including Hannah Gzik, VP of Build a Kick Ass Company. Following in the footsteps of her late and great father, Gary, Hannah unpacked strategies for success, showing agents ways to not just survive in business, but thrive.

Taking care of business at TTAND's conference in Jordan. (Pax Global Media)

Hannah Gzik, VP of Build a Kick Ass Company. (Pax Global Media)

Nighttime was reserved for Instagram-worthy parties, from a white-dress sunset dinner on the Crowne Plaza’s sea-facing terrace to a Bedouin-style bash on the beach, which was dressed to resemble a traditional Bedouin camp site – rugs, tens, robes and all. (A highlight!)

Bedouin party at the Crowne Plaza Dead Sea. (Pax Global Media)

Agents unpack Petra

The conference then switched gears as attendees packed their bags, piled into buses, and began the four-hour drive to Petra, a UNESCO site that’s half-built, half-carved into rock.

Checking into the upscale and cave-like Old Village Resort, agents unlocked Jordan’s ancient lost city, which has roots dating back some 2,500 years. 

Checking into the Old Village Resort at Wadi Mussa City Centre near Petra. (Pax Global Media)

Today, Petra is an archeological park. Set amid rugged desert canyons and mountains, the site’s gem is The Treasury, a rock-cut monument that historians believe was built as a mausoleum and crypt at the beginning of the 1st century AD.

Many recognize the façade from the final scene of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Agents and suppliers visit The Treasury in Petra. (Pax Global Media)Walking the Siq – a winding, narrow gorge - in Petra. (Pax Global Media)

Attendees could either participate in a short hike to The Treasury, or a longer hike inland, beyond Petra’s crumbling ruins, to the side of a mountain, where some 800 steps lead to “The Monastery,” which is similar in design to The Treasury (but bigger)

The belief is that The Monastery was built in the 3rd century BCE as a Nabataean tomb.

Gathering at The Monastery in Petra. (Pax Global Media)

Agents brave the scorching heat in Petra. (Pax Global Media)

Both were incredible experiences, despite the uphill climbing and sizzling heat. But the capper was returning to the park, later that evening, for "Petra By Night,” which is a completely different vibe.

Holding flashlights, participants walk the entire Siq – a winding, narrow gorge — to The Treasury, where local musicians and storytelling awaits.

A private

This magical evening, which is illuminated by some 2,000 candles, is open to the public on select nights. But thanks to TTAND, G Adventures and Visit Jordan, our group saw it all, exclusively, in the form of a private event.

Strings were pulled. Somehow, TTAND got permission to project their logo on the side of the world-famous UNESCO site (which, to our knowledge, is a travel industry first).

Flemming Friisdahl, TTAND's president and founder (left) at an exclusive Petra By Night event. (Pax Global Media)

Jeep safari in Wadi Rum 

A jeep safari through Wadi Rum, a red-sand desert with dramatic sandstone and granite rock formations, gorges and caverns, followed the next day.

Attendees went on a jjeep safari through Wadi Rum desert. (Pax Global Media)

Wadi Rum, a protected wilderness reserve, has served as a filming location for several movies, such as Star Wars, Dune and Lawrence of Arabia

But it’s history dates back thousands of years. Various cultures have lived here since prehistoric times, with Wadi Rum serving as a key trade route from the Red Sea into Arabia. It’s called the Valley Of The Moon.

Jazz hands in Jordan's Wadi Rum desert. (Pax Global Media)

Agents and suppliers explore the caverns of Wadi Rum. (Pax Global Media)

While in the desert, everyone piled into a Beduoin-style tent and dined on Zarb (Bedouin barbecue) for lunch. The food is made using an ancient technique of preparing food in underground pits.

The Wired For Travel team enjoy lunch in a Beduoin-style tent in Wadi Rum. (Pax Global Media)

Aqaba on the Red Sea

Finally, in Aqaba, a port city near Israel and Egypt, attendees either chilled on the beach, cruised the coast on a boat, or snorkelled in the Red Sea.Snorkelling in the Red Sea off the coast of Aqaba.

