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Saturday,  April 20, 2024 9:53 PM 

Tackling pain points: How ONVIGO plans to shake up Canada’s host agency space

Tackling pain points: How ONVIGO plans to shake up Canada’s host agency space
From left: Shean Carmichael, director of operations at ONVIGO, and Chippy Jegathesan, CEO Voyzant Inc., talk to PAX about their vision and strategy. (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.

It’s not every day you see a new host agency launch in Canada, so when a newcomer lands on the scene, it’s bound to turn heads.

This week saw the official launch of ONVIGO, a new Ontario-based host agency that’s promising a “no barriers, no fees” approach to business with an emphasis on personalized service, as well as diversity and inclusion.

PAX’s coverage of the announcement generated a tidal wave of clicks and engagement on social media, so we followed up with the ONVIGO team to learn more.

ONVIGO – a play on the words “On We Go,” with a sound instead of a W sound (and bearing no relation to the Montreal-based airline OWG, which stands for “Off We Go”) – is the brainchild of Chippy Jegathesan, CEO of Markham, ON-based Voyzant Inc., a leading travel consolidator with enterprises in other niche markets, including Holidays by Voyzant and Hotels by Voyzant.

Joining Jegathesan is ONVIGO’s director of operations, Shean Carmichael. His travel resume includes roles at Flight Centre and Goway, but he’s perhaps best known for his past title as director of marketing and communications at The Travel Agent Next Door, where he worked for nearly seven years.

From left (of ONVIGO): Shean Carmichael, director of operations; Chippy Jegathesan, CEO, Voyzant Inc; Angela Bokma, director of marketing. (Supplied)

ONVIGO, after sharing previews on social media for months, may have launched this week, but its infrastructure has been in place for years, Jegathesan told PAX on Wednesday (March 6) in a video conference interview.

Prior to forming ONVIGO, Voyzant Inc., for about four years, was operating an “informal host agency” with hundreds of home-based agents that focused mostly on selling air, Jegathesan said.

“We never had a formalized company or structure,” he said. “We didn’t advertise.”

The end of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, presented an opportunity to enter the host agency ring (an already crowded space) with a competitive offer.

“No barriers, no fees”

Jegathesan identified two groups in need – agents that left the business during COVID, and who wanted to return, as well as industry newcomers. Certain things, however, were getting in the way of this journey, he said, citing fees as one key barrier.

This is where ONVIGO’s “no barriers, no fees” offer comes into play. Agents who sign up don’t pay start-up fees, monthly fees or yearly fees.

“There’s a lot of agents who are interested in learning about the travel industry, but they don’t have the capability [money] to do so,” Jegathesan said.

Carmichael, who joined our interview, said “there's nothing wrong” with fee-based models. 

“But when we look at all the agents we lost during the pandemic, we wanted to approach this in a way of bringing back people who are passionate about travel, giving them an opportunity to be a frontline travel agent, and do it in a way that supports their ability to grow a business, instead of having to worry about recouping their initial investment.”

Carmichael said this approach works for individuals who have a passion for travel – people who are, for example, that go-to person in their family or friends circle who love sharing travel tips and advice.

“This opportunity takes that passion and puts people in the driver's seat of running their own agency,” he said.

Another component is a free two-week training program, which not only supports new-to-industry folks, but also helps experienced agents move their business over.

Parent company Voyzant Inc., meanwhile, operates in the background, offering agents compelling air and hotel content.

As a growing consolidator in both the Canada and U.S. markets, and with offices in other countries, such as Singapore, “we provide all the competitive content for agents to be successful,” Jegathesan said.

“We do billions of dollars in sales with most airlines," he said. "We have huge buying power." 

An Uber-based model

So who, exactly, is joining ONVIGO? The travel industry’s labour shortage was flagged during the COVID years, and it’s a challenge that continues to plague agencies today.

In the newcomer category, ONVIGO’s network is “as varied as the population of Canada,” Carmichael said.

“The people that come to us are everyone from retirees to people fresh out of travel and tourism school,” he said. “It’s former industry employees who maybe worked at an airline, handling baggage or working as a ticket clerk, that are now exploring other sides of the industry.”

New agents also include cabin crews, “because they don’t fly all the time, and have time,” Jegathesan said, and hairdressers. 

“When they’re cutting hair, they're talking about travel. They’re selling tickets to customers,” he said.

He calls this an “Uber-based model” for travel.

“Anybody who wants to be a travel agent, can be a travel agent. You don't need to know GDS or EDIFACT. We make it easy,” he said.

Agents don’t train other agents

In developing the concept, the team identified “pain points” that agents tend to experience – not just at their host agency, but as travel advisors in general, Carmichael said.

Personalized service is one aspect that ONVIGO hopes to restore in the host agency world – especially as companies get bigger in size.

“The model you're starting to see at larger host agencies is agents training agents,” Carmichael said. “I'm not sure why someone would join a host agency, pay fees to be a part of it, and then be asked to support other agents with their knowledge if they're not part of the opportunity to earn on the side.”

