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Monday,  May 20, 2024 7:40 AM 

On Location: “It’s brilliant”: Canadian agents gather in Houston, Texas for Brand USA’s MegaFam finale

On Location: “It’s brilliant”: Canadian agents gather in Houston, Texas for Brand USA’s MegaFam finale
From left: Jorge Franz, Visit Houston; Casey Canevari, Brand USA; Katie Streater, Brand USA; Norma Ponce, Visit Houston; Grace Muniu, Brand USA; Jerod Fuchs, Brand USA; Audrey Tanguay Beaudette, Air Canada; Yazdan Bakhtiary, Air Canada; Coralis Rivera-Aponte, Brand USA; Laura Haces, Visit Houston; Luke Hennig, Brand USA; Shandra Mitchell, Brand USA; Shandra Mitchell, Visit Houston; Daniel Taylor, Visit Houston; Kevin Pohlmann, Air Canada. (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.

Everything’s bigger in Texas, they say.

The West South-Central U.S. state has a big geographical footprint (ranking just behind Alaska), along with big hats, big hair, big attitudes…and, apparently, big FAM trips for the travel trade.

At least that was the case Wednesday night (April 17) as the last leg of Brand USA’s first-ever “MegaFam” for Canada touched down in Houston, America's fourth-largest city, bringing together 55 travel advisors from almost every province.

The hoedown at Goode Company Armadillo Palace, a local concert venue and kitchen with an outdoor beer garden, was as Texan as it gets, featuring a cowboy/girl hat-decorating station, a leather luggage tag-branding area, live country music, line dancing, a saloon-style bar stocked with whisky and a Texan-style beef and shrimp buffet.

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

But the story of how everyone got there was the talk of the night. Prior to arriving in Houston, travel agents, since last Friday (April 12), were spread out across the U.S. in six different groups, on six different itineraries, unearthing some of America’s most treasured regions.

Canadian travel advisors meet up in Houston at Goode Company Armadillo Palace. (Pax Global Media)

Line dancing and live music at Goode Company Armadillo Palace. (Pax Global Media)

Everyone piling into planes, and flying to Houston with United Airlines yesterday for one big meet-up, and to compare notes about what they learned in the U.S., was the cherry on the Brand USA cake.

“It feels really good to get everybody together here in Houston,” said Casey Canevari, senior manager, global trade development at Brand USA, which is the official destination marketing organization for the U.S. “Now the stories can come out. Agents got to experience things they didn’t know much about. Now they’re talking to each other and can share unique tips and tricks with their clients and co-workers. It really puts it all together.”

Casey Canevari, senior manager, global trade development at Brand USA. (Pax Global Media)

Last night’s shindig, which felt like a family reunion (reps from Air Canada were spotted on the scene), was just the beginning of the end.

Today (April 18), participants will visit Houston’s famous Space Centre, and later, gather at the Downtown Aquarium for a grand finale dinner where advisors will present insights from their experience to the group while organizers screen recap videos from each of the six itineraries.

Another side of America

Brand USA’s MegaFam, which the company has been running for more than ten years, is designed to give travel advisors an opportunity to learn about the United States in a completely new way.

As previously reported, it’s a multi-city, multi-state adventure. Agents flew into various U.S. gateways (courtesy of Air Canada) to start their journeys, which focused on showing a side of America that Canadians, perhaps, are less familiar with.

PAX was embedded in one of the segments, “Western Wonders: Peaks and Plains,” which started in diverse Denver and small-town Fort Collins in Colorado (a sports-loving state that mixes arid desert, river canyons and the snow-covered Rocky Mountains) and ended in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where Wild West history and bulky bisons await.

Canadian travel advisors on the scene in Wyoming. (Pax Global Media)

The history, culture and food-filled program also included a visit to Red Rocks Park and Amphitheatre, an open-air venue, flanked by red sandstone rock formations, that has hosted music’s biggest names over the years.

Brand USA's other five itineraries included “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).

“It’s experiential storytelling,” Canevari told PAX previously. “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.”

On the scene at Red Rocks Park in Colorado. (Pax Global Media)

“I think it’s brilliant”

To qualify for the paid-for trip, travel advisors had 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 U.S.

For Alberta-based Certified Travel Counsellor Janna Guay of Great Latitudes Travel – who participated in the Colorado and Wyoming segment (“Two destinations I’m not familiar with," she said) – the MegaFam was nothing short of inspiring.

