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Saturday,  April 20, 2024 10:58 PM 

TTAND celebrates 10 years; Jeff Element, Chris Senior join team

TTAND celebrates 10 years; Jeff Element, Chris Senior join team
From left (of TTAND): Christine Ufniak, director of marketing; Penny Martin, VP, agent experience; Nicola Gowe, director of finance; Chris Senior, CFO; Rhonda Stanley, VP, new agent development; Flemming Friisdahl, founder; Jeff Element, sr. VP, operations. (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.

Time flies when you’re having fun.

The Travel Agent Next Door (TTAND) turned ten this week, marking its anniversary with messages of thanks to its team and supporters, its growing network of travel advisors and supplier partners.

TTAND was founded by Flemming Friisdahl in 2014, and since then, the company has grown to become Canada’s largest host agency. Today, it boasts a network of more than 1,300 agent partners (and counting). 

It’s an achievement that Friisdahl, after a decade of fostering travel agent success, reflects on with both gratitude and astonishment.

READ MORE: TTAND named to Air Canada Circle Of Excellence Platinum

“Who would have ever known that we would have gotten to this size?” Friisdahl told journalists at a luncheon held for the trade press at Modus Ristorante in Toronto on Tuesday (March 19). “It was never something I thought was going to happen.”

Flemming Friisdahl, founder of TTAND. (Pax Global Media/file photo)

The “dream,” Friisdahl explained, wasn’t to become the largest host agency in the country. Rather, it was about providing “the best program for agents.” 

“It was never about having tons of people. It was about having quality people that believe in what we believe in, which is selling travel,” Friisdahl said. 

The founder and president also never expected that TTAND would reach the eye-popping sales numbers it pumps out today. 

Friisdahl said his host agency is expected to reach half-a-billion dollars in sales this year, echoing projections he made last November at the company’s annual VIP Supplier Event. 

It represents a significant increase compared to pre-pandemic times. In 2019, with 796 agents and 47 staff, TTAND sat at the $165 million-dollar mark.

Jeff Element & Chris Senior join team 

A special 10-year celebration for TTAND agents and suppliers was held Tuesday evening, an online event that saw more than 800 attendees log in. 

It was a night commemorated in song, speeches and retrospective look-backs, with guest appearances by actor Shaun Majumder, Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy and Robin Mednick, president and co-founder of Pencils for Kids, an organization that helps women and children in Niger, West Africa (TTAND’s long-standing charity partner).

Yesterday also revealed TTAND’s long-term vision as it invests in new senior management.

As previously reported, Penny Martin, TTAND’s vice-president of agent experience, will step down at the end of this July. Martin was instrumental in the creation of TTAND – she has worked alongside Friisdahl, since day one, to build the company from scratch.

With Martin’s exit four months away, new (but familiar) faces have been hired to lead the host agency into its next era of success.

From left (of TTAND): Jeff Element, SVP, operations; Penny Martin, TTAND’s VP, agent experience; Flemming Friisdahl, founder. (Pax Global Media)

Jeff Element, former president of The Travel Corporation Canada, is now TTAND’s senior vice-president of operations.

Element, who joined the company in January, is supporting TTAND’s marketing and accounting departments, and eventually, he’ll take over Martin’s responsibilities.

Martin, as she prepares for her last day, is working closely with Element to ensure “a smooth transition,” Friisdahl said.

Chris Senior has also stepped aboard. Formally a director of financial analysis at HRG North America, a VP of finance and administration at TTI Travel, as well as a business risk advisor at The Travel Industry Council of Ontario (TICO), Senior is now TTAND’s chief financial officer.

A ten-year journey

The appointments chart a course for TTAND’s long-term success. It’s all part of a journey that Friisdahl, ten years ago, first approached with some apprehension.

When launching The Travel Agent Next Door, he wasn’t entirely sure how the industry would respond.

“We didn’t even know if any agents would join us,” Friisdahl told PAX in an interview back in 2018, reflecting on the company's early days. “I mean, we thought they would, but we could never know for sure. We didn’t have a line-up out the door.”

From left (of TTAND): Penny Martin and Flemming Friisdahl. (File photo/Dan Galbraith)

The plan was to grow slow and steady. TTAND’s leadership, in that first year, consisted of Friisdahl, Martin and Nancy Aube, and within six months of launching, and with a promise to offer up to 100 per cent commission (an industry first), the host agency had 60 agents, six staff and $7 million in sales.

One year later, in 2015, business ramped up as TTAND ballooned to 222 agents, 12 staff and $20 million dollars in sales. It was during this time that the company’s launched its New Agent program, and Rhonda Stanley, Friisdahl’s wife, joined the company as VP of talent development.

