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Sunday,  July 14, 2024 3:59 AM 

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

On Location: "The unexpected awaits": TTAND conference begins in Jordan, reigniting local tourism
Left: David Green, G Adventures; Flemming Friisdahl, TTAND; Karim Makhlouf, Royal Jordanian Airlines; top, right - getting muddy for the Dead Sea; bottom, right - the women of Beit Khayrat Souf. (Pax Global Media/Hilary Arsenault).
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.

A brilliant sea of white outfits met dramatic views of the Dead Sea at sunset Monday night (June 3) as The Travel Agent Next Door’s (TTAND’s) 2024 national conference, “Trailblazers,” and 10-year anniversary party kicked off in the Middle Eastern country of Jordan.

Set in Jordan’s arid southern valley, on the outdoor terrace of a coastal Crowne Plaza resort, facing the mountains of Jerusalem in the not-so-far distance, the cocktail and dinner soirée welcomed a delegation of nearly 300 attendees – most of whom arrived from Toronto on a private Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft hours earlier.

“It’s just gorgeous,” beamed a smiling Flemming Friisdahl, TTAND’s president and founder, speaking to PAX at the highly-anticipated event, which has been more than two years in the making (or ten, depending on how you look at it).  

TTAND's Flemming Friisdahl (far left) and Rhonda Stanley (far right) welcome agents and suppliers at the conference's kick-off party Monday night (June 3). (Pax Global Media)

Conference delegates gather outdoors at the Crowne Plaza Dead Sea. (Pax Global Media)

G’s “biggest-ever small group”

TTAND’s 2024 conference, on now until June 9, has brought together 227 travel advisors, 31 supplier brands (37 reps total), and 19 staff from TTAND, and an all-star cast of partners, including G Adventures (which was instrumental in mapping out the week’s itinerary), Royal Jordanian Airlines (which provided the lift) and the Jordan Tourism Board.

The Wired for Travel team at sunset hour at the Crowne Plaza Dead Sea. (Pax Global Media)

AmaWaterways' Sandra Gardiner with Steve and Karen Gil of Plan A Vacation. (Pax Global Media)

“This is our biggest-ever small group,” remarked David Green, global vice-president of sales and customer operations and managing director for Canada at G Adventures, addressing attendees on stage last night. “At G Adventures, our job is to show off Jordan. You've got such an amazing week ahead of you.”

David Green, global vice-president of sales and customer operations and managing director for Canada at G Adventures, speaks at TTAND's 2024 conference

From left: Garth and Meridel Layden, Lynn Holinski & Pam Mitchell. (Pax Global Media)

Travel for good with Planeterra

G Adventures, a Canadian tour operator, specializes in small group tours (16 people max), so accommodating a conference of nearly 300 people, like TTAND’s, puts a unique spin on the experience.

All of G’s CEOs (Chief Experience Officers, its guides) in Jordan have been with participants ever since the group arrived at Queen Alia International Airport in Zizya, 30 km south of Amman, Jordan’s capital city, yesterday morning.

G Adventures CEO Ayman leads agents onto a bus at Queen Alia International Airport in Jordan. (Pax Global Media)

The complex logistics of managing a group of this size have been calculated down to the last luggage tag. TTAND, with G’s help, has deployed a fleet of eight buses, and trucks, to transfer attendees (and their suitcases) from points A to B to C (there are three hotels involved this week, the Crowne Plaza Dead Sea, Old Village Resort and Moevenpick Hotel Resort Aqaba).

After landing at Jordan’s airport, where a VIP visa-processing service sped-up entry protocols, conference participants hit the ground running (and not even jet lag could stop them).

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

Two groups split up on buses and were driven an hour or so inland, passing rocky desert landscapes and olive trees, to visit two projects supported by Planeterra, G’s non-for-profit arm for supporting entrepreneurship in the destinations it visits.

PAX joined agents at Beit Khayrat Souf, a women-owned-and-operated café in the mountainous town of Souf, some 56 kilometres miles north of Amman.

From left: Sumia of Beit Khayrat Souf (left) and Ayman, a G Adventures CEO. (Pax Global Media)

TTAND advisors enjoying lunch at Beit Khayrat Souf. (Pax Global Media)

The outdoor cafe was created to engage local women in income generation activities. Today, it employs more than 20 women, who participate in daily management, service and cooking.

