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Friday,  May 17, 2024 9:39 PM 

On Location: “Trailblazing” in Alaska – Trade secrets revealed at Trevello conference

On Location: “Trailblazing” in Alaska – Trade secrets revealed at Trevello conference
From left: Trevello travel advisors Tom O’Connell, Karen Tatum, Erin Novodvorsky and Juanita Martin with panel moderator Susan Lawson, Trevello's director of engagement. (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 Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

Juanita Martin took the concept of a house party and turned it into a thriving business concept for booking groups in her community in Atlantic Canada.

For the past seven years (with exception to two during the COVID-19 shutdown) the Nova Scotia-based travel advisor has hosted “Kitchen Parties” – an annual group getaway for friends, neighbours and their friends at resorts in the Caribbean that includes live performances by some of Martin’s favourite musicians, which she flies in.

Over the years, the Maritime Kitchen Party (“MKP” for short), as it’s known, has grown in popularity and size – largely due to referrals and Martin posting live videos from her music-filled vacations on Facebook for others see.

“In the Maritimes, whenever you have a house party, everyone always gathers and ends up in the kitchen – hence the Kitchen Party,” says Martin, who joined Trevello eight years ago after being with Maritime Travel for 22 years. “I wanted a simplistic name that everyone could remember and associate with a great gathering experience.”

From left: Travel advisor Juanita Martin (left) talks strategy with Susan Lawson, Trevello's director of engagement, at a

As a model for securing repeat group business, Martin’s Kitchen Party is a testament to the effectiveness of bringing together likeminded people, through music and travel, to have a good time.

But how do you leverage a group, and take it further, once an idea has taken off?

For Martin, the next step to growing her Kitchen Parties was to look beyond Caribbean resorts and introduce a completely different travel style – river cruising in Europe.

Tools of the trade

Martin shared her strategy with peers last Thursday (May 2) on stage at a “Tools of the Trade” panel in Alaska at Trevello Travel Group's 2024 “Trailblazing” conference at sea (and 30th anniversary celebration) – on now until Tuesday (May 5) aboard the Ruby Princess.

Would her Kitchen Party clients, land-based customers, be interested in ships? Martin said she pitched the idea to her customers, who mostly live in the Halifax area, on a dedicated Facebook page she runs.

READ MORE: On Location - Amid “booming” cruise sales, Trevello, celebrating 30 years, sets sail for Alaska

“The response I got back was: ‘Oh my god. Yeah. We'll go. It was an amazing response,” said Martin, addressing 215 of her Trevello peers in Ruby’s Princess Theatre.

From left: Trevello travel advisors Tom O’Connell, Karen Tatum, Erin Novodvorsky and Juanita Martin with panel moderator Susan Lawson, Trevello's director of engagement. (Pax Global Media)

River cruises featuring musicians (like singer Jann Arden, for example) have taken off in recent years. One could say Martin’s clients, accustomed to seeing live musicians perform while on vacation, would enjoy something similar.

But Martin had risks to consider. For one, could she convince a river cruise line to let her bring her own entertainers on board, without chartering an entire ship and paying $500,000 out of pocket?

Then there was the cost to clients. A $2,500 all-inclusive vacation is different from a luxury river cruise, which can cost double (even triple) in price. Would demand cool, once customers did the math?

“I worked on it, and worked on it, and worked on it,” Martin said.

Finally, she struck a deal with Emerald, selling 24 rooms (for 48 guests) for a voyage on the Danube in October 2025, and without having to charter the entire ship, Martin will be able to bring her own entertainers on board. The musicians will get four nights to perform on the cruise.

“Emerald was amazing. They gave me promotions, a full drink package [valid for day and night], and onboard credits,” Martin said.

Staying true to the original Kitchen Party format, with an all-inclusive offer, was key, she said.

“You know Maritimers…they want to drink. They don't want just beer and wine with lunch and dinner. They want drinks all day long. That was a big factor,” Martin shared.

When asked about how she uses technology, Martin admitted she’s “not an Instagrammer.” But she loves Facebook. A private page she manages for her Kitchen Parties is a community in and of itself.

“Everything's posted there,” Martin said. “Changes to the schedule, things I’ve added, live feeds…if entertainers are playing at home at a pub during the weekend, it’s posted there.”

Her advice to agents looking to diversify and grow groups? “Just keep on at it, work with your BDMs, with somebody you're close to,” she told the crowd, emphasizing “persistence.”

The geek with a niche

Trevello’s 2024 conference – a round-trip voyage from Vancouver, B.C. to Alaska (with stops in Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan) – has been a hub for idea-sharing. Attendees, since last week, have had day-and-night opportunities to engage with 55 supplier partners, and each other.

Last week’s panel, which featured four agents, highlighted several areas of expertise, from ways to diversify groups to mastering niche markets to optimizing processes to leveraging technology for efficient time management.

Erin Novodvorsky from Ontario is a self-proclaimed “geek” who has found her niche in selling destinations that revolve around people’s favourite books, TV shows, and movies.

Defining a geek as someone who is “intelligent and obsessed, but not socially awkward,” Novodvorsky grew up watching Star Trek, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Lois and Clark.

Her passion for pop culture has allowed her to sell destinations that double as filming locations – like the U.K (Harry Potter) and New Zealand (Lord of the Rings) – but also branch out to other places like Japan, where fans of anime (Japanese cartoons) want to go.

