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Saturday,  July 13, 2024 11:15 AM 

“We're in a really good place”: TDC rides a wave of success at T.O. conference

“We're in a really good place”: TDC rides a wave of success at T.O. conference
From left (of TDC): Karine Gagnon, Dianne Jackson, Dan Prior, Sandra Wesson in Toronto. (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.

For many in the travel industry, last year was about cashing in.

After a turbulent few years of pandemic-related setbacks – which we don’t need to get into – consumers in 2022 splurged on making their previously-paused travel dreams come true, generating bumper profits for travel agencies, hotels, cruise lines and tour operators.

It’s a trend that has carried well into 2023. Worldwide tourist arrivals, this year, are expected to reach up to 95 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, up from 63 per cent in 2022, according to estimates from UN World Tourism Organization.

And, despite talk of a possible recession, the boom shows no sign of slowing down.

Even as the cost of air fares rise faster than inflation, global aviation execs are still expecting $9.8 billion (USD) in net income this year – more than double the amount initially forecast, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Here in Canada, Transat Distribution Canada (TDC) – which includes Marlin Travel, TravelPlus, Affiliates, Transat Travel and agent@home in English Canada – is riding the wave.

Karine Gagnon, general manager of TDC, says “business is coming in and it's continuing.”

Karine Gagnon, general manager of Transat Distribution Canada (TDC), photographed in Toronto. (Pax Global Media)

“There was a bit of slowdown in early summer, but over the past few weeks, it's picked up. Looking at our agencies, sales are strong,” Gagnon told PAX on Saturday (Sept. 16) at TDC’s national conference at the Sheraton Toronto Airport Hotel and Conference Centre, where roughly 250 members and 44 suppliers gathered to mix and mingle.  

Gagnon said “revenge travel” – a pandemic-era buzzword that suggests consumers are taking revenge on their inability to travel during COVID by spending more on bigger, longer, more lavish trips – hasn’t fizzled out just yet.

“We thought it was going to die, but it’s still going,” she said. “We're still seeing those bucket-list trip customers come through the door.”

Around 250 people attended TDC's conference in Toronto. (Supplied)

Boomers are back

The trends are all over the place, and some are similar to last year. All-inclusive packages down south, for example, are still hot, and consumers are still requesting higher-end hotels and longer stays, Gagnon said.

Some clients are still travelling at the last minute, but others, now aware of capacity limitations, are planning ahead to secure their spots, which has led to bookings well into next year, Gagnon added.

And boomers – arguably the last market to return post-COVID – are back.

Karine Gagnon, GM of TDC, addresses conference attendees in Toronto. (Supplied)

That particular market segment, which represented 32 per cent of Transat’s sales in 2019, has rebounded significantly, rising to 34 per cent of the market share, Gagnon shared. In addition, more young people are cruising – perhaps more than ever. 

On top of this, TDC’s network is still locking in big-ticket trips, at big price tags. 

“Yesterday I heard about a $100,000 trip that was booked with Railbookers,” Gagnon said. “I hear a story like this at least once a week.”

OK, so maybe 2023, for some, is still about cashing in. Even if prices are steep.

Airfare, for one, is up 25 to 35 per cent across the board, Gagnon said. And yet, “planes are full.”

Surf’s up

You know the wave is riding high when an entire conference is named after the trend itself.  

This year’s TDC conference series, which included events in both Toronto and in Saint-Hyacinthe, QC (on Sept. 9 and 10) was called “Ride the Wave – Surf the Tides of Success,” a surfboard-infused nod to the success and good fortune the travel industry, fuelled by strong demand, has experienced over the past year.

Even parent company Transat AT posted its first profit since the end of 2019, one day before the conference in Toronto kicked off.

“The mood has been really positive,” Gagnon said, commenting on the vibe at this year’s series.   

Attendees get ready to ride the wave at TDC's conference in Toronto. (Supplied)

TDC’s two-day agenda in Toronto on Sept. 16 and 17 – three days if you include an owners-only event that was held Friday – featured supplier updates, networking activities, cocktail and festive events.

Except peppered throughout the program, this year, were presentations about mental and professional development, designed to ensure that partners, in fact, are ready to ride that wave – especially as the busy fall/winter season begins.  

“We’ve looking at what this past year has been about,” Gagnon explained. “Everybody's been working so hard and the market has changed in the sense that there are less travel professionals to serve a lot of customers.”

“In order to tap into profitable opportunities, it requires energy and better management of day-to-day [tasks]. So, this conference is about how to prepare. How to ride that wave, and not be crushed by it.”

The Transat team spotted at TDC's trade show in Toronto. (Pax Global Media)

Optimize your work

An all-star cast of speakers were brought in to train and inspire attendees. 

Business coach and travel strategist Geraldine Ree led a talk on how to generate more and better high value customers.

She also addressed time management, teaching advisors how to embrace their priorities and “make time fly.”

Business coach and travel strategist Geraldine Ree. (Supplied)

Similarly, the team from Axellite Leadership hosted a workshop on ways to manage energy, the smart way, while keynote speaker Isabelle Fontaine discussed the psychology of influence.

Fontaine, in particular, covered how to master the art of conversation to detect or identify client expectations that are not specifically stated, and come up with winning solutions for everyone involved. 

Adding to this were updates on tools and new partnerships (like with Uplift, a buy now, pay later service, as well as with Princess, Cunard, Paul Gauguin and Seabourn) and resources, such as the TDC Program and Owners and Managers Guides, which consolidate best practices into one place.

A dance party breaks out at TDC's conference in Toronto. (Supplied)

5-Star Travel Pros

Next month, TDC’s own marketing, in the consumer space, will focus on amplifying the value of working with a travel professional.

