After more than two years of pandemic-related setbacks and unpredictable market activity, Transat Distribution Canada’s (TDC’s) fall season has never felt more normal.
Normal in a new normal, you could say.
The TDC community and its preferred partners, last month, met face-to-face for the first time in three years at lively conferences in Ontario and Quebec that were organized to check the industry’s pulse and plan for the long-awaited recovery in travel demand.
Central to these events, which featured energizing pep talks, workshops and long-overdue reunions, was the word “rebound,” which, for months now, is something TDC’s franchisees, affiliates, corporate agencies and agent@home members have finally been experiencing as COVID-19 border measures wind down and consumer confidence returns.
But with new business comes new responsibilities, and at TDC, the strategy for post-COVID success has largely been rooted in helping members find their footing in a changed marketplace while equipping them with the right tools to engage.
At least that’s how Karine Gagnon, TDC’s newly-appointed general manager, sees it.
The former commercial director at Transat who took the reins of TDC on July 1 to replace the network’s previous leader, Louise Fecteau (who retired), says the company’s post-COVID comeback won’t be defined solely by a roaring return in sales.
An effective rebound also comes down to ensuring agents and agencies are well-positioned for the long-term, she says, and open to new ideas on what a post-pandemic travel business should (or could) look like.
With TDC’s sales now performing at 2019 levels, “There’s an opportunity like never before” to rethink strategies and capitalize on future growth, Gagnon told PAX during a one-on-one interview last month at a Queen Street West coffee shop in Toronto.
“We’re seeing sales return across the board, but now I think it’s about choosing the right opportunities,” Gagnon said.
In today’s climate, some advisors are choosing to be more selective in the type of clients they take on, she explained.
Others are realizing the value of their services and charging fees – “Which we’ve spoken about for years and years,” Gagnon said.
Business may be roaring back for some. But a successful rebound, Gagnon said, is equally dependant on how prepared one is for when things turn sour (which, as the travel industry learned in early 2020, can happen in the blink of an eye).
“Advisors must be ready for when there's a slow-down, and you have to do that work in advance,” she said, noting the several marketing tools TDC members can access for staying top of mind if or when demand dips.
“When it's less busy, we want advisors to be out there and ready,” she said.
Preparing for a post-COVID world
Gagnon may have inherited the colossal task of recalibrating Canada's largest travel agency network for a post-pandemic world, but it’s a challenge she confidently accepts.
“If there was a good time to take on TDC and come on board with this team, it’s now,” Gagnon said. “We're tracing the future and we're finally able to launch the business we've been waiting on for so long. Things are looking good.”
Time has also been on her side – PAX’s interview with Gagnon took place 12 days before the Canadian government announced its Oct. 1 end to COVID-19 border and travel measures.
To say the situation has gone from good to great would be an understatement.
But it’s Gagnon’s extensive commercial, marketing and operational experience in travel and hospitality that will ultimately influence TDC’s strategy in the months and years to come.
In 2023, for instance, TDC will ramp-up the marketing of its Marlin Travel and Club Voyages brands. (“We still have quite a good footprint,” Gagnon noted).
As for the TDC network itself, while it downsized during COVID due to agents either leaving the industry or pausing their activities, it has still maintained itself due to the organization’s various business models.
Some travel advisors, for example, closed their brick and mortar agency and joined TDC’s agent@home program instead, Gagnon said.
“And vice versa,” she said. “We were able to recruit some from our home-based agencies into our corporate offices.”
Embracing new technology
Developing new tools and technology for travel advisors has also been key to TDC’s long-term strategy.
Several new programs have been added to TDC’s toolbox in recent years, starting with the TDC Campus online training platform, which launched in 2020 for all network members.
The dynamic portal contains custom-built (and free) modules that feature up-to-date content, adapted for today’s world, for both experienced and new advisors.
There’s also TDC’s digital marketing platform, Xpress, which launched last year.
Built from scratch, this self-serve program comes loaded with professional marketing content that members can use however they see fit.
