Irish fiddlers, flamenco dancers, and a German Christmas market converged Tuesday night (Nov. 21) as members of the European Travel Commission (ETC) and the Canadian Association of Tour Operators (CATO) teamed up to host a cocktail and dinner do for top-producing partners in Toronto.
The first-of-its-kind, invite-only event – held at The Symes, an historical event space located in the city’s Junction neighbourhood – welcomed nearly 180 suppliers, travel advisors and trade media with a call to “travel different” and embrace sustainability.
“The idea is to get people to look outside of their usual scope and travel to places that they haven't been before, and go off peak, because there's so much happening outside the usual summer months [in Europe],” said Sandra Moffatt, chair of ETC’s Canada chapter, who is also Tourism Ireland’s manager for Canada.
On site to showcase the latest from Europe were ETC members, including Flanders (a region in Belgium), France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland.
Joining them were tour operators who belong to CATO, including G Adventures, Transat, The Travel Corporation, Intrepid, Globus Family of Brands, Royal Irish Tours, TravelBrands, RailBookers, Collette and Goway.
The night, which kicked off with a trade show, marked the first time the two organizations have collaborated to host a large-scale industry event.
“We all need to work together,” said Marco Frank, trade and partnerships manager at Visit Flanders, who is also ETC’s vice-chair. “We all have the same goals. So, why not team up?”
Europe’s post-COVID recovery is in full swing. According to the ETC’s latest year-to-date data, international tourist arrivals are just 3.2 per cent below 2019 levels, while nights were down by 1.3 per cent for the January-September period.
The rebound is being driven by resilient intra-European travel and the influx of U.S. tourists benefitting from favourable exchange rates, the ETC says.
Data also shows that around one in three of ETC’s reporting destinations have surpassed 2019 levels in terms of foreign arrivals.
That bodes well for an economic recovery, but will it be sustainable?
This is where “travel different” comes in. “It’s about getting people out to different regions, supporting economies, and supporting agents and tour operators,” Moffatt said.
Flanders, which encompasses cities like Brussels, Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent and others, is paying closer attention to how tourism directly benefits its communities, for example.
“We’ve moved away from just measuring overnights and arrivals,” Frank said. “That’s no longer relevant to us.”
Instead, the region has been studying the experiences of visitors, local entrepreneurs and residents to develop a quality score.
“If local residents feel tourism doesn't contribute to their local livelihoods, then maybe we're doing something wrong,” Frank said.
In terms of environmental sustainability, Europe is in a position to lead, Moffatt said, given the “great rail infrastructure” and options for staying longer and exploring multiple countries at once.
ETC is urging travellers to pursue more meaningful travel experiences.
“Versus just coming to a destination, staying in a city for a few hours, following a cookie-cutter lollipop, and moving on,” Frank said. “We want people to engage with locals, find hidden treasures and really discover a destination.”
“We're moving away from systems that rush [tourists] through.”
History & culture for the win
For Canada specifically, culture and history are big tourism drivers, Moffatt added.
“That’s what they’re going to Europe for,” she said, noting ETC data that states how 52 per cent of Canadians returned to Europe so they could experience culture and history.
Collaborating with tour operators is also allowing ETC a chance to address the issue of overtourism.
The commission will, for example, promote off-the-beaten path destinations, with options for exploring Europe during shoulder seasons.
“We need to get the message out,” Frank said.
The “good news story” for Europe, right now, is restored lift that has been announced in Canada – notably, WestJet’s plan to reconnect Atlantic Canada (Halifax and St. John’s) with European hubs in 2024.
“We want to fill those planes,” Moffatt told PAX. “But again, we want people to extend their time in destinations as well.”
Meanwhile, CATO – the “voice” of Canadian tour operators and “industry think tank” – has been focusing on gathering data to further its advocacy initiatives.
Brett Walker, CATO’s chair and general manager for Canada, and international business operations at Collette, noted how the Canadian government once viewed tour operators as companies that took people out of the country to benefit other nations.
While there’s truth to that, CATO’s assessment paints a bigger picture, noting how its members, in 2019, produced more than $6 billion in revenue, which, in turn, translated to $187 million in paid taxes, and $18 million in payroll, as well as 3.1 million travellers.
Compare that to the United States, which is ten times bigger than Canada, CATO members still produced one-third of the revenue and passengers that U.S. tour operators produced, which is impressive.
Speaking with PAX, Walker noted the importance of collaborating with partners.
“We're all in this together,” he said. “And we're all competing, which creates a very healthy, competitive ecosystem. It makes us stronger.”
The sharing of ideas has never been more relevant, in fact, as the travel industry accelerates at great speeds, Walker explained.
“In five, ten years the world is going to be completely different. I think companies have to think about who's travelling with them and why,” he said. “The traveller today is different than 20 years ago…There's a greater consciousness in regard to things, and we certainly can't be standing still.”
CATO’s advocacy, in recent times, has targeted regulation policies – specifically in Ontario, where travel companies are bound to the 40-year-old Travel Industry Act (TIA), a piece of legislation, delivered by the Travel Industry Council of Ontario (TICO), that “does not reflect the environment of the Ontario travel industry today, as Jean Hébert, CATO’s executive director, has pointed out previously.
This month, Hébert issued a nearly 2,000-word-long statement, criticizing the legislation, including the review of TICO’s funding framework and Compensation Fund that is currently underway.
This review, announced last year, “only serves TICO’s needs, and does not consider the needs of the industry or the improvement of consumer protection,” Hébert wrote.
“We understand that TICO must resolve its decades-long problem of appropriating funds from the Consumer Compensation Fund to finance its operations,” Hébert wrote, stating that than 70 per cent of TICO's budget comes from using the Compensation Fund.
The TIA was designed in the ’70s, in an era of a cash and cheque economy. Whereas today, over 90 per cent of transactions are using credit cards or other forms of e-commerce.
CATO is calling on Ontario to “act as an advocate for travel consumers,” and to engage its federal counterparts in a discussion of solutions to protect Canadian travellers, especially travel on federally regulated end-suppliers (air and cruise bookings).
“CATO cannot support a proposal for change that fails to respond to the travel industry's repeated demands,” Hébert wrote. “We can no longer be the only ones to bear the brunt of an inadequate, outdated, and costly system.”
PAX, last night, asked Hébert how the issue is progressing.
“What’s disappointing is that we don't feel there’s any interest from this government,” Hébert said. “It's difficult accessing them to have a real discussion about the issues and about how we can improve the system.”
Visit PAX's Facebook page here to see more pictures from the event.