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Saturday,  April 20, 2024 9:36 PM 

“Be bold”: Agents explore new itineraries, ideas at Destination France in T.O.

“Be bold”: Agents explore new itineraries, ideas at Destination France in T.O.
Left: Mélanie Paul-Hus, director of Atout France Canada; Nicole Pradines, Tourism Occitanie. (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.

We have truffles! We have mountains! We have cycling! We have wine! We have foie gras!

When tourism officials from France say they have something for everyone, they mean it.

The best of France was on display in Toronto Tuesday night (Feb. 20) as Atout France hosted its 2024 “Destination France” event, an annual roadshow for travel advisors that, this year, will visit four Canadian cities (Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver).

Last night’s Toronto stop at the Sheraton Centre featured 23 French and local exhibitors, from regional tourism boards to hoteliers to tour operators, who met with a crowd of roughly 80 travel advisors.

Spotted on the scene was The Consul General of France in Toronto, Mr. Bertrand Pous, who took time to say bon soir to the exhibitors and travel pros in attendance.

From left: Bertrand Pous, Consul General of France in Toronto; Mélanie Paul-Hus, director, Atout France Canada. (Pax Global Media)

Atout France, France’s tourism development agency, is leading several initiatives as the Western European country – known for its medieval cities, alpine villages, Mediterranean beaches, history, arts and culture, and cuisine – gears up for an exciting 2024. 

For one, there’s the obvious – the fact that France will host this year’s Summer 2024 Olympic and Paralympics Games, an historic event from July 26 to Sept. 8 that will not only take place in venues across Paris, but also in 16 other French cities, including one overseas region (Tahiti).

TravelOnly advisors Barbara Scrocco and Robert Rizzo. (Pax Global Media)

But there are other big-time events that will make France a go-to destination this year, including the 150th anniversary of Impressionism (in Paris and Normandy), the 80th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy (in Normandy), as well as the reopening of Notre-Dame Cathedral (which was damaged by a fire in 2019) in Paris on Dec. 8.

READ MORE: What’s the plan for river cruises during the Paris Olympics? Ama cancels, others in wait-and-see mode

At the same time, efforts are underway to improve France’s backend systems.

This includes a redesign of the Distinction Palace (a label that increases the international profile of 5-star hotels) and the renewal of Atout France's websites (B2B and B2C) and its brand.

Agents gather round to hear the latest on Aix-en-Provence at Destination France in Toronto. (Pax Global Media)

The agency has meanwhile teamed up with Netflix (France) for a campaign that's linked to productions filmed in France.

The Netflix-produced show Emily in Paris, for example, brought many visitors to the City of Light (a filming location for the popular TV show) during the COVID years, as PAX reported back in 2022. 

Club Med's Tyler Mattioli spotted on the scene. (Pax Global Media)

“The year of boldness”

“2024, for us, is the year of boldness,” said Mélanie Paul-Hus, director of Atout France's Canadian office, speaking to PAX at last night’s gathering.

Not just because France is hosting the Summer Olympics. “Being bold” also relates to France’s mission to become a leading sustainable destination by 2030, as mandated by the French government.

READ MORE: Ahead of Summer Olympics, France urges trade to “think differently,” consider new itineraries

The objectives, which tackle everything from cooling overtourism to implementing sustainable practices at hotels, are “ambitious,” Paul-Hus said, noting how the entire tourism ecosystem will have to get “very creative” in order to succeed.

Travel advisors meet with exhibitors at Destination France. (Pax Global Media)

Atout France has received special funding to carry out the mandate, Paul-Hus explained.

The money will go towards helping hotels transition into sustainable businesses and supporting tourist attractions as they develop new ways of managing crowds.

There’s also the ongoing suggestion for tourists to take the train – an easy and green way to see France (and the rest of Europe).

“We need to embrace the challenge,” Paul-Hus said. “We want people to think differently. We want the industry to start thinking differently.”

Exhibitors and Atout France team in Toronto. (Dan Galbraith)

Beyond Paris

The discussion comes as Canadian arrivals to France edge closer to pre-COVID (2019) levels.

Before the pandemic, France welcomed some 1.2 million Canadian tourists, Paul-Hus said. The latest stats for Canadian arrivals are now just over the one-million mark. 

As for thinking differently, Atout France is encouraging travel advisors to book their clients during shoulder seasons when prices (and crowds) are less, and to promote longer trips.

Karine Roy-Camille, Deputy Director Americas, Martinique Promotion Bureau; Monica Garcia, Martinique sales representative, Toronto. (Dan Galbraith)

There’s an emphasis to embrace cycling tours, which can reduce the number of bulky coach buses that can flood a city or village, Paul-Hus said.

The agency is also urging the trade to avoid selling the same product (like Paris) over and over again.

Going back to the Olympics (which, by the way, was last hosted in France 100 years ago) – while the world’s largest sporting event will undoubtedly attract throngs of visitors, it will also deter others. Folks who, for example, don’t care about sports, or want to avoid the heightened security and congestion Paris will see during the Games.

It’s for this reason Atout France, this year, is inviting agents to consider sending clients to other parts of France, which (arguably) offer the same (if not more) charms and delights as Paris.

Cuisine, traditions, accents and scenery changes with each French locale.

