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Sunday,  May 26, 2024 11:01 PM 

On Location: “I’m blown away”: Brand USA kicks off first Canadian MegaFam with six itineraries

On Location: “I’m blown away”: Brand USA kicks off first Canadian MegaFam with six itineraries
Canadian travel advisors meet Denver's "Big Blue Bear" on Brand USA's MegaFam, taking place this week in cities all over the U.S. (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.

It’s the ultimate travel experience, wrapped in red, white and blue.

Brand USA’s “MegaFam” kicked off over the weekend, giving Canadian travel advisors an epic opportunity to learn about the United States in a completely new way.

It’s a multi-city, multi-state experience involving 55 travel agents, who’ve been divided into groups and placed on six different itineraries in some of America’s most iconic regions.

The adventure began last Friday (April 12) as agents, courtesy of Air Canada, flew to various U.S. cities and, simultaneously, jumped feet first into a culture, culinary and history-rich program that was developed by Brand USA alongside its airline and tourism board partners.

MegaFam participants visit Larimer Square in Denver. (Pax Global Media)

But that’s just one-half of it. Later this week, on Wednesday (April 17), everyone will fly to Houston, Texas, with United Airlines, and meet up for one grand finale event, where agents will present and share what they learned.

The MegaFam is about “showing the travel trade the United States, all in one big shot,” said Casey Canevari, senior manager, global trade development at Brand USA, the official destination marketing organization for the U.S.

“It’s an opportunity to showcase what there is to see and do – to, through and beyond the gateways of the United States.”

From left:   Audrey Tanguay Beaudette, manager of global sales & tourism partnerships, Air Canada; Casey Canevari, senior manager, global trade development, Brand USA. (Pax Global Media)

PAX unpacks Western Wonders

PAX is currently embedded in the MegaFam – a project Brand USA started more than ten years ago – with Canevari, Audrey Tanguay Beaudette (manager of global sales and tourism partnerships at Air Canada) and an esteemed group of eight travel advisors from Alberta, Ontario and Quebec who sell both corporate and leisure travel. 

Our itinerary? “Western Wonders: Peaks and Plains" – starting with Denver and Fort Collins in Colorado (a sports-loving state that mixes arid desert, river canyons and the snow-covered Rocky Mountains) to Cheyenne, Wyoming, where Wild West history and off-the-beaten-path adventures await.

From left: Audrey Tanguay Beaudette, Kristina Ziegler, Callan Thompson and Lori Mahabir in Denver. (Pax Global Media)

The other colourful itineraries agents are unpacking this week include “As Seen On Screen” (Burbank, Anaheim and San Diego in California); “Cityscapes and Coastlines” (Washington, D.C., Annapolis, MD and Philadelphia, PA); “Route 66, Landmarks and Bourbon” (Chicago, Springfield, St. Louis, IL and Louisville, KY); “Secret Trails – Backroads, Bayous and Beaches” (New Orleans, Lafayette, Lake Charles, LA and Galveston, TX); and “Sands and Sunsets” (Phoenix and Flagstaff, AZ and Las Vegas, NV).

From left: Matt Passakas, Sandra Williams-Reid, Audrey Tanguay Beaudette, Karen Sutherland. (Pax Global Media)

Participants, with Brand USA-branded hoodies in hand, are not only seeing and tasting their way through each city, but also meeting the locals who make each destination special.

“It’s experiential storytelling,” as Canevari put it. “It’s taking people, boots on the ground, and showing them what there is to see and do all throughout the United States – because there is so much to see. You cross one border, and it’s like being in a new country.”

Agents hang out with the locals at New Belgium Brewing Company in Fort Collins, Colorado. (Pax Global Media)

First MegaFam for Canada

What makes this year’s MegaFam particularly exciting is that it’s the first one Brand USA has ever done with the Canadian travel trade.

Which, you could say, is long overdue – Canada, as a transborder market, is the United States’ number one source for international visitors.

Coming out of the pandemic, “tourism is back, and it’s flourishing” Canevari said, noting that 2023 saw 25 million Canadians visit the U.S.

Sure, Canadians have long landed in popular cities like New York City, Miami, San Francisco or Los Angeles, or have moved to warm climate states like Arizona and Florida as seasonal snowbirds.

On the scene in Denver. (Pax Global Media)

But that only scratches the surface in terms of what America, as a tourist destination, has to offer. “There’s a lot more to see and do than what people think they know,” Canevari said.

For airlines like Air Canada, the MegaFam is also a chance to highlight direct connectivity and joint ventures.

“We’re the airline with the most transborder flights,” Tanguay Beaudette pointed out. “This is an opportunity for us to showcase our network and some of the new routes we’re offering this year.”

Hiking through Red Rocks state park. (Pax Global Media)

That includes new flights from Montreal to Austin and St. Louis, and a new Toronto-Charleston route – destinations that aren’t typically offered by other airlines, Tanguay Beaudette said.

Adding to this is Air Canada’s joint venture with United Airlines, which ensures there are ample flight options and better schedules for customers travelling between the two countries.

A rigorous selection process

As for the travel advisors involved, the Canadian MegaFam, which took nearly eight months to put together, wasn’t a free-for-all. Participants had to undergo a rigorous selection process in order to secure a spot on the paid-for trip.

Agents were required to write a short essay that explained why they wanted to participate and were required to sell at least four round-trip air tickets to the United States.