As a lunch spot for tourists, Beit Khayrat Souf unlocked a world of classic Jordanian cuisine. The highlight? Trying “maqluba” for the first time. 

This is a Middle Eastern rice dish, dating back some 1,000 years, that incorporates meat, rice and fried vegetables. The items are all placed in a pot, which is then flipped upside down before it's served (so the good stuff sits on top of the rice).

Maqluba is a traditional Middle Eastern dish. (Pax Global Media)

Jordanian families eat maqluba often – sometimes two, even three times per week, our enthusiastic CEO, Ayman, shared.  

Another group of agents visited Safi Kitchen, which aims to preserve local culture and natural resources.

The beneficiaries are local women and youth who are short of financial opportunities in their communities. Collectively, they participate in a farm-table-meal experience that showcases their tradition and culture through food.

The Beit Khayrat Souf team pose with G Adventures' team in Jordan. (Pax Global Media)

Before G started bringing tourists to Safi Kitchen, “nobody knew about our village,” Abd Jawad, manager of Safi Kitchen, later told PAX. “Now, many people visit us. It has become a destination.”

Safi Kitchen, which doubles as a community centre, was picked as TTAND’s give-back partner this year (each year, TTAND’s conference supports a different project in the community it visits).

Agents did their part in Jordan by bringing suitcases full of school suppliers, games, clothing items and water bottles – donations that will go towards supporting Safi Kitchen’s community programs. 

Donations were collected and delivered to Safi Kitchen. (Pax Global Media)

All things “epic” in Jordan

The conference marks a departure from the beach and ballroom spaces of all-inclusive resorts that TTAND previously held its conferences at.

The ancient nation of Jordan, known for its archaeological sites, nature reserves, seaside resorts and coastal cities, had all the “epic” things Friisdahl was looking for in an event that could not only celebrate his company’s decennial, but also leave participants feeling inspired.

From left: Jonathan Sargeant & Cindy Almond; Brenda Bradley & Lorie Nearing. (Pax Global Media)

"People are going to come back with a totally different perspective of Jordan," Friisdahl told PAX. "I think that’s what we try to do in our work – show people different aspects of the world."

The learning agenda in Jordan began Tuesday morning (June 4) with company updates and supplier presentations in the ballroom of the Crowne Plaza Dead Sea Resort.

From now until Wednesday (June 5), agents will be immersed in day-long educational, networking and training sessions, including supplier one-on-ones. G Adventures’ Founder – entrepreneur, author and philanthropist Bruce Poon Tip – is also this year’s keynote.

The Travel Agent Next Door team outdoors at the Crowne Plaza Dead Sea Resort. (Pax Global Media)

The Crowne Plaza Dead Sea Resort. (Pax Global Media)

In addition, fundraising efforts are underway to support Pencils for Kids, a charity that provides education, training, and income-generating opportunities for children and women in Niger, West Africa.

But then, mid-week, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan will be the star as participants embark on a multi-day itinerary that includes visits to Petra (a UNESCO site that’s half-built, half-carved into rock, which will host a private event for TTAND on Friday, June 7), the desert of Wadi Rum (known for its sandstone mountains), and coastal city of Aqaba. 

Agents get ready for opening session in Jordan. (Pax Global Media)

“They’ll be seeing the very best of Jordan,” Green told PAX. 

That includes experiencing the wonders of the Dead Sea.

Yesterday, after checking in at the Crowne Plaza, there was time to lather up in skin-cleansing mud and take a dip in the iconic sea, which sits in the hotel’s backyard. It’s called the Dead Sea because its high salinity prevents organisms, such as fish and plants, from living in it.

Humans also naturally float in the thick salty lake – a person’s body weight is lighter than the density of the saltwater, which increases one’s buoyancy.

Lathering up with skin-cleansing mud before dipping in the Dead Sea. (Pax Global Media)

Floating in the Dead Sea. (Pax Global Media)

Getting into Dead Sea mode. (Hilary Arsenault of G Adventures)

A destination in recovery

The whole experience is important to the people of Jordan, which has experienced a decline in tourism ever since the Israel-Gaza war began last October.

As our CEO Ayman explained, Jordan, which dates back to the Paleolithic period (and has roots in the Bible’s Old Testament) has been in recovery for five years now, starting from the impact of COVID-19 to the currently-active war in Israel, with which Jordan shares a border.