A new campaign, launching soon, will draw upon the “5-Star” language that’s typically used in advertisements for hotels, cruises and destinations and apply it to travel advisors, with a call to utilize “5-Star Travel Professionals.”

“As an industry, we're almost too humble to talk about the humans behind saving costs, peace of mind, and answering the call when there’s a problem,” said Marc Pelletier, senior director, marketing, communications and events at TDC, speaking on the spots that will launch in Quebec, Ontario and Western Canada.

From left (of TDC): Marc Pelletier, senior director, marketing, communications & events; Karine Gagnon, general manager, in Toronto.  (Pax Global Media)

The ads will appear online, and eventually transition into video and email blasts.

“It’s a stock picture of a travel professional, which I hope evolves into featuring our own people, and we’re proposing what the competition [booking online] can't. We’re asking, ‘Why should I book my trip with a travel advisor?’, highlighting how it saves time, money and the uniqueness that travel advisors bring,” said Pelletier, sharing some details.

“I hope the whole industry starts talking more about that.”

Conference attendees surf the tides of success at TDC's Toronto conference. (Supplied)

Calling all LuxeXperts 

TDC is also planning to ramp up its presence in the luxury market, which has been a key focus for a couple of years now.

In June of 2021, TDC announced a new certification program, called LuxeXpert, aimed at helping agents perfect their knowledge in how to sell luxury travel and effectively explore the market.

It complemented TDC’s first-ever luxury trade event, “LuxeXpo,” during that same period, which welcomed 600 consultants and some 50 suppliers.

The LuxeXpert program was later enhanced with an opportunity to join Virtuoso, which partnered with TDC in March of 2022.   

When a TDC member becomes a LuxeExpert, their sales are reviewed, and if the agent qualifies for Virtuoso, they can advance to that next level of certification, which opens doors for gaining (and retaining) customers.

Now, more than a year into the program, qualified LuxeExperts are getting out there – some were even spotted at this year’s Virtuoso conference, which PAX covered on location in Las Vegas. 

From left: Marc Pelletier, senior director of marketing, communications & events, TDC; Sandra Wesson, director of product & industry relations, TDC; Matthew Upchurch, CEO, Virtuoso; Barry Davis, LuxeXperts Calgary; Oshelia Hong, LuxeXperts Ladner; Debbie Seed, LuxeXperts Maple Ridge at Virtuoso Travel Week in Las Vegas. (Supplied/Sandra Wesson)

“LuxeExpert has mostly been living internally. It got our foot in the door with Virtuoso, but now it’s time to bring it to life more prominently,” Pelletier told PAX on Saturday.  

TDC currently has between 250 and 300 LuxeExperts (about 30 of which are Virtuoso certified), Gagnon said, but the opportunity to grow that number is there – especially for when the “wave” weakens.

Advisors who align with luxury travel have an opportunity to unlock new sources of revenue, she said.  

“Business is still going, but it's eventually going to start slowing down,” Gagnon said. “We need to prep ourselves to make sure that we're always in market.”

“There’s a perception that there's not that much of a luxury market in Canada, which is not true.”

From left: Joseph Adamo, president of Transat Distribution Canada and chief sales and marketing officer of Transat; Nicole Bursey, commercial director, Transat. (Supplied)

Training, training, training

Meanwhile, the struggle at TDC (and at most travel companies these days) is recruitment.

“It's no secret that in travel agencies, the population is not getting any younger. We've seen agency owners, and employees, retire as we're looking for resources,” Gagnon shared.

TDC members mix and mingle with suppliers at a conference trade show in Toronto on Saturday. (Sept. 16). (Pax Global Media)

It’s “a bit of a struggle,” she admitted, but teams are getting creative, nonetheless, and finding new talent.

TDC has recruitment departments, and the most important aspect of the strategy has been “training, training, training,” Gagnon said.

Supporting this is TDC Campus, a digital learning platform that relaunched last spring with a new learning management system.

The TDC leadership team. From left: Marc Pelletier, senior director, marketing, communications and events, Dianne Jackson, director, franchise & affiliate members; Karine Gagnon, GM; Sandra Wesson, director of product & industry relations; Anthony Mormina, senior director, sales & corporate operations. (Supplied)

It features text, audio, podcasts, video, and quizzes, has been revised for industry newcomers, and owners and managers can now follow each employee’s progress in real time.

“We're shaping ourselves more and more to recruit, and there's been a little upswing in recent months [in hiring],” Gagnon said. “You have to think outside of the box, go outside of the industry, and look for those sellers.”

Tips for surfing success

TDC has never been in a better position to surf the tides of success now that Gagnon, who started her role as GM in July of 2022, replacing Louise Fecteau (who retired), has a full leadership team.

The network’s newest member, Dianne Jackson, now director, franchise and affiliate members, started last week.

“We're in a really good place,” Gagnon remarked.

Gagnon’s advice to travel pros as they gear up for another busy season of bookings?

From left (of TDC): Dianne Jackson, director, franchise & affiliate members; Dan Prior, regional manager, Ontario; Sandra Wesson, director of product & industry relations. (Pax Global Media)

Firstly: “If you learn a trick about time management, take it back to your office. Don't just put it in the drawer,” she said. “Take a subject and take time to push it further. Challenge yourself to change your way of doing it. If you don't make time, life will not give you time.”

And secondly: “Embrace change,” Gagnon said.

“As human beings, we typically don't like change, but I like it,” she said. “It’s easier to embrace change than fight it.”

“When you embrace it, you’ll open up to new ideas, try new things, and see things differently.”

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