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Thursday,  July 25, 2024   2:09 PM
TTAND shares growth strategy, talks Quebec expansion & AI at VIP supplier event
From left (of TTAND): Christine Ufniak, Rhonda Stanley, Pratik Bhandari; Penny Martin; Nicola Gowe; Flemming Friisdahl. (Pax Global Media)

“Suppliers make the difference of who we are as an organization,” said Flemming Friisdahl, founder of The Travel Agent Next Door (TTAND). “Without their support, we wouldn't be here.”

TTAND held its annual VIP Supplier Event Thursday night (Nov. 9) at the Fairmont Royal York hotel in downtown Toronto, welcoming bold-faced names from all corners of the travel biz, from tour operators to representatives from the hotel, cruise, air and insurance sectors, and beyond.

The partner appreciation night, which is attended by TTAND’s team, suppliers and trade media, doubles as a holiday kick-off party, starting with a glass-clinking cocktail soirée, and then transitioning into a sit-down presentation, where Friisdahl, and others, shared company updates and future plans.

Suppliers gather for TTAND's VIP event at the Fairmont Royal York. (Pax Global Media)

TTAND, which now has 37 staff in Canada, in addition to a team in India (totalling 62 employees) is capping off 2023 with record numbers, projecting $400 million in sales by year’s end, Friisdahl revealed. 

“We’re working very hard to get to half a billion,” Friisdahl said as applause filled the room.

It marks a significant increase. In 2019, with 796 agents and 47 staff, TTAND sat at the $165 million-dollar mark.

The COVID years obviously led to drop, cooling sales to the $54-55 million mark. But by 2022, the host agency’s rebound was apparent as its grand total shot up to $265 million, outperforming pre-pandemic levels.

Flemming Friisdahl, founder of The Travel Agent Next Door. (Pax Global Media)

Today, TTAND’s network of home-based travel advisors and independent contractors sits at 1,250 agents, and each primary agent still “gets a phone call every three months,” Friisdahl said.

“They get that personal touch so they know they matter,” he said. “Without them, we wouldn't have a business. It doesn't matter if they're a million-dollar agent – we have people who do $7 million dollars and people who do $100,000 – they all matter. They all pay the same fee.”

But is TTAND – which will celebrate its tenth anniversary next year – getting too big?

Speaking with PAX last night, Friisdahl said he gets this question every once in a while.

Team TTAND giving jazz hands at the Fairmont Royal York. (Pax Global Media)

“What I would say is that if TTAND doesn't grow in size, we end up not being able to develop new programs, hire more developers, hire more trainers, and hire more marketing,” he said, noting that the organization still answers phone calls within 28 seconds on average.

In contrast, on the supplier side, when it comes to preferred and approved companies, “less is more,” Friisdahl said during his presentation.  

He referred to a slide that showed TTAND’s supplier list from 2015, and compared that with this year’s list, “and not much has changed.”

Things that help suppliers achieve success at TTAND include annual incentive programs, long-term partner recognition, supplier access to consumers, and access to travel agent partners, Friisdahl explained.

“Also, ninety per cent of what we offer you is of no cost to you,” Friisdahl told the group.

From left (of Air Canada): Yazdan Bakhtiary, Tracey Bellamy, Jamie Fox. (Pax Global Media)

TTAND training wins  

The event unfolded on the heels of TTAND wrapping up its largest-ever series of roadshows across Canada, travelling from Halifax to Victoria, during October, with more than 600 agents attending.

One moment that stood out last night was TTAND receiving The Travel Institute’s 2023 Educational Excellence Award, which recognizes organizations and individuals that demonstrate a commitment to quality education for travel advisors.  

READ MORE: TTAND awarded 2023 Educational Excellence Award by The Travel Institute

Rhonda Stanley, TTAND’s vice-president of talent development, who heads up TTAND’s New Agent program, was on hand to accept the award from Diane Petras, CTIE, president of The Travel Institute, who made a surprise appearance.

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. (Pax Global Media)

“I applaud TTAND’s emphasis on ensuring qualified advisors meet the ever-evolving needs of our industry. It’s truly a privilege to recognize and celebrate their success,” Petras stated.

(Click here for more on TTAND winning the award, including Stanley’s reaction).

In working with The Travel Institute, which serves North America, TTAND has put 122 agents through the Certified Travel Associate (CTA) scholarship program, 401 new agents through training since 2015 (109 in the last 18 months), and there’s 886 more in the pipeline, Friisdahl said.

“When people say, ‘Oh, travel is dying,’ I don't think so. I think travel is really strong,” he said.

And it sounds like TTAND agents are happy with how things are going.

Penny Martin, vice-president of travel agent experience, shared data pulled from an internal survey, revealing that 94 per cent of agents are very satisfied or satisfied with their overall experience at the host agency.

From left: Eric St. Pierre, Royal Caribbean International; Bruce Lidberg, TravelBrands; Lisa Connell, Royal Caribbean International; Ron Lonsdale, Collette. (Pax Global Media)

From left: Brian Joseph, World of Hyatt, Inclusive Collection; Nicole Bursey, Transat. (Pax Global Media)

AI program in development

TTAND joined the Travel Leaders Network (TLN) in 2021 and has been utilizing the consortium’s “amazing marketing programs,” Friisdahl said, citing magazines as one example. (TTAND, notably, was named TLN’s “Member of the Year” in 2022).

