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Wednesday,  May 22, 2024 8:55 PM 

“We're in a good place": TravelBrands’ Nathalie Tanious talks tech, trends & smart strategies

“We're in a good place": TravelBrands’ Nathalie Tanious talks tech, trends & smart strategies
Nathalie Tanious, president and CEO of Red Label Vacations, parent company of TravelBrands. (Supplied)
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.

“The key to our success will be the customer service we're going to provide to travel advisors,” says Nathalie Tanious. “It's very cliché, but it's critical to do it right.”

It’s one thing to talk about modern technology, from the rise of artificial intelligence to the role of slick tools that promise efficiency and simplification. But it’s another to actually use innovation in a way that strategically makes sense. 

Nathalie Tanious, president and CEO of H.I.S.-Red Label Vacations (parent company of TravelBrands) isn’t interested in embracing new tech for the purpose of checking boxes or pandering to buzzwords.

Rather, since taking the helm of one of Canada’s largest travel companies last year, her strategy has been to define exactly how technology can empower her workforce of 700-plus employees, while at the same, make the lives of travel advisors a little easier.

For several years now, the mission at TravelBrands has been to enhance its platforms to make them more intuitive for travel advisors to navigate. It’s been a clear (but complex) if-you-want-it-we-got-it path to creating a one-stop shop for the trade.

That includes securing a broad range of products that travel agents can sell in today’s post-COVID world of high-interest rates and expensive groceries. 

“We're in a very volatile industry. We're very dependent on what's going on in the market,” Tanious told PAX in a video conference interview on Thursday (April 4). “We always want to make sure that no matter what happens, we have a product that someone can book.”

From left (of TravelBrands): Diane Lattavo, Nathalie Tanious. (Pax Global Media/File photo)

Ensuring that a booking is simple for travel agents can be another story, however, which is where the smart use of technology, and its ability to enhance service, comes in.

One major investment at TravelBrands has been the new and improved Access+ platform, which, last year, debuted enhancements such as a hotel search widget, dynamic fly and drive packages, the integration of loyalty points, river cruise booking options, and a redesigned dashboard.

Access+ now has a “fly and drive” feature that allows agents to book air and car in one transaction, for example. TravelBrands is also now adding vacation rental properties to the platform.

Additionally, upgrades have been made to the company's air consolidation system, GiGi, which now includes a calculator that agents can use to add up airfare prices and display differences.

It all sounds nice, but new technology (within the context of selling travel) only makes sense when it’s supported by expertise and service, said Tanious.

“Let’s face it – without service, none of this is important,” she said.

This is why TravelBrands, to complement its toolbox, is reintroducing 24/7 service so agents can turn to a team if something in their booking goes awry.

“If you have a passenger sitting somewhere in the world at 3 a.m., and their flight gets cancelled, we've got a team that handles that,” said Tanious.

That promise extends to air-sea protection when, for example, a client, for whatever reason, can’t get to a cruise port for embarkation.

“We’re going to get them to the next port, we're going to pay for the air, and pay for any other costs,” Tanious said. “We're going to make sure they get on that cruise.”

TravelBrands shows appreciation

These are just some of the topics TravelBrands will explore next week at two Agent Appreciation Events happening in Toronto (on April 9, at the Paramount Eventspace in Woodbridge) and in Montreal (on April 10, at Plaza Centre-Ville).

The who’s who of travel are expected to be there. The annual mega event – a trade show and networking forum – is set to welcome 91 supplier partners. And, between the two cities, the TravelBrands team will engage with more than 1,000 travel advisors, Tanious said.

(“We're now on a waiting list. We're booked to the max,” she noted).

TravelBrands' Agent Appreciation event in Toronto back in 2022. (Supplied)

In addition to highlighting booking tools, the events will also cover other important topics, such as fraud and ways that travel advisors can protect themselves.

There will be immersive aspects, too. Tanious said there will be a “GiGi room” with experts on hand who’ll be able to walk agents through all the new features that have appeared in the company’s air consolidation system.

Access+ and GiGi are “extremely complex platforms that require a lot of time, energy, innovation and dedicated teams,” Tanious told PAX.

And they aren't haphazardly thrown together, Tanious said, stressing how important it is for travel agents to share their feedback with TravelBrands.

“Based on travel agent needs, the market, and on evolving trends, there’s a whole bunch of factors that come into play before we roll out any platform,” she said.

Tech is both a blessing and a curse. While it can simplify processes, it’s not an invitation sit back rest on your laurels, Tanious explained, as “there's always something new.”

“Most times, we get it right the first time,” she said. “But then we have to work on making it that much better.”

"Why do you want AI?"

The evolution of artificial intelligence (AI) is certainly something the team keeps in mind– just as long as it’s used intelligently. While today’s AI presents all kinds of fun and futuristic possibilities, Tanious approaches it all with a critical eye.

“AI is a very big buzzword,” she said. “When it came out of the gate a year-and-a-half ago, everyone was saying, ‘We need AI! We need AI!’ But if you dig deeper, you have to ask, ‘What do you need AI for?’ Why do you want AI?’” 

Tanious says TravelBrands uses artificial intelligence for data analytics and, by the end of the year, the company hopes to launch an interactive chatbot.

“AI is important, but it has to be used strategically in order for it to really work,” she said.

“AI is important, but it has to be used strategically in order for it to really work,” says Nathalie Tanious. (Shutterstock/Jirsak)

She also doesn’t think artificial intelligence will replace travel advisors anytime soon. “What it will do, though, is help them augment the knowledge they have and provide them with more tools,” she said.

For example: TravelBrands has 1.8 million hotels in its portfolio. “Do you think our contact centre agents know all of these hotels? It's impossible. However, we're giving them [AI] tools to compare the products…That's what AI is going to do. It won’t make a decision for you, but it will give you the tools to make the decision.”

Revenge travel is over

TravelBrands’ trade events come as the company continues to grow in a healthy sales environment – albeit a different one compared to 2022 and 2023.

“We're in a good place,” Tanious told PAX. “Things have levelled, but that crazy revenge travel [trend] is done.”

Sharing her insights on the current state of the industry, Tanious said pricing is better as there’s “tons of capacity” at air and cruise lines compared to two years ago.

“All of this helps even out costs,” she said, affirming that the average price of an air ticket, compared to last year, has gone down.

Canadians, post-pandemic, are now reaching further when deciding on where to spend their holidays, she said. “If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that there’s more in the world to see,” Tanious said.

This attitude has resulted in more bookings that go beyond popular spots in the Caribbean and Mexico to bucket-list destinations in Europe and elsewhere, she said. And longer stays.

While "everything is selling in different capacities," what's most popular, these days, are trips to Spain, Portugal, Italy, France and African safaris, Tanious shared.

And expedition cruises – because they’ll all “very, very accessible,” she said.

Paris, France. (Michael Pihach)

“People want to explore and discover,” she said. “Whatever you want to do, there's a market for it…and you really have a budget for everyone.”

Emerging destinations that Tanious is watching include Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Dubai (“Which has already been hot for a few years now,” she said) and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, where Sandals Resorts recently opened a new property.

Global issues like the wars in Ukraine and Israel can have some influence on where clients travel overseas, Tanious added.

But once people step back and realize how far countries are from conflict zones, geographically, their confidence in travelling abroad tends to return, she said.

Ahead of next week’s shows, Tanious urges the trade – especially new travel advisors – to think about how the events will directly serve their business, whether it’s from an educational perspective or from a financial standpoint.

“Some travel professional sell everything in their arsenal, others will specialize,” she said. “At the end of the day, travel advisors should focus on what’s in it for them.”

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