“For operators and agencies, we'd like them to study the regions of France a bit more, and send people to those regions more often,” Paul-Hus said.

If a client still wants to see Paris, transferring to the capital from within France isn’t difficult. The country’s vast high-speed train network is very efficient.

Air Canada, for one, has air-to-rail booking options, allowing customers to connect at European airports with major passenger rail systems. There’s also Rail Europe, which allows for multi-country travel.

“Being bold start in Canada,” Paul-Hus said. “We need agencies to bring ideas to their clients.”

Occitanie in focus

All sorts of new and inspiring itineraries for France were shared last night.  

The southern Occitanie region took the spotlight with five regional partners: Toulouse airport, Carcassonne Patrimoine Mondial, Destination Pyrénées, Uzès Tourism office and Cité Hôtels Groupe.

Representatives each took turns presenting new products for 2024.

From tiny towns, villages and hamlets, to UNESCO heritage sites, to wine and mountainous nature routes, Occitania, located in southern France, is packed with points of interest, including Pic du Midi de Bigorre, a mountain some 2,877 metres up that has an observatory and exclusive accommodations.

Toulouse, the capital of France’s Occitanie region, is known as “The Pink City” for the terra-cotta bricks that are used on many buildings.

Toulouse, France. (Unsplash/Arthur Chauvineau)

Carcassonne is a hilltop town in the Languedoc area, famous for a medieval citadel, La Cité. The town has some 2,500 years of history and has been occupied throughout time by Romans, Visigoths, and Crusaders.

The picturesque Pyrenees is a mountain range separating the Iberian Peninsula from the rest of Europe, stretching more than 430 kilometres between Spain and France.

Stay tuned as PAX, in March, will be exploring this outdoor paradise, in addition to Toulouse, as a participant in this year’s “Rendez-vous” trade show.

Sky-high adventures in Hautes-Pyrénées. (Nathan Birrien)

Uzès, meanwhile, is a commune in the Gard department, known for its arcade of stone and markets, while Cité Hôtels prides itself on offering immersive stays in Occitania.

Occitanie's flagship product is “L'Occitanie Rail Tour,’ a regional train that lets travellers tour Occitanie.

This year, offers on accommodations and activities will be made available, along with a preferential rate for using the train and coach network, Atout France says.

There are twenty itineraries to unpack, spread across some fifty stopover stations.

From left: Bruce Parkinson, Air Canada Vacations; Yazdan Bakhtiary, Air Canada. (Pax Global Media)

Air Canada (sponsor of the Destination France roadshow) promoted their direct seasonal winter service from Toronto to Fort-de-France, Martinique, as well as its connecting summer route, Montreal-Nice, its year-long Montreal-Toulouse route, Toronto-Paris, and the restart of Montreal-Lyon flights.

In some cases, it can be cheaper to fly into Toulouse (instead of Paris) from Canada, noted a representative from Toulouse airport.

Follow your nose

A busting tradeshow later on gave exhibitors and agents a chance to connect and draw up possible itineraries.

One interesting activation we crossed last night was a table captained by Stimulation Déjà Vu, a Montreal-based company that creates scents that match the emotions and senses of destinations.

Stimulation Déjà Vu creates scents that match destinations. (Pax Global Media)

Presented as a row glasses lined with original perfumes, the French regions (and their accompanying smells) on display last night included Provence (lavender), Paris (mulled wine) and newly-developed Martinique (warm hibiscus).

To paraphrase Toucan Sam, just follow your nose…to France.

And the award goes to….

Later, the Destination France 2024 Product of the Year award was presented to Patricia Fargeon, president of Planet France for its “live like a real French – proposed stay in Côte d’Azur.” 

The prize recognized the sustainable and slow travel aspect of their product, which encourages guests to buy local food from the market, walk and shop around, use electric bikes to pedal along the Mediterranean coast, and take the train to visit places like Villefranche-sur-Mer or Menton on the French Riviera.

Air Canada provided the winner with return flights to France.

Three other itineraries were in the running for the prize: Martinique and Guadeloupe - Senior Discovery Tours, Pilgrimage to France, Spain and Portugal - Connaissance Travel and The Mystery of Mary Magdalene - The Divine Destination Collection.

Among the travel advisors who voted for this award, one was randomly selected to receive a $250 gift card. The winner was Shereen Jeraratham from Globus Family of Brands.

From left: The Occitanie delegation : Hadrien PUJOL Groupe Cité Hôtels, Arthur MERCIER Aéroport Toulouse-Blagnac, Nicole Pradines (Occitanie Region), Ismael Tan Centre Holidays (winner), Anna Fontan Destination Pyrénées – Occitanie, Fadila IDRI Destination Pays d’Uzès et Pont du Gard, Sarahi Seguy Carcasonne. (Dan Galbraith)

A CroisiEurope voucher for a seven day, six-night Bordeaux river cruise for two was also drawn. The winner was Sylvie Perron, a product and insurance manager at Senior Discovery Tours.

Finally, a seven-day/six-night stay in Occitanie in 4-star hotels, including sightseeing and train transfers, closed the event. The winner was Ismael Tan of Centre Holidays.

Atout France and its partners now head to Western Canada, where they’ll meet the trade in Calgary (Feb. 21) and in Vancouver (Feb. 22). 

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