The host agency will soon launch TLN’s cruise booking engine, and lead generation programs – covering destination wedding, honeymoons, kids travel, golf getaways and retired military members – that can help advisors grow their business.

From left: Maxine Gundermann, Seabourn; Jenni Berg, TTC Tour Brands; Brenda Bradley, TTC Tour Brands; Carla Brake, Globus family of brands. (Pax Global Media)

From left: David Green, G Adventures; Adam Kemp, Just You; Sinead and Conor Duffy, Royal Irish Tours. (Pax Global Media)

Friisdahl reviewed TTAND’s Rising Star program, its Z.I.P. (Zero Interest Program), which lets travellers finance their travel over a choice of agreed-upon time and payments, as well as its annual profit-sharing Partner Incentive program, which, to date, has paid out more than $135,000 to agent partners, he said.

Z.I.P., Friisdahl admitted, hasn’t yet reached its full potential. (“We haven't had a chance to really go out there and promote it,” he later told PAX).

The host agency, meanwhile, is investing in technology, especially around the automation of client information, authorization forms and accounting procedures.

From left: Karen Salviato, Manulife; Lindsay Pearlman, Travel Leaders Network; Linda Khann, Tourcan Vacations. (Pax Global Media)

As for the role of artificial intelligence, which has transformed (and challenged) the travel industry over the past year, Friisdahl told PAX that TTAND is currently developing an AI tool for its network.

“We're not saying much about it right now,” he said. “But we are working on programs within AI to see how we can support.”

To that end, “We still believe strongly that independent home-based agents are the ones people want to talk to,” Friisdahl said.

From left: Sevi Anagnostis, WestJet Vacations; Tommy Ryder, Bedsonline; Phillip Solomon, Tourcan Vacations; Krishaan Ganesamoorthy, TTAND. (Pax Global Media)

“We’re going to complement our agent program with AI, but we’re also going to show the value of the independent contractor.”

Other activations at TTAND include the “FITTRIP” challenge, which invites advisors to take up physical activities, as well as give-back initiatives, such as fundraising for Pencils for Kids, a charity for school children in Niger, West Africa founded by Robin Mednick, who spoke last night to share updates and express her thanks and gratitude.

From left: JC Girard, Softvoyage; Penny Martin, TTAND; C.J. Smith, Unique Vacations Canada (Sandals and Beaches Resorts). (Pax Global Media)

Growth in Quebec

TTAND, meanwhile, is growing in Quebec, where more than 20 agents now belong to the host agency – growth that has “taken off in the last six months,” Friisdahl said.

“I think Quebec is an untapped market when it comes to independent home-based agents,” he told PAX. “I say that because they're limited in resources and programs.”

“I believe we can bring them something that someone else hasn't brought yet.”

Christine Ufniak is TTAND's new marketing director. (Pax Global Media)

TTAND’s invoicing, marketing, websites and forms are now all available in French. However, the company isn’t 100 per cent bilingual (yet).

The only thing that isn’t French is TTAND’s support desk for when agents call in, “which we make very clear when we talk to a potential partner,” Friisdahl told PAX.

Attendees heard from Christine Ufniak, a former director at Carlson Wagonlit Travel, who joined TTAND in October as the organization’s new marketing director.

On TTAND’s growth in Quebec, Ufniak explained how the company’s websites can now switch to French with the press of a button.

“Quebec has become an important part of our business,” Ufniak said.

So much so that TTAND now has a French logo, which wasn’t easy to develop given the nuances of French, Ufniak explained.

TTAND’s new French logo reads “l’Agence de voyages près de chez vouz,” which, roughly translated, means “the agent close to your place.”

Status of Jordan conference

With its tenth anniversary around the corner, TTAND is now gearing up for its 2024 conference, which, as PAX has reported, will take place in June, in Jordan.

The seven-day event, which kicks off June 2, is a partnership between G Adventures, Jordan Tourism and Royal Jordanian Airlines (which is providing a private Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft), and the whole thing sold out in 47 seconds (and has a waitlist of 125).

Friisdahl took a moment to address the conference and its ability to move forward amid the ongoing conflict in Israel, which borders Jordan.  

“What's going on out there is terrible,” Friisdahl said.  

However: “We believe that we will be moving forward with the conference as it sits today. We are over eight-and-a-half-months away, which is a long time. We certainly hope for everybody involved that this is going to settle down.”

Friisdahl noted that TTAND has groups travelling to Jordan and Egypt this week.

From left: Michael and Flemming Friisdahl. (Pax Global Media)

“We don’t want to pull the plug on anything at this time. We’re confident that things will settle down,” he said. “And if they don’t, we’ll take care of it. Our priority is the safety of our agents, our supplier partners and our staff.”

TTAND’s VIP Supplier Event, in a way, felt like a travel industry family reunion.

And last night was, indeed, a family affair as Michael Friisdahl (Flemming’s brother) made a special guest appearance, wrapping the night up with some supportive words.

“We operate as a family and we all work together,” said Michael Friisdahl, who is the executive chairman of Signature Aviation and the former CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment.

“What Flemming, Rhonda and the team has accomplished has been unbelievable. I couldn't be more proud.”

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