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Wednesday,  June 12, 2024 12:13 PM 

“The experience of a lifetime”: Friisdahl & partners gear up for TTAND conference in Jordan

“The experience of a lifetime”: Friisdahl & partners gear up for TTAND conference in Jordan
From left: Omar Banihani, Jordan Tourism Board; Flemming Friisdahl & Alma Ortiz, TTAND; David Green, G Adventures, & partners, preview Petra, Jordan. (Dan Galbraith)
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 travel conference that’s flying nearly 300 people on a private jet to the Middle Eastern country of Jordan for a week of workshops and excursions, across three hotels and eight buses, doesn’t happen every day.

The pure logistics of such a complex event, combined with ongoing instability in the Middle East, is enough to make one ask: how ya gonna pull that off?  

But sometimes, “the stars align,” which is how Flemming Friisdahl describes the genesis of his upcoming opus – The Travel Agent Next Door’s (TTAND’s) 2024 national conference, “Trailblazers,” which doubles as a 10-year anniversary bash for the Canadian host agency.

“We started off by wanting to do something epic…and this is epic,” said Friisdahl, TTAND’s president and founder, speaking to PAX over the phone last Sunday (May 26), exactly one week before company staff, agents, suppliers and trade media are set to step aboard a chartered Boeing 777 Dreamliner, operated by Royal Jordanian Airlines, and jet to Queen Alia International Airport in Zizya, 30 km south of Amman, Jordan’s capital city.

TTAND's Alma Ortiz and Flemming Friisdahl (left) visited Jordan on a preview trip earlier this year. (Dan Galbraith)

The Sunday, June 2 departure date out of Toronto Pearson airport is now just a couple of sleeps away. The dream of TTAND’s conference in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which was announced at TTAND's conference last year, is finally coming to fruition. 

“I’m very excited,” Friisdahl said. “It’s not only the largest conference for home-based agents outside of Canada (that I know of), but it’s also the first time something like this has been done in the Middle East.”

"Epic" learning & travel experiences 

Spread across eight days (nine if you include the travel time), the exciting program from June 3 to 9 – which PAX is covering on location – marks a departure from the beach and ballroom spaces of all-inclusive resorts that TTAND previously held conferences at.

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

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

Petra, Jordan. (Unsplash/Emile Guillemot)

The jam-packed week – which involves 227 travel advisors, 31 supplier brands (37 reps total), and 19 staff from TTAND – will start like most conferences: with supplier presentations, business workshops, one-on-ones, and training seminars.

Through a “Buddy Program,” agents who are newcomers will be paired up with conference veterans so they can learn the ropes.

New programs at TTAND, such as a new cruise booking engine, a B2B2C booking platform and groups module, will also be revealed. And, like past conferences, there wil be fundraising efforts for the charity Pencils For Kids. 

Meeting some of the local wildlife in Jordan. (Dan Galbraith)

But mid-week, everything will transition into a full-on adventure into the heart of Jordan, with visits to the archaeological city of Petra, the desert of Wadi Rum (known for its dramatic sandstone mountains), and Aqaba, a coastal city on a gulf.

“What makes this conference different is that we’re moving almost 300 people, on eight buses, to three different hotels,” said Friisdahl, who’s already made trips to Jordan to scope out all the properties, which include the Crowne Plaza Dead Sea, Old Village Resort and Moevenpick Hotel Resort Aqaba. 

The scene at the Crowne Plaza Dead Sea. (David Green)

As always, there's parties on the calendar, including a White Party, a Bedouin-themed beach bash (where attendees will wear cloaks and headcloths), a formal gala night (where TTAND will distribute awards) and a farewell beach party. 

There will also be opportunities for participants to go into communities to spend time with, and learn, from locals.

It takes a village (or two)

Of course, it takes a village – perhaps more than one – to pull off something of this magnitude. TTAND’s conference in Jordan was made possible by key partnerships with G Adventures, the Jordan Tourism Board and Royal Jordanian Airlines.

“Without G Adventures, this wouldn’t be happening,” Friisdahl noted.

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

TTAND explores Jordan with G Adventures and the Jordan Tourism Board during a preview trip. (Dan Galbraith)

All of G’s CEOs (Chief Experience Officers) in Jordan, for example, will be with participants during the trip, providing a local perspective.

David Green, global vice-president of sales and customer operations and managing director for Canada at G Adventures, was instrumental in mapping out the itinerary.

“We are thrilled to be one of the headline sponsors, and of course, we have plenty of special G Adventures moments planned for the group, most notably, the fact they are all going to be on a G tour from the Dead Sea to Petra to Wadi Rum and then Aqaba,” Green told PAX. “They’ll be seeing the very best of Jordan.” 

Go, and grow 

Trips with G Adventures are about connecting guests with global communities, in unscripted and authentic ways, and turning tourists into travellers. Their itineraries aren’t about going somewhere, but growing somewhere.

READ MORE: G Adventures & Visit Jordan explain why they invest in travel agents

Guided by the belief that travel can be the greatest form of wealth distribution in the world, the company strives to provide direct economic benefits to the destinations it visits.

David Green (left) with Ayman, one of G's CEOs, at the Old Village hotel, where the group will be staying in Petra. (David Green)

It uses a “Ripple Score” to show the percentage of money it spends locally on hotels, restaurants and transportation.