A closing beach party, complete with fire and belly dancers, was held at the Mövenpick Sunday night, where travel advisors who have been with TTAND since 2014, its first year, joined Flemming Friisdahl (TTAND's president and founder) and Rhonda Stanley (VP of talent development) on a stage to cut a special 10-year anniversary cake.

TTAND and agents who have been with the host agency since its launch in 2014 cut a special anniversary cake. (Pax Global Media)

Speaking to PAX afterwards, Friisdahl said “it takes a village” for TTAND to succeed, noting the importance of community.

“Our travel advisors are well known for being supportive of others in the travel advisor community and that’s something I’m very proud of,” he said. “All of us do better, together.”

The Travel Agent Next Team on location at Aqaba’s Mövenpick hotel. (Pax Global Media)

How did they do it?

The pure logistics of TTAND’s Jordan conference is a story in and of itself.

TTAND deployed a fleet of eight coach buses (nine, actually, in case one broke down), a travelling nurse and police escorts to keep the group moving, safely and securely, through Jordan’s vast desert landscape.

From left (of TTAND): Flemming Friisdahl, Christine Ufniak and Jeff Element. (Pax Global Media)

Ample water was available (which was essential, given that temperatures in Jordan that week exceeded 40°C at peak hours). And, to ensure a smooth check-in at hotels, rooms keys were distributed on buses prior to arrival.

Trucks, meanwhile, hauled 300-plus suitcases to all of the hotels, in advance, so they were ready to go in everyone’s rooms.

TTAND moved its conference with eight buses (nine if you include one back-up bus). (Pax Global Media)

It was a daily dance for the entire TTAND team, including Friisdahl, who was often seen on the ground, directing buses, jeeps and support staff into position like a maestro conducting an orchestra.

“We wanted to do something epic…and this is epic,” said Friisdahl. “We looked around the world, because G Adventures offers the world, to see where we could go. And here we are.”

TTAND Founder Flemming Friisdahl. (Pax Global Media)

“Jordan is a safe place to be”

But it wasn’t without controversy. After the Israel-Gaza war broke out in October, Friisdahl said he faced pressures to cancel the conference altogether.

Jordan isn't at war, maintaining a diplomatic role during the crisis. But it shares a border with Israel, which raised a red flag for some.

TTAND's opening session at the Crowne Plaza Dead Sea. (Pax Global Media)

What cooled Friisdahl’s concerns was taking time to review Jordan’s security situation, accounting for the fact that tours (including G’s) have continued to run in Jordan during the war.

READ MORE: On Location - TTAND honours top agents at awards gala in Jordan; national media tunes in

He also asked agents what they thought about the situation, and put the conference to a vote.

rom left: David Green of G Adventures & Flemming Friisdahl of TTAND attend a national press conference in Jordan. (Pax Global Media)

“80 per cent said they were happy to go,” Friisdahl told PAX. “That gave me confidence, knowing we weren’t asking people to do something that they didn’t want to do.”

Friisdahl repeated his position last week at a national press conference, addressing a room full of English and Arabic-speaking media outlets, at the Kempinski Hotel Ishtar hotel (where TTAND’s awards gala was held).

“We’re not here because I wanted to support Jordan. We’re here because I believe Jordan is a safe place to be,” Friisdahl told local media. “It isn’t fair to make Jordan pay a price for what’s happening on their neighbour’s side.”

A Jordanian musican greets guests at dinner in Petra. (Pax Global Media)

A big deal to Jordanians

The conference was also big deal to Jordanians, many of whom rely on tourism dollars to make a living. As G’s CEOs told us, tourism in Jordan has declined during the war due to its shared border with Israel.

The emptiness felt at Petra, which usually welcomes thousands of visitors a day, was proof that things have slowed down.  

G Adventures David Green (centre) greet agents at TTAND's Bedouin party at the Crowne Plaza Dead Sea. (Pax Global Media)

Having a group of influential travel advisors in Jordan was, in a way, a beacon of light for the country as the tourism sector invests in recovery.

