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 DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
The Travel Agent Next Door’s (TTAND’s) national conference typically unfolds in comfortable settings, but the message at this year’s gathering in Costa Mujeres, Mexico last week was to embrace conditions that are opposite of comfortable.
Addressing the 240 travel advisors who attended the week-long event (which officially ends April 25) at Majestic Elegance Costa Mujeres, and hundreds more who watched the event livestream online, TTAND’s Founder and President Flemming Friisdahl advised everyone to: “Get out of your comfort zone.”
“So many people stick to what they're comfortable with. They don’t want to screw up, they don’t want to make mistakes. So, they do what they’ve always done,” Friisdahl told PAX, which covered the conference on location. “But that is a mistake.”
READ MORE: TTAND’s 10-year anniversary conference will be held in Jordan
It’s a perspective Friisdahl believes is key to “Breaking Barriers Together,” the theme of this year’s TTAND conference, which unfolded in a climate that has never felt more normal ever since Canada’s COVID-related travel restrictions, last year, lifted.
The record-setting attendance numbers spoke volumes – nearly 22 per cent of TTAND’s network of more than 1,100 independent, home-based agents signed up for the jam-packed week of workshops, trainings, supplier presentations, seminars, guest speakers and networking events.
The lively symposium also drew 67 suppliers from 42 companies – including conference newcomers Silversea, The Jordan Tourism Board and Project Expedition.
It’s a turnout that speaks to the fierce pent-up demand for travel, and despite some fears of inflation, Friisdahl isn’t worried that this “post-COVID bubble” will pop anytime soon.
“I don’t think we’ll see a big slowdown,” Friisdahl said, noting that TTAND agents, these days, are reporting higher than average sales compared to pre-COVID days.
With total sales expected to reach $305 million (at minimum) this year, TTAND continues to add agents to its roster and grow its staff (now at 61 employees, boasting a 1:10 ratio of staff to agents).
And, if we’re talking about breaking barriers, TTAND successfully kept its team employed during the pandemic, reported a 66 per increase in sales over 2019, and paid close to $3 million in commissions last year.
Which is all good news – and worth celebrating, as TTAND did Sunday night (April 23) at a dinner and gala where top-performing advisors were honoured and attendees were entertained by Toronto-based singer Roberta Battaglia of TV’s America’s Got Talent.
In what felt like an Oprah moment, the team at Majestic Resorts, during dinner, gave all agents in attendance a complimentary seven-night stay at any Majestic property of their choice, which sparked whoos! and cheers.
But the reality is that “not every agent is back to where they were pre-pandemic,” Friisdahl told PAX.
“I strongly believe that some agents are not aggressive enough,” he said.
To his network, he asks: “What are you doing to find new customers?”
“We’re back, but at what cost?”
It’s a question any business owner can relate to, regardless of their success, and it’s one that was explored last week as a line-up of speakers – the most TTAND has ever booked – guided agents through thought-provoking presentations and workshops.
Experienced executive, author and business coach Geraldine Ree outlined ways of generating more money in less time, and explained how leveraging time depends on shifting in three areas: mindset, process and a customer shift.
Meanwhile, corporate trainer Gary Gzik, CEO of BizXcel, returned to conference with a high-energy workshop entitled “Building a Solid Future: The Power of Creating Strong Foundations Today.”
“We’re back, but at what cost?” Gzik asked attendees as he zeroed in on ways to eliminate distractions, overcome roadblocks, and find joy in both life and business. Especially as agents get busier and busier.
READ MORE: Transat salutes TTAND’s growth, throws beach bash for agents at Secrets Playa Mujeres
Agents enthusiastically responded to an “arrow activity” whereby they moved and shouted out directions, following arrows on a projection screen, while Gzik injected “interference” in their progress.
The lesson was to remove interferences so you have the energy and potential to perform, Gzik explained.
“Don’t try and change everything at once,” Gzik said, advising agents to shrink moments of change into “bite-sized pieces” so they’re sustainable.
Social media expert Arienne Parzei and Lori Gold, a Canadian travel advisor who lives in Mexico, also presented.
And TTAND’s “Travel Agent Think Tank” returned, which invited agents to submit questions (anonymously, if they preferred) on a large screen for all to see.
The open-mic session allowed agents to not only express their business concerns, but to also share strategies, with each other.
As moderators, Friisdahl and Penny Martin (TTAND’s VP of Travel Agent Services) injected their own ideas, along with company updates.
Unlocking “the Majestic way of life”
The activities unfolded in the facilities of Majestic Elegance Costa Mujeres, a 570-room, all-inclusive resort with adults-only and family sections, including swim-up suites, that opened in 2019, about 30 minutes north of Cancun.
“The Majestic way of life,” said Rod Hanna, the brand’s BDM for Canada, is about spacious suites, elevated food and beverage (lobster and premium beef were served, without surcharge), top-shelf liquor, unlimited restaurant access and no time shares “so agents don’t have to worry about losing clients.”
“It doesn’t feel like you’re at an all-inclusive because there’s so much space,” Hanna said.
Majestic Elegance Costa Mujeres is also big on destination weddings (it has multiple outdoor chapels) and the team even hosted a “mock wedding” in its Garden Gazebo so agents could see an event for themselves.
Tareq Hadhad of Peace by Chocolate
Capping off the week was keynote speaker Tareq Hadhad, founder and CEO of Peace by Chocolate, a Syrian-Canadian chocolatier company based in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.
READ MORE: “An amazing week”: TTAND’s “Breaking Barriers Together” conference kicks off in Mexico
Prior to being forced to flee from Syria during the country's civil war in 2012, Hadhad's father, Essam, made chocolate in Damascus, Syria for more than 20 years.