“In a matter of a minute or two, agents can create their own fliers,” Gagnon explained. “That’s huge. There’s copyright-free imagery, templates, blogs…Agents can pull offers from preferred partners. In a couple of clicks, they can do it all themselves.”
There’s also a push to build business in the luxury space.
In June 2021, TDC announced a new certification program, called LuxeXpert, aimed at helping agents perfect their knowledge in how to sell luxury travel and effectively explore the market.
It was created to build on an important trend TDC noted at its in-person conference in 2019 – that luxury travel is a rapidly growing (and highly lucrative) segment that all agents should take a closer look at.
TDC jumped feet first into this topic in June 2021 when it hosted its first-ever luxury trade event, “LuxeXpo,” which welcomed 600 TDC consultants and some 50 suppliers.
The LuxeXpert program was later enhanced with an opportunity to join Virtuoso, which partnered with TDC last March.
Once an agent becomes a LuxeExpert, their sales are reviewed, and if the agent qualifies for Virtuoso, they can advance to that next level of certification, which opens doors for gaining (and retaining) customers.
Susan Bowman, TDC’s vice-president of marketing and industry relations, says that of the 2,200 travel professionals in TDC’s network, more than 220 (and counting) are now certified LuxeXperts.
From gaining access to marketing materials to making new contacts: “Those that are in it, are loving it,” said Bowman, who joined Gagnon on the day of our interview.
“Most agents already had luxury business and they were looking to grow that,” she said.
TDC’s partnership with Virtuoso, which grants LuxeXperts access to the world’s finest hotels, resorts, spas, cruise lines and tour operators, is “the icing on the cake.”
“With luxury, we're really, really happy with where we've landed,” Bowman said.
All of these innovations are forms of new technology, which, generally speaking, the Canadian travel industry has been slow to implement compared to other sectors.
Gagnon accepts that not all travel advisors embrace change at the same pace.
“For some, the shift is natural. For others, it's difficult,” she said. “In my opinion, there's no magic to it. It's all about training, training, training and ensuring that [agents] have support.”
“Old booking patterns are out”
As for what the future holds, TDC’s outlook for 2023 and beyond is positive – even if it’s tricky trying to define how business will play out in the coming weeks and months.
“Commenting on trends is a little difficult. It's all over the place,” Gagnon said at the time of our interview.
Whether it be individuals, small or large groups, the demand is high across the board, she said.
Bowman says the “old booking patterns are out” as consumers, today, are ready to travel, keen on luxury and “booking everything,” whether it be for next week, for Christmas or for all of 2023.
More people booking multiple trips in one swoop, she said.
“We recently had an agent book seven AmaWaterways cruises for one person. Seven,” Bowman said. “It’s amazing.”
Canadians are also learning to live with some of the challenges associated with travel these days, such as airport delays, Bowman added.
“What was not acceptable in January is way more acceptable today for most people,” Bowman said, suggesting that more travellers, for example, are open to packing a carry-on to avoid the risk of losing their luggage.
In the face of possible problems: “There will always be those that say, ‘No way. I'm not going,’” Bowman said.
“But a huge majority are saying, ‘Oh hell yeah, I'm going. And this is what I need to do deal with it,’ whether it be staying at the airport the night before a trip or being open to taking another flight if one is cancelled.”
“It's interesting how we, as humans, start to adapt. And that's what we're seeing.”
Possible bumps in the road
Ottawa lifting its vaccine mandate at the border and ending randomized testing, mandatory masks and mandatory ArriveCAN certainly bodes well for a prosperous winter.
But as industry advocates have pointed out, it’s still possible the federal government may reintroduce travel restrictions this season if new COVID-19 variants of concern sound the public health alarm.
On this, Gagnon, noting the additional funding that Transat has secured, says TDC is prepared for whatever wrench is thrown into the booking process this season.
“Should there be another big bump in the road, we're ready,” she said. “We'll get through it.”