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Wednesday,  June 12, 2024 11:16 AM 

“True-life experiences”: Collette CEO Jaclyn Leibl-Cote talks strategy at luncheon in T.O.


“True-life experiences”: Collette CEO Jaclyn Leibl-Cote talks strategy at luncheon in T.O.
Jaclyn Leibl-Cote, president & CEO of Collette, was in Toronto on Wednesday (May 15). (Pax Global Media)
Doug Wallace

Venerable international guided tour operator Collette Tours hosted a panel discussion and luncheon at Hotel X Toronto on Wednesday (May 15) to usher in Jaclyn Leibl-Cote, the company’s new president and CEO.

The select 100 attendees included members of Collette’s Canadian and United States staff, travel agencies, representatives from Tourism Ireland and members of the media.

Previously president and chief customer experience officer, Leibl-Cote was actually named CEO last year, becoming the third-generation leader to head the 106-year-old family-owned tour operation. She succeeds her father, Dan Sullivan Jr., who is now the company’s executive chairman.

Jaclyn Leibl-Cote, president and CEO of Collette, was in Toronto on Wednesday (May 15). (Pax Global Media)

Previous to her new posting, Leibl-Cote said she was working away in the background “driving a lot of the strategy and the direction of the business, and my Dad was supportive in letting me do that. He was the CEO for 33 years, and he really grew the business – initially designing the tours, pricing the tours, selling the tours and sometimes even guiding the tours.”

Now, with teams around the world conducting tours in all seven continents, Leibl-Cote says she is driving back-end strategy on growth opportunities with Collette’s portfolio of small-group Explorations tours, which have been performing admirably in the Canadian market since they launched in 2008.

“We are now offering more private tours, offering different ways of touring and more flexibility,” she said. “We’re constantly looking at new things.”

Travel industry leaders gather for brunch at Hotel X Toronto. (Pax Global Media)

Though she admits to “trying not to upset the apple cart too much,” Leibl-Cote is determined to keep pace with new technology.

“I have been rolling up my sleeves in that space and studying AI,” she said. “There is ample opportunity for us to be more effective and more efficient, so we can continue to be relevant, embracing AI and what it can do for us. That is a focus right now.”

Lunchtime entertainment at Collette's Toronto luncheon. (Pax Global Media)

“Our travellers are savvy”

Following a reception in the hotel’s Neil Dankoff Gallery, Leibl-Cote sat down for a panel discussion, moderated by Splash Marketing consultant Antje Splettstoesser, with Alison Metcalfe, executive vice-president, USA and Canada at contributing partner Tourism Ireland; Diana Ditto, senior director of product marketing, Collette; and Julie Kelly, senior director of global B2B strategy and development at Collette.

The presentation and casual discussion outlined the company’s history and milestones, while pinpointing a few growing trends.

From left: Antje Splettstoesser, marketing consultant, Splash Marketing; Jaclyn Leibl-Cote, president/CEO, Collette; Alison Metcalfe, EVP, USA & Canada, Tourism Ireland; Diana Ditto, sr. dr. of product marketing, Collette; Julie Kelly, sr. dr., global B2B strategy & development, Collette. (Pax Global Media)

“Our travellers are savvy,” Ditto said. “They come to us because they know we are trusted, and that we obsess over our travellers.”

The 40+ Explorations tours comprise no more than 18 guests, catering to those who want to see a destination more slowly, digging deeper into the fabric of its culture and heritage.

“Our travellers are active 65- to 70-year-olds,” Ditto added, “social butterflies who want off-the-beaten-path experiences.”

From left: Antje Splettstoesser, marketing consultant, Splash Marketing; Jaclyn Leibl-Cote, president/CEO, Collette; Alison Metcalfe, EVP, USA & Canada, Tourism Ireland; Diana Ditto, sr. dr. of product marketing, Collette; Julie Kelly, sr. dr., global B2B strategy & development, Collette. (Pax Global Media)

Canadians have “appetite to go a little farther”

 Leibl-Cote thinks that the Canadian market in general prefers smaller-group tours that are more intimate, adding that Collette’s most popular tours are also getting longer.

“While 10 days was the length of a classic tour, we are now seeing groups touring for 12, 14 and 16 days – people are looking to spend more time in the destinations,” she said.

From left (of Collette): Brett Walker, GM & int'l business operations; Ron Lonsdale, VP, Collette (Canada). (Pax Global Media)

Even five or 10 years ago, she said people just wanted the stamp on the passport. Now, tourists want a more in-depth experience, rather than just checking the box. “For example, Italy is a big country – you don’t need to keep going back to Rome. You can dig deeper,” she said.

Canadians are also traveling to places they might not have considered before, “looking for something uniquely different,” Leibl-Cote said.

“Canadians tend to go more for the unique international places like Vietnam and Thailand. They have the appetite to go a little farther.”

Locals sharing local things

Leibl-Cote gave an example of Collette’s under-the-radar focus on “locals sharing local things” with mention of a Japan tour that includes an experience with a group of female pearl divers.

The “ama” divers surface with seafood, and then sit down and have lunch with the group. “The representative from the Japan Tourism Agency told our Australian managing director that she didn’t even know this existed,” Leibl-Cote said.

From left (of Collette): Nick Levasseur and Hektor Kaczuga. (Pax Global Media)

It's these types of experiences that allow Collette to stay on trend and on top of an often crowded travel category.

“Customer experience is at the heart of everything I am focused on. We listen to tour managers and pay attention to the surveys,” Leibl-Cote said, “and we listen to what people are asking for.

“The goal at the end of the day is to make sure we bring these stories and true-life experiences to our travellers. It’s really meaningful to us.”


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