“It’s an unusual FAM in that it’s very destination centric,” Guay told PAX. “We’re not just touring hotels or being shown things, but we’re immersed in the destination with the culture and people. I think it’s brilliant.”

From left: Travel advisors Matt Passakas, Kristina Ziegler and Janna Guay. (Pax Global Media)

Already, the wheels in Guay’s head are turning as she envisions new U.S. itineraries she could offer to her clients back home, such as a brewery tour in places like Fort Collins, which is home to the New Belgium Brewing Company (America’s fourth-largest craft brewery).

But it’s not just about the breweries. One of the advantages of visiting states like Colorado and Wyoming (which are also home to whisky distilleries) is being within close proximity to mountains and rivers, which can add a nature or adventure component to any trip.

Good times at Goode Company Armadillo Palace. (Pax Global Media)

Travel advisors can also lean on Brand USA for all kinds of support, from its destination-based training to its marketing assets to accessing names and numbers at tourism boards and attractions in every U.S. state and territory.

“I'm really excited about the contacts I’ve made this week,” Guay said.

Agents experience Texan hospitality at Goode Company Armadillo Palace in Houston. (Pax Global Media)

All about the air

Brand USA’s first MegaFam for Canada comes on the heels of the United States seeing some 25 million Canadian visitors in 2023.

For partner airlines like Air Canada, the trip was a chance to highlight direct connectivity and its joint venture with United Airlines, a partnership that formed in 2022.

“We’re the airline with the most transborder flights,” said Audrey Tanguay Beaudette, manager of global sales and tourism partnerships at Air Canada. “This is an opportunity for us to showcase our network and some of the new routes we’re offering this year.”

From left (of Air Canada): Kevin Pohlmann, manager, regional sales; Yazdan Bakhtiary, manager, regional sales; Audrey Tanguay Beaudette, manager of global sales and tourism partnerships. (Pax Global Media)

That includes Air Canada’s new service from Montreal to Austin and St. Louis, and a new Toronto-Charleston route, Tanguay Beaudette said.

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

Houston, no problem

It made sense that Houston was chosen as the MegaFam’s final stop – not only does Air Canada offer daily flights to Houston from Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, but the city is also major hub for United, which is in the midst of $2.6 billion USD expansion at George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH).

What does it mean to a U.S. city when 55 of Canada’s top travel advisors roll into town?

“It’s huge,” Jorge Franz, senior vice-president of tourism and industry relations at Visit Houston, told PAX last night. “Like everybody after the pandemic, we've been looking to reengage with the market.”

Jorge Franz, senior vice-president of tourism and industry relations at Visit Houston. (Pax Global Media)

Canada is Houston’s second-largest international market (after Mexico) and arrival numbers are rising. Last year, the metropolitan city saw 123,000 Canadian visitors, marking an increase over 2019’s levels, Franz said. 

“For us to have this group is not only an incredible honour, but an incredible opportunity,” Franz explained.

Houston’s Space Centre – the official visitor centre of the Johnson Space Centre, NASA’s astronaut training and flight control complex – is one major draw for tourism.

Guests, for example, are able to see the original rockets that went to the moon for the Apollo Gemini missions. It’s also home to the historic mission control, where NASA monitored nine Gemini and all Apollo lunar missions.

Beyond space tourism, Houston is a great family destination that’s close to the coast, Franz noted. “I think Canadians tend to think of Texas as dry and desert, but we're on the green side. We're only 60 miles from the coast.”

Downtown Houston. (Shutterstock/Iktotchi)

The largest city in Texas is, notably, about an hour’s drive away from the Port of Galveston, making it an ideal pre and post-cruise destination.

Downtown Houston features a theatre district, the Houston Grand Opera, historic 19th-century architecture, and a set of museums, including the Museum of Natural Science and Museum of Fine Arts, which houses the largest Asian and Latin American art collection in North America, Franz said.

“I think people will be surprised to learn how cosmopolitan Houston is,” Franz explained.

Diverse Houston is also an emerging culinary capital, offering everything from Peruvian and Japanese fusion flavours to “Viet-Cajun” cuisine, Franz added.

“We've had a variety of people move here from all over the world – mostly due to our strong business climate,” he said. “This has really allowed us to grow as an international destination.”

To see more pictures from last night's event, visit and "like" PAX's Facebook page here

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

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