The tour operator also has a non-for-profit, Planeterra, which supports local entrepreneurship. In Jordan, participants will visit two of G’s Planeterra projects: Beit Khayrat Souf, which is owned and managed by women, and Safi Kitchen, which aims to preserve local culture and natural resources.

And what would a TTAND conference be without an epic speaker? G Adventures’ Founder – entrepreneur, author and philanthropist Bruce Poon Tip – is this year’s keynote.

TTAND's Alma Ortiz visits the Beit Khayrat Souf on a preview tour of Jordan. (David Green)

“I think this has to be one of the most highly-anticipated conferences in recent years – if not ever,” Green said.

Judith Coates, owner of Wired For Travel, told PAX that she’s looking forward to attending this conference, more than any others, because she joined G on a trip to Jordan back in 2022.

“I'm over the moon to be able to share this unique experience with my colleagues,” Coates said. “I'm so appreciative of TTAND for thinking big and undertaking this huge adventure for us!”

Founder of G Adventures Bruce Poon Tip is TTAND's keynote speaker. (Pax Global Media/file photo)

Contacts on the ground

It also pays to have solid contacts on the ground. For example: next Friday night (June 7), Petra, the famous UNESCO site that’s half-built, half-carved into rock, will host a private TTAND event, which was organized by G and is being sponsored by the Jordan Tourism Board. 

It’s one-of-kind experiences like this that solidify the event’s “Trailblazers” theme.

"The Travel Agent Next Door goes down paths that other people don’t go down. This conference is a good example of that,” Friisdahl said. “We’re often doing stuff that others haven’t done, so I believe we’re a trailblazer for agents. We’re constantly trying to create a new path for ourselves.”

Team TTAND does a cooking class with G Adventures and the Jordan Tourism Board during a preview trip. (Dan Galbraith)

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 heavily subsidized by TTAND and its partners – the ticket, which includes air, hotel, transfers, meals and tours, was only $1,800.

"You can’t even fly to Jordan for that much,” Friisdahl said.

Safety & confidence amid the Israel-Gaza war

As previously reported, when spots opened for the conference last year, it sold out in 47 seconds, generating a wait list of more than 150 people.

But the world changed not long after, with the onset of the Israel-Gaza war, a devastating conflict that is still active.

Israel shares a border with Jordan, and since Hamas’ initial attack on Israel last October, TTAND has been watching the situation closely, evaluating the risks.

Friisdahl said the flight this Sunday is “100 per cent going to leave.” However: “If something happens, and we don’t feel safe, we won’t go,” he told PAX. “But I don’t foresee that happening.”

From left: Flemming Friisdahl, founder, TTAND; Omar Banihani, director of marketing, Canada, Jordan Tourism Board; David Green, global VP of sales and customer operations & managing director for Canada, G Adventures announce the conference at TTAND's 2023 conference. (Pax Global Media)

If anything, Jordan has played a diplomatic role in the Israel-Gaza conflict. “I describe Jordan as the Switzerland of the Middle East. It’s never been a country that has gotten involved in wars. It’s a peaceful country,” Green told PAX previously.

Tours have continued to run in Jordan during the conflict, but for Friisdahl, what validated his own comfort level was asking agents what they thought about the situation – and putting the conference to a vote.

“80 per cent said they were happy to go,” Friisdahl said. “That gave me confidence, knowing we weren’t asking people to do something that they didn’t want to do.”

The trip is also important to Jordan, which has experienced a decline in tourism ever since the Israel-Gaza conflict began.

“It’s a shame to punish a country based on what’s happening in other countries,” Friisdahl said. “A lot of people are depending on our group to come.’

Looking at every possible scenario

It appears the team has looked at every possible scenario.

As shared in a webinar last week, there’s a long list of measures TTAND is taking in Jordan, from securing a police escort during transfers to hiring a travelling nurse in case someone falls ill.

There are exit plans on roads to Egypt and Saudi Arabia in case, for whatever reason, Jordan’s airspace closes.

Ancient structures await in Jordan. (Dan Galbraith)

They’ve also gone to great lengths to ensure a seamless experience. For example: trucks will be moving everyone’s luggage, in advance, to ensure its ready for attendees as they arrive at each new hotel.

“With all the planning we’ve done, I believe things will go exceptionally well,” Friisdahl said. “Agents and suppliers are going to have the experience of a lifetime.”

A new era for TTAND?

Does the Jordan conference represent a new era for TTAND?

After all, the company is restructuring with the upcoming retirement of VP Agent Experience, Penny Martin, and recent hiring of Jeff Element as COO and Chris Senior as CFO.

Friisdahl confirmed that Jordan is a one-time event for the 10-year, saying that future conferences will likely return to traditional venues.

As for TTAND, the company's new leadership is about bringing in new perspectives and “giving me a better work life balance.”

“It’ll give me more time to talk with potential new agents,” Friisdahl said.

But first, the conference. The three things Friisdahl hopes agents leave with are new friendships, valuable relationships with suppliers and “the thought of Jordan as a beautiful place.”

What is Friisdahl looking forward to the most? The last day, when it's all over. 

"I’m looking forward to us sitting on the beach at our hotel, and saying: ‘What an amazing week. What a beautiful country. What amazing people they are.’ That’s what I’m looking forward to," he said.

"I want people to look back and say, ‘Those eight days were amazing.'"

The Travel Agent Next Door’s 2024 "Trailblazers" conference in Jordan takes place from June 2-9. Watch PAX for our detailed on-location coverage!  

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