The story of Hadhad’s family was recreated in the 2021 Canadian film, Peace by Chocolate, which can be viewed on select streaming services.
But hearing the real Tareq Hadhad talk about his life’s journey, from overcoming extreme challenges in his homeland to adjusting as a new Canadian (to our winters, especially) to running a successful chocolate-making business (now Antigonish’s third-largest employer), was the sweetest treat.
One key takeaway from Hadhad was that, in business, “you do not lose.”
“You win, or you learn,” he told the crowd, urging travel advisors to get outside of their comfort zones and embrace change.
“It’s not about intensity, it’s about consistency,” he said. “That’s what matters the most. Be consistent in your values.”
Despite the week’s crazy busy agenda, which included events at night, both on property and off, (Transat and Air Canada Vacations hosted parties), Tamara Postma of Palmera Holidays said she was “smiling non-stop.”
“We’re learning and having fun,” Postma told PAX.
After a week of meeting one-on-one with suppliers – which is, arguably, the main mission of a TTAND conference – Postma is eager to expand her business with more bookings to Europe.
And, after hearing Geraldine Ree talk about service fees, she plans to implement changes to her pricing structure.
The format of this year’s conference, which included more half-days, was beneficial in that in allowed for more time to collaborate with others, she said.
This is something Judith Coates of Wired for Travel appreciated. In addition to having “great conversations” with suppliers that specialize in tailor-made travel, she also learned from her likeminded peers.
“I started a chat with agents who do groups and we’re meeting in the pool [on Monday] to share ideas,” she said. “Last year, we were hopeful. But this year, we’re riding and surfing the wave.”
Stewart Travel Group's Frances Gertsch said that after attending TTAND’s conference for years, “I’ve finally been able to find my niche.”
“It’s the relationships I’ve made, conference after conference, that’s given me the courage to niche down, which I’ve always been scared of doing,” she said. “I’m creating a niche that I can add value to, that I’m passion about, and that suppliers can support me in.”
Becky Kershaw, with some 40 years of industry experience, has attended five TTAND conferences and called this year’s “the best one so far.”
“The suppliers have been very valuable. There’s takeaways for everybody,” Kershaw told PAX.
She was particularly eager to learn about TTAND’s new marketing tools, which includes a new email database system.
Above all, she’s excited for what this year will bring.
“The industry is heading positively forward,” Kershaw said. “It’s taken a while, but clients want to travel. They’re going on longer trips and it’s bringing us back quicker. There may be less people travelling overall, but the numbers are higher because people are booking more expensive trips.”
Furthermore, the home-based travel agent sector, coming out of COVID, has never been stronger, Friisdahl said.
“There’s a whole bunch of reasons for this,” he said, suggesting that suppliers, for one, are taking home-based agents way more seriously now – even more so than they did in 2019.
Because, during the pandemic, “so many top-notch agents went home-based,” he said.
This year’s TTAND conference also saw more executives and sales directors attend than ever before.
“You're seeing senior people coming to [conference] to learn about home-based businesses because the storefronts aren't there like they used to be,” Friisdahl said.
Consumers, too, are looking at home-based agents in a “different way now,’ he added.
“They're used to it because they had to work with people from home for two years,” Friisdahl said. “It's not like the old days of visiting ‘ABC Travel’ and sitting down with an agent for an hour. Travellers can now get their agent 24/7, not just 9-5, Monday to Friday.”
“There will always be storefronts, but I believe traditional storefronts will change.”
Friisdahl, on Sunday, revealed that TTAND, which celebrates its 10-year anniversary in 2024, will host its next conference in Jordan.
The seven-day event in the Middle East will be held in partnership with G Adventures, Jordan Tourism and Royal Jordanian Airlines, departing from Toronto on June 2, 2024, and arriving in the capital city of Amman in the morning of June 3.
What’s more is that the flight will be on a privately chartered Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft.
“Nobody has ever done this,” Friisdahl told PAX yesterday (click here for more details about the announcement). “We wanted to do something different.”
Travel for good
TTAND’s 2023 conference also had charitable angles.
During the week, there were calls to support Pencils for Kids, which partners with communities in Niger, West Africa to create sustainable educational programs for children, as well as income generating opportunities for women.
Through activations, such as a silent action and 50/50 draw, conference attendees raised $60,000 (the most ever raised at a TTAND conference) which is enough to put 15 students though a two-year program.
It added to the $233,000 TTAND has raised, in total, over the years.
A small group of agents also participated in a “Give Back Day,” which involved visiting Manos de Apoyo y Vida A.C., a local non-profit that offers workshops for children (such as reading and writing classes), psychology services for youth and women, a soccer program for teens, and activities for elderly people living in vulnerable areas of Cancun and beyond.
It’s an initiative TTAND has done at previous conferences, and due to the small size of the organization’s building, only 10 agents (including one supplier, and one trade media) could participate this year (names were drawn).
At the centre, agents joined young children in scooping soil and planting herbs into a vertical garden in a narrow alleyway.
TTAND paid for the supplies and labour associated with installing the garden’s pallets.
“The idea was to teach children how to plant, and they could take their plants home” said Alma Ortiz, TTAND’s supplier relations and conference manager, who sourced the organization.
TTAND also funded the building of a privacy wall in the centre’s backyard and unpacked donations that were made by TTAND agents, including backpacks, toys, clothes and school suppliers, such as crayons, notebooks and pens.
“I believe strongly in Give Back Day,” Friisdahl said. “We look for causes that are rooted in communities, that are run by communities, and that support women and children.”
While on site, Majestic Resorts surprised everyone by announcing that it would carry on the work TTAND started by committing to ongoing donations to the centre.
“They’ve made it an official cause,” said Friisdahl. “Talk about the gift that keeps on giving.”
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