While Jordan isn’t involved in the Israel-Gaza conflict, its close proximity to Israel has punished local tourism.

Time for celebration at Beit Khayrat Souf. (Pax Global Media)

“The impact has been very bad. We’ve seen lots of cancellations. We feel it as CEOs,” our guide Ayman told us. “Hopefully, this war will stop soon.”

Ayman described Jordan as a safe and clean destination that, during the Israel-Gaza conflict (and past wars involving nearby countries), has remained neutral.

“We call Jordan the Switzerland of the Middle East,” he said.

The Israel-Gaza conflict was an unexpected event that, at one point, put TTAND’s conference in limbo. Friisdahl and partners have spent the past year evaluating the risks of bringing a large group to the Middle East as the war progressed.

Flemming Friisdahl, president and founder of The Travel Agent Next Door, on location in Jordan. (Pax Global Media)

Tours have continued to run in Jordan, despite the conflict, but for Friisdahl, what validated his comfort level was asking agents what they thought about the situation. He put the conference to a vote.

“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.”

Royal Jordanian Airlines eyes Canada

Having close to 230 influential travel advisors in destination isn’t lost on Jordan’s tourism partners, who have welcomed this week’s delegation with big smiles and open arms.

For suppliers like Royal Jordanian Airlines, a 60-year-old airline that provided private air lift for the entire event, the conference plays a crucial role in mapping out future growth.

Flemming Friisdahl, TTAND’s president and founder, with agents on board a jet they chartered with Royal Jordanian Airlines. (Pax Global Media)

Karim Makhlouf, chief commercial officer at Royal Jordanian Airlines, called the partnership with TTAND “a great opportunity” as the airline focuses on “growth, growth, growth.”

Makhlouf said Royal Jordanian has a plan to go from 3.6 million annual passengers to 7.2 million by 2027.

“We can only do that with your help,” Makhlouf told agents last night on stage, later saying that Royal Jordanian has 30 aircraft on order, including new 787-9s, which it will deploy on its direct routes from Toronto and Montreal.

Karim Makhlouf, chief commercial officer at Royal Jordanian Airlines (left); friendly cabin crew on board the flight. (Pax Global Media)

Makhlouf called Royal Jordanian a “boutique airline for a boutique country.”

“This beautiful country has less than four million tourists per year. It’s really an undiscovered thing,” he said, praising Jordan’s culinary and wine scenes, art galleries, religious sites and role as “the world’s best olive oil” producer.

“In Jordan, the unexpected awaits,” Makhlouf said.

Royal Jordanian Airlines' Dreamliner arrives at Toronto Pearson airport. (Pax Global Media)

As most of its passengers are tourists, marketing campaigns that revolve around the promotion of Jordan, as a destination, will play a vital role in the airline’s strategy, Makhlouf said.

“We’ll be promoting the airline by promoting the country,” he said.

Talk to strangers

The conference comes as TTAND celebrates significant growth, growing its sales from $6 million in its first year to some $500 million in 2024. The company’s cross-country network is also now just shy of 1,400 agents, making it Canada’s largest host agency.

The 10-year anniversary event in Jordan is “the most expensive conference we’ve ever done,” Friisdahl said.

The cost for agents to attend was subsidized by TTAND and its partners – the ticket, which includes air, hotel, transfers, meals and tours, was only $1,800.

Talking to strangers at TTAND's conference can help you learn. (Pax Global Media)

As the program continues this week, Friisdahl’s advice to agents is to “meet as many strangers as you can.”

“There’s so much knowledge that can come from that,” Friisdahl told PAX.

This is why TTAND doesn’t allow spouses or companions at conferences (unless it’s a duo running the business).

“It’s easier to immersive yourself in a community when you don’t have to be back at your room at 7 p.m. because your companion is waiting,” Friisdahl said. “We also get so many more people attending conference this way.”

It sounds like the strategy is working. 

“The comments we’ve received from agents about the people they’re meeting this week have been phenomenal,”  Friisdahl said.

To see more pictures from the conference, visit and “like” PAX’s Facebook page here.

Stay tuned for more of PAX’s on location coverage from The Travel Agent Next Door’s 2024 “Trailblazers” conference and 10-year anniversary in Jordan.

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