ONVIGO does offer peer-to-peer support, Carmichael said, but “we don't put the responsibility on our members to train other members.”

“When we talk about personalized support, it’s about our team happily jumping on a video chat and spending time to help an agent get over a hurdle if they’re struggling,” he said.

This is where ONVIGO sees potential for attracting experienced agents.

“We’re for people who have a desire to get a level of support and learning opportunity that they're not getting at their current host agency,” Carmichael said.

The aim, he said, is to create a community “where everyone supports each other with a common goal.”  

“We support what you want to sell”

There also appears to be some flexibility on what ONVIGO agents can sell.

ONVIGO is part of the Travel Leaders Network and agents, as such, are directed to a list of suppliers. But it’s not set up as a preferred supplier status model, Carmichael said.

“Instead, we ask any agent, before they start working with a supplier, to reach out to us to develop that relationship. We want to make sure the supplier supports home-based travel agents, offers commission, and works with Canadian agents,” he said.

“Before the advisor puts in the work, we want to ensure they're going to get some earnings out of it.”

ONVIGO is a new host agency for new-to-industry participants and experienced travel advisors. (Supplied)

Carmichael said ONVIGO is connected to all the major suppliers across Canada. "But unlike other host agencies, we don't just promote a specific supplier list,” he said. “We support what you want to sell.”

ONVIGO is still open to building partnerships with suppliers who are aligned with what the host agency is trying to achieve, he clarified.

As for the commission structure, it’s a 70/30 split on all suppliers, and ONVIGO doesn't split any service fees that ITAs may charge.

“They keep their service fees,” Carmichael said.

"Travel agents are not accountants”

Technology is another pain point ONVIGO identified. On this front, agents get a fully automated CRM, “with all the bells and whistles,” Carmichael said, and access to traditional booking portals.

The host agency will take care of time-consuming invoicing and commission chasing tasks, on behalf of its members, so agents can focus their time on selling.

“We've pulled invoicing out of the hands of agents,” Carmichael said. “Travel agents are not accountants. We don't want them to be accountants.”

ONVIGO’s system allows ITAs to submit information to a finance team, which will create a TICO-compliant invoice on their behalf, and then send it back to the agent for review before it’s sent to the customer, Carmichael explained.

“We’re saving them time,” he said.

The company is also building out web functions. Agents receive their own website, and soon, there will be a tool that makes suggestions to clients on activities to do in a destination.

“If the client chooses to book it while in destination, the agent is credited with that sale and can still earn commission – even though the consumer is purchasing while in destination,” Carmichael said.

An artificial intelligence tool that’s in development is a website feature whereby a chat bot will connect to WhatsApp on an agent’s phone. Meaning, if an advisor isn’t monitoring their inbox, they’ll be able to chat with potential clients, via WhatsApp, who have discovered their services.

“We're looking at how we can use technology to not only improve the experience of the ITA, but also how they interact with customers and how they can sell travel in an efficient and monetized way,” Carmichael said.

ONVIGO, as well, cites “wellness services” in its pitch to agents. Does this mean Carmichael is offering up free massages? Not exactly.

It’s linked to mental health support. Recognizing that the travel industry, with its 24/7 demands, takes a toll on people’s work-life balance and well-being, ONVIGO connect its agents to organizations that provide therapy services at a 15 per cent discount.

Diversifying the frontline agent

One key pillar is diversity and inclusion, which Carmichael says has lacked in the travel landscape worldwide, especially when it comes to representation in advertising.

This improved a little during the pandemic, and continues to see advancements today, but the road to diversity, equity and inclusion in travel is still a long one.

“The same can be said about the frontline travel agent,” Carmichael said.

As Canada continues to welcome newcomers from other countries, there’s an opportunity to build a workforce of travel advisors that can establish trust within their own communities through different languages, he explained.

“When you've got a travel advisor who is able to speak Cantonese, and you're more comfortable with Cantonese, there's a level of assurance when buying a product,” he said.

ONVIGO isn’t actively recruiting minorities, Carmichael said. Rather, it’s about being open to those communities for the purpose of providing fair and equal access.

Training is still only available in English. However, there’s accessibility components, such as subtitles and slowing down playback speeds, if needed, Carmichael said.

What’s next?

The team was tight-lipped when asked how many travel advisors are currently in their network, but Jegathesan said it’s “100 plus” and that it’s “growing every day.”

Holding a conference for its agents is definitely in the cards, but not at least for another year, Carmichael said.

But an in-person “mini conference” that brings together agents and suppliers (because ONVIGO is virtual), in the near future, is a possibility, he said. So are FAM trips. 

The long-term plan for ONVIGO is to expand outside of Ontario and go national, the team said.

“We're hoping that our numbers will double from where we are today so that we have a wide selection of ITAs that sell a variety of products, and that we're able to continue to support anybody who's interested in getting into the travel industry,” said Carmichael.

To learn more about ONVIGO, click here.

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