Over time, TTAND’s programming, team, network and sales volume continued to grow.

From its annual conferences, which only get bigger and bolder with each passing year, to charitable initiatives, to opening new departments, including The Agency Solution (which supports storefront agencies), to new tools, such as a “ZIP Zero Interest” payment plan, to worldly top performers trips, TTAND’s evolution has revolved around what Friisdahl calls the “three Ws” of success: strategies that are a win for suppliers, a win for agents, and a win for The Travel Agent Next Door.

TTAND conference attendees gather for a group photo at Majestic Elegance Costa Mujeres in April 2023. (Dan Galbraith)

TTAND’s current network of home-based travel advisors and independent contractors may be the largest in Canada, but the total number – some 1,350 advisors – only tells half of the story

“We only support Primary Agents, which is about 650,” Friisdahl said Tuesday. (The rest, Associate Agents, work under Primary Agents). “That means we have ten agents for every one staff member. That’s a very high ratio in the industry.” 

By the end of 2023, TTAND had 37 employees in Canada, in addition to a team in India, totalling 62 employees. It’s now at 65, and more employees are coming. 

Is bigger, better?

But is bigger necessarily better? Friisdahl thinks so. “The more agents we have, the more we can reinvest back into the offices,” he said. 

By that he means investing in new programs, more developers, more trainers and more marketing tools and technology.

Being bigger, and producing higher sales volumes, also leads to “way higher commission levels,” Friisdahl said. 

He noted how TTAND was recently named Royal Caribbean International’s “Partner of the Year,” Celebrity Cruises' “Account of the Year,” and has achieved Platinum status in Air Canada’s Circle of Excellence program.

TTAND team members celebrate being named to the Air Canada Circle of Excellence. (Supplied)

The company has also won awards in education and training. Last year, TTAND and Rhonda Stanley were recipients of The Travel Institute’s Educational Excellence Award, which recognizes organizations and individuals that demonstrate a commitment to quality education for travel advisors.

“These things get agents dedicated support that they normally wouldn't have. That's really important to us, Friisdahl said. 

It translates to front-of-the-line service with preferred suppliers for when problems arise, he said. 

From left: Allan Brooks, director of sales, Canada, Celebrity Cruises; Flemming Friisdahl, founder, TTAND. (Supplied)

Being the [size] we are, [suppliers] step up and help. That helps all agents on the frontline, which is really what matters,” he said.

When it comes to suppliers, however, less is more, Friisdahl added. 

“It’s never been about having more suppliers,” he said, noting how TTAND’s key supplier list hasn’t changed much since 2015. “It's always been about having the right suppliers. Our suppliers make up 83 per cent of all our commissions. To me, that’s an amazing number.”

From left: Guida Botelho, sr. director, education, The Travel Institute; Diane Petras, CTIE, president of The Travel Institute; Rhonda Stanley, VP, talent development at the Travel Agent Next Door. (File photo/Pax Global Media)

Proud moments

Looking back on ten years, Friisdahl counts three things as his proudest moments. 

Firstly, he’s proud of TTAND’s relationship with Pencils for Kids. Over the years, with the support of agents and suppliers, company fundraising efforts have led to the building of four schools and a sewing centre for 30 women in Niger, West Africa – one of the world’s poorest countries.

Secondly, he's proud of TTAND’s Holiday Joy campaign of 2020. This addressed the hardships agents were facing at the time as they had to pay back “tens of thousands of dollars in commissions” Friisdahl said. 

Agents in need were able to privately apply for support and, in turn, receive financial assistance to cover groceries for holiday dinners, money for family members to buy gifts and even gift cards for pets. (During this campaign, nearly 55 families were supported).

It should be noted that during the pandemic, TTAND didn't lay off any of its staff. The company also, during this time, expanded its presence in the Quebec market. 

TTAND agents volunteer at Manos de Apoyo y Vida A.C., a non-profit that offers workshops for children in the Cancun region. (Pax Global Media)

Similarly, TTAND’s “Give Back Day” at its annual conferences, where agents volunteer their time to help out in local communities, is also something Friisdahl holds near and dear. 

But Friisdahl proudest moments are when he sees TTAND agents succeed. 

A few months ago, an agent called us to say that she's able to buy a minivan, put her daughter through school, and spend time with her family, in ways she couldn't spend before, because she now has a consistent, steady income,” Friisdahl said. 

TTAND’s 10-year celebrations continue this June as the host agency takes its 2024 conference to the Middle East, to Jordan, a much-anticipated event that’s being hosted in partnership with G Adventures, Jordan Tourism and Royal Jordanian Airlines. 

“This is about opening up the world, and Jordan, to Canadians,” Friisdahl told PAX previously. “We’re very excited.”

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