“There’s a lot of people in the world who want to visit Japan. In these cartoons, a lot of the places are real,” Novodvorsky explained. “Just like TV shows we watch that are filmed on location, animes are drawn on location.”

Travel advisor Erin Novodvorsky found her niche in selling destinations that revolve around people’s favourite books, TV shows, and movies. (Pax Global Media)

This is how Novodvorsky, with the help of BDMs, has sold a lot of Japan (despite having yet to visit the destination herself).

Still, pop culture is a niche that comes with challenges. Novodvorsky said she had to stop selling all-inclusives (“Which is so hard to do”) and focus on countries that she could really specialize in, such as Ireland, New Zealand, the U.K, South Korea and Japan.

“Really narrowing the focus was really, really important,’ she told the room.

Another challenge she sometimes faces, as a pop culture lover, is “reverse ageism.”

“I've had people say, I'm too old, I don't get it,” Novodvorsky said. “Superman is older than every single person in this room. The Lord of the Rings was written before most of you were born…It’s OK if you don't know anything about it. But don't assume that you're too old.”

Novodvorsky’s strategy, as a travel advisor, is to get in front of her target audience (pop culture lovers) at Comic-Cons, where she sets up a booth.

“If I’m at Comic-Con, then my people are at Comic-Con,” she said, noting that 42,000 people a day attend the convention in Ottawa, where she lives.

Her goal is to have a booth promoting her travel services at Toronto’s Fan Expo, a five-day event that sees 95,000 people a day pass through.

“I'm the only travel agent at Comic-Con,” Novodvorsky said. “if you’re looking at finding your niche, you need to find those obscure events where your ‘people’ are. Be the only travel agent at that event.”

Novodvorsky also urged agents to connect with tourism boards, who often “need to partner with someone locally.”

One recent example is how Novodvorsky, tapping into the popularity of Korean dramas on Netflix and K-Pop (Korean pop music), worked with Korea Tourism to sell experiences in South Korea.  

All about the process

Trevello’s panel also touched on processes for running a travel business.

B.C.-based Karen Tatum, a luxury family travel advisor, shared her insights, from how she secures good referrals to the type of people she wants her clients to become after they travel.

Her process starts with initial contact (quoting and emails), and progresses into making interactions personal once a trip is booked.

“I always ask if there’s something I can let the hotel or resort know – whether it’s something they’re celebrating, or medical or dietary issues. They’ll feel like the trip is theirs,” Tatum said.

From left: Travel advisors Tom O’Connell and Karen Tatum. (Pax Global Media)

Tatum’s process may extend through the year. “I want to get them, on a regular basis, anticipating that trip,” she said. “I’ll provide them with travel tips and guides.”

It all leads up to departure day, when clients then feel “confident and comfortable.” Tatum also creates an emergency plan to ensure a stress-free experience. Her process is complete by following up with clients once their trips are done.

“Within each stage, they know what stage they're in as well. And I keep them in that stage. If they try and deviate, I pull them back. I try and get them to trust my process. I say, ‘I've got a process. I know it works. Just stick with me here,’” Tatum explained.

Her process aligns clients with her own expertise and thinking. “When I communicate so frequently, at the end of the trip, they're using my words. They're saying the same things back to me,” Tatum said.

She also touched on tips for maintaining a better work-life balance, sharing that she “never” answers the phone.

“It stresses me out to pick up the phone and not know what's on the other end,” Tatum said. “So, I never do it. Ever. You can leave me a message.”

“I need to be honest and clear with myself about who I am, how I like to manage my time, and attract clients who that works for. I'm not for everybody. And that's really okay.”

All eyes on AI

B.C.-based Tom O’Connell, meanwhile, talked about ways to leverage new technology, like artificial intelligence, to improve one’s workflow.

O’Connell listed off several tools, such as Motion (for task management); Goblin Tools (which helps break down tasks and creates to-do lists); CoPilot2Trip and Layla (which helps build itineraries, but also suggests places to go with specific requests); Canva (for creating logos, marketing visuals); Flights from (to see what days and which airlines fly from any destination to another) and many others.

Agents and suppliers attending Trevello's 2024 conference on board the Ruby Princess. (Pax Global Media)

“A whole new crop of advisors”

Trevello’s “Trailblazing” conference unfolds as the host agency sees an increase in sales. First quarter numbers are up 11 per cent over 2023, CEO Zeina Gedeon shared in a presentation last week.

Cruise sales are “booming,” noted Caroline Hay, general manager, cruise division at Trevello, telling PAX that the sector, overall, “has grown across the board.”

From left (of Trevello Travel Group): Caroline Hay, GM, cruise division; Zeina Gedeon, president & CEO. (Pax Global Media)

Meanwhile, Trevello’s conference at sea has welcomed some 60 new-to-industry agents – people who have joined the travel industry within the past two years.

“We’re seeing a whole new crop of advisors,” Hay told PAX. “It’s unbelievable. Every day we’re seeing new advisors. It’s a younger demographic. The average age is changing.”

Stay tuned for more of PAX’s on-location coverage from Trevello’s 2024 national conference and 30th anniversary aboard the Ruby Princess in Alaska.

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