Agents pose in front of Union Station in Denver. (Pax Global Media)

They also had to complete regional and specialist “badges” (learning modules) on Brand USA’s travel agent training tool, the USA Discovery Program. “We wanted quality agents,” Canevari said. Candidates picked their top three itineraries and were placed accordingly.

Brand USA’s inaugural MegaFAM for Canada is diverse – not only in the states agents are exploring, but in the participants themselves as almost every province is represented on the trip.

Travel advisors Claudine Nichilo and Janna Guay explore downtown Denver. (Pax Global Media)

For each itinerary, Brand USA worked with participating cities to create an experience that everyday tourists would potentially never think of.

Canevari’s pitch to tourism boards was: “Picture your destination as a blank canvas. How do you want to paint your story?” 

The outcome was a set of itineraries that tap into both known and lesser-known experiences, full of local gems and activities for all types of tourists, from outdoor lovers to history and art buffs to foodies.

All eyes on Colorado 

Our time spent in Denver – an American metropolis, with Old West origins – this past weekend was a whirlwind of discovery.

From absorbing psychedelic art at Meow Wolf, a trippy multimedia experience that transports guests to another world; to unpacking iconic pieces at the Denver Art Museum (which holds Monets, van Goghs and, notably, thought-provoking works by Kent Monkman, a Canadian First Nations artist of Cree ancestry); to posing with the “Big Blue Bear” (a 40-foot sculpture, entitled "I See What You Mean," that stands, peering into the Denver Convention Center); to randomly meeting “Miles,” the official mascot of the Denver Broncos (the city’s football team) on the street; to attending a hockey game (Colorado Avalanche versus the Winnipeg Jets — Winnipeg won!); to dining in Larimer Square, an historic city block, we were busy.

Taking in a hockey game at Denver's Ball Arena. (Pax Global Media)

Agents explore the Denver Art Museum. (Pax Global Media)

Discover eclectic art and multimedia at Meow Wolf Denver. (Pax Global Media)

Clean and pedestrian-friendly Denver, called "The Mile-High City" because its elevation is one mile above sea level, was established during the gold discoveries of late 1858. 

It has a comfortable climate (300 days of sunshine!), a booming beer scene (there’s more than 100 craft breweries, brewpubs and taprooms in the metro area) and several Michelin-rated restaurants.

Downtown Denver. (Pax Global Media)

It’s also sports central: the city has six professional sports teams — Denver Broncos football, Denver Nuggets basketball, Colorado Rockies baseball, Colorado Avalanche hockey, Colorado Mammoth lacrosse and Colorado Rapids soccer. Five of them play in the city (whereas the Colorado Rapids play in Commerce City, some 20 minutes away).

Agents meet Miles, Miles,” the official mascot of the Denver Broncos. (Pax Global Media)

The abundance of arenas and other venues – including nearby Red Rocks Amphitheatre, an open-air venue that’s flanked by red sandstone rock formations – is also a draw for some of music’s biggest names.

The city’s Capitol Hill and Golden Triangle Creative District is full of parks and six world-class museums and smaller galleries. And Denver is also about an hour-and-a-half drive away from Rocky Mountain National Park. 

Showing off Colorado's flag at Red Rock State Park. (Pax Global Media)

"We’re a great basecamp for people who want to go and explore the mountains,” noted Kelly Nowlen, a tourism coordinator at Visit Denver.

Yesterday, we arrived in mural-covered Fort Collins, a city in northern Colorado with an Old Town district (which actually served as the inspiration for "Main Street U.S.A." at Disney's theme parks)

Agents arrive with jazz hands in Fort Collins. (Pax Global Media)

Situated on the Cache La Poudre River, the city is also a beer capital (home to the New Belgium Brewing Company, the fourth-largest craft brewery in the U.S.), and a cycling destination (our group went on a scenic e-biking adventure along the river yesterday).

Cycling along the Cache La Poudre River in Fort Collins. (Pax Global Media)

From left: Karen Sutherland, Claudine Nichilo and Kristina Ziegler experience the New Belgium Brewing Company in Fort Collins. (Pax Global Media)

In search of something different 

“I’ve travelled extensively in the U.S., but I haven’t travelled to these parts. I wanted to see something different,” said home-based travel advisor Kristina Ziegler of Stonetown Travel, which has offices in St. Mary’s and New Hamburg in Ontario.

As a participant in this year’s MegaFam, Ziegler has been “blown away” by the program in regards to how much is packed into each day, and “how much diversity we’re seeing” in a short period of time.

Kristina Ziegler of Stonetown Travel enjoys Red Rocks park. (Pax Global Media)

It all aligns with Ziegler’s own sales goals. As one who specializes in leisure travel, she has clients who are “looking for something different” in North America.

“I want to show them that there’s opportunities out there,” she told PAX.

This is where Brand USA’s MegaFam presents a valuable opportunity for the travel trade.

“The biggest misconception about the United States is that you think you know it,” Canevari said. “I’m 43-years-old, I’ve lived here my entire life, and I still don’t fully know the United States.”

“We wanted to create something that agents could sell to their clients and say, ‘This was something amazing I did in the States.”

Click and “like” PAX’s Facebook here to see more pictures from the trip!

Stay tuned for more of PAX’s on-location coverage of Brand USA’s MegaFam. 

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