And the word was out. In Aqaba, locals – who perhaps heard about TTAND’s conference in the news – approached multiple TTAND agents on the street, thanking them for supporting Jordan.

Items from Lumeyo, a social enterprise supported by Tourism Cares, available for sale at TTAND’s closing beach party. (Pax Global Media)

This was Friisdahl’s “ah ha” moment – seeing how much it meant to locals to have TTAND in their country amid times of economic downturn.

“I think we're very lucky to have made a difference in people's lives,” Friisdahl said.

From now until next year, TTAND will continue to offer training about Jordan, to “keep the enthusiasm alive,” Friisdahl said. And to engage with new agents that join the host agency, which now has 1,400 members.

Conference attendees gather on the beach at Aqaba’s Mövenpick hotel, (Pax Global Media)

“I’ve heard many agents say they will sell this destination when they get back home,” Friisdahl said. “Do I think Jordan will see a big increase? 100 per cent.”

TTAND heading to Mexico in 2025

“Trailblazers” doubled as a fundraiser for Pencils For Kids, a charity that provides education, training, and income-generating opportunities for children and women in Niger, West Africa. In total, $73,200 was raised this year.

Friisdahl also revealed that TTAND will also make a $25,000 USD donation to Planeterra to help support its community tourism initiatives, and will continue to give $5,000 annually.

Penny Martin, TTAND’s VP of agent experience (left) will retire in July. (Pax Global Media)

A special send-off for Penny Martin, TTAND’s VP of agent experience (who will retire in July) was held. Ola Ulewicz of Jet Lag Voyages was also celebrated for earning a spot with G at the upcoming Taylor Swift concert in Toronto.

While Jordan set a high bar, next year’s TTAND conference will return to a traditional format, taking place in April 2025 at the Iberostar Selection Paraíso in Riviera Maya, Mexico with Air Canada Vacations.

“A bit surreal”

As for the conference in Jordan, G’s Bruce Poon Tip called the event “a bit surreal” and “a bit of an experiment.”

“It was a first for us,” he told PAX, “but with these agents seeing the product first hand, and seeing community tourism, it was quite special.”

Reese Morash of Halifax-based Travel Bug Travel called the conference “extraordinary.”

“Everything was so well organized and planned,” Morash told PAX, noting how he was “blown away” by Petra and Wadi Rum.

His biggest takeaway was meeting with experienced agents to find out how they have evolved their business over the years. “Some of those things we have done,” he said. “It’s nice knowing that you’re on track with others.”

From left: Reese Morash, Travel Bug Travel; Ola Ulewicz, Jet Lag Voyages. (Pax Global Media)

Ontario-based Ola Ulewicz of Jet Lag Voyages appreciated getting face time with suppliers. She also noted how generous the locals were with TTAND’s large group.

“I’ve been to Jordan before, and the people surprised me. Coming back, they’ve surprised me again. The people are so lovely, after overcoming so many things. That hasn’t changed,” she said.

P.E.I-based Travis Stewart of Stewart Travel Group called the experience “eye opening.”

“It was consistent with what we’ve been doing at TTAND – supporting each other and creating relationships that will go on forever,” Stewart said. “This conference is something most of us will never forget.”

From left: Travis Stewart, Stewart Travel Group; Cindy Almond, Romance and Foodie Travel. (Pax Global Media)

Ontario-based Cindy Almond of Romance and Foodie Travel was also blown away by “beautiful” Jordan, and appreciated the time she got to spend with suppliers and her own team.

“Thank-you, Flemming, for having the guts to do something this epic,” she said. “It was spectacular.”

David Green of G Adventures. (Pax Global Media)

G’s David Green was just happy to finally see a major Canadian travel conference take place outside of an all-inclusive resort or cruise ship.

“This is the first time agents have been way off in a destination, seeing a destination [at a conference],” he said. “We’ve proved that it can happen.”

To see more pictures from The Travel Agent Next Door’s 2024 conference and 10-year anniversary in Jordan, click and "like" PAX’s Facebook page here.


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