The Monday Minute is a weekly feature in PAX that highlights the movers, shakers, leaders and rule breakers in Canada's travel advisor community. Wanna be profiled? Wanna nominate someone? Email email@example.com!
Name: Stephen Brunetta
Business: Independent by Flight Centre
Where do you live? North Vancouver, B.C.
How long have you been a travel advisor? Nearly 10 years, since October 2013
What is your specialty? FIT travel, custom Europe and sun-holiday itineraries, off-the-beaten-track experiences, and travel insurance.
What is your current state of mind?
Gratefully optimistic. In 2021, I switched from retail to the independent contractor side of the business. By removing commuting, office politics, and managerial tasks from my day, I’m able to give 100 per cent attention to the relationships with my loyal clients. Travel bookings are booming, and I’m thankful I stayed on through the pandemic.
What inspired you to become a travel advisor?
A passion for sales. In university, I sold lawn and driveway care packages door-to-door one summer. There were unforgiving days where you could see 100 doors slammed in your face before someone would allow you the time to give your pitch and make the sale. That feeling of earning a “yes” kept me excited to come into work for each 10-hour day on this entirely commission-based job. Granted that working with inbound sales as an advisor is less about selling and more about using travel knowledge and experience to guide clients through the planning and booking process. But you’re still competing with the internet and other agents to present the best possible product to your client to get that “yes.” Coupled with the customer service element to help people solve problems with budgeting and logistics associated with international travel, it’s a perfectly rewarding career choice.
What’s the first trip you ever took?
My first international adventure was a five-week, 10-country backpacking trip through Europe with two close friends, which is something I would recommend for every post-secondary graduate to open your eyes beyond North America. Within two years of returning, I applied for a youth travel visa to live and work in the U.K., and set up shop in central London working at a pub in the biggest hotel in Western Europe. I made a point of travelling to a new country every month with like-minded friends I met in the British capital. When my visa expired, I returned to Canada, and drove from Ontario to British Columbia and became a travel agent in Vancouver where I still live and work today.
What travel trends are you seeing these days?
Mondays and Fridays tend to be the busiest inquiry and booking days. I try to schedule myself in office for their entirety. Western Mexican resort towns generate the most traffic, with shorter direct flights and airport transfers. Most travellers are now looking for more than just a week on the beach, with 10-12 nights being the more common durations. In Europe, London, Paris, Amsterdam and Italy as a whole are my biggest sellers, with the Tuscan capital of Florence leading the charge as this summers’ most popular destination. I’m booking far more European river cruises on this side of the pandemic, as an extra year or two of saving has propelled many travellers into the luxury cruise market. I’ve also seen an uptick in Premium Economy bookings, which I credit the airlines for filling the upper-middle-class desire for a more spacious and intimate cabin without the Business Class price tag.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way you do business?
Over the past two years, I have developed templates and spreadsheets to streamline my work processes. As an independent contractor, I’ve had to put more backstops in place – double checks have become triple checks, as any mistakes directly affect my bottom line. I’ve started sending “Bon Voyage” style emails to my clients five days prior to departure with some last-minute reminders about checking in for your flight, how early to arrive at the airport, COVID and visa protocols, and a last-minute opportunity to purchase travel protection before leaving the province. These reminders are just as much for travellers as they are for me to quadruple check their reservations to avoid any emergency phone calls from destination, which is nightmare fuel for agents. I will be thankful when we can stop using different software tools to check the COVID protocols of each individual country at the time of booking and departure. It’s a necessary but time-consuming step I will not miss.
Of all the bookings you’ve made, which itinerary are you most proud of?
The group bookings and multi-generational family holidays are proud moments because it takes a lot of back and forth to find a compromise that makes 10+ people agree to the itinerary you’ve built for them all. I’ve spent months on group enquiries that end up going nowhere, and you aren’t compensated for the time invested. But when you get it right, it validates all of your hard work and keeps you looking forward to the next one. My heart is with the multi-country European adventures that initiated my passion for travel. I love helping families, young students, or couples on their honeymoon navigate the ins and outs of putting together a logistically sound itinerary.
What’s the most memorable trip you ever took?
I feel I gain some sort of perspective during every trip. Incorporating daily physical exercise into my life after a hiking trip through Peru, and removing social media apps from my phone after my most recent visit to Japan were two of the bigger changes inspired by travel. As a country, Vietnam was especially eye-opening for several reasons, including the effects of the war, different cuisines from north to south, the buying power of our dollar, and the very friendly people. No matter the destination, I always feel appreciative to fly back home to Canada.
Where do you see yourself and your business one year from now?
I had a decade-long streak of visiting a new country every year that was snapped by the pandemic shutdown. After a two-year hiatus, we’re back on track, and the revenge traveller in me has upped that to two new countries every year with a goal of eventually exploring more than 100 countries. Businesswise, I could not be happier with my current work-life balance. Stress is at an all-time low, and I look forward to helping new and existing clients every single day whether I’m looking out my office window at the North Shore mountains, or sending emails from airplane Wi-Fi.
What’s one thing you would change about the travel industry?
Can I say Air Canada? Just kidding. They about take as much flak from Canadians as my beloved Toronto Maple Leafs (who, at the time of writing, are on the verge of another sad playoff collapse), and I won’t stand for bad talk regarding either national treasure. A major pain point is never-ending phone hold times. Staffing has been a challenge for many companies coming out of the pandemic, which was to be expected, but queue management can be improved upon. If a suppliers’ 1-800 number does not mention the hold time before the music starts, or offer a callback option, I am hanging up and looking for an alternative contact method. Many suppliers have started offering a Live Chat feature, which is a great resource for quick questions, but some of the automated Chat Bots need to step up their AI game.
What’s the secret to being successful in this business?
Repeats and referrals. I work under the Flight Centre umbrella, but as an independent contractor, my name now represents my business reputation. There is no room for anything other than staying true to my word, delivering on promises, and offering the best possible customer service day in and day out. You can’t look at a travel inquiry as just that one trip; you need to speak with your clients as if you’re going to be booking their travel for the next 25 years. Call them to get a feel for what they really mean in between the lines of their email, note their preferred seat selections and dietary restrictions in their file, diarize their future travel plans or bucket list, etc. Anyone can book travel online these days. It is our jobs as agents to create a name for ourselves by being personable, professional, and reliable.
What is your motto?
I like Benjamin Franklin’s “never leave till tomorrow which you can do today” because holding that last seat in a fare class or room at a vetted hotel can cost you a sale.
What is your number one piece of advice to other travel advisors?
Differentiate yourself from the internet. The internet’s current state is oversaturated with options that overwhelm leisure travellers and force businesses back into our pipelines. Airline search engine pricing algorithms, TripAdvisor & SeatGuru star ratings, tour and cruise websites are all great tools, but they are only small pieces of the puzzle when planning and executing a streamlined international travel experience aimed at maximizing every dollar. Recommending stopovers, using preferred supplier phone numbers to skip hold times, utilizing our agent social network for resort/restaurant/activity recommendations, offering our mobile phone number, being a one-stop shop for all things travel – these are some of the reasons why personalized service will never go out of style.
Where are you travelling next?
An annual trip home to northern Ontario in the summer is next up. Working remotely has afforded me the flexibility to extend this yearly tradition from a crammed one-week visiting-fest to a relaxed month-long experience, spending quality time with immediate and extended family and friends. The big international ticket this year is a September adventure to Singapore and Bali, with a shoulder season trip to central Europe (Munich, Prague, Vienna, Budapest) on the backburner for the fall.