Friday,  January 27, 2023  6:20 pm

#ThrowbackThursday with Brett Walker, Collette

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  •   04-06-2015  8:20 am
#ThrowbackThursday with Brett Walker, Collette

Brett Walker, Collette's first Canadian employeeThe first Collette tour to ever run was made up of a jitney bus of travellers that left Boston headed for Florida. This three-week adventure cost just $61.50!

Seventy-one years later, I became the first employee of Collette’s Canadian office (located at 100 Front Street in Toronto) where the Royal York Hotel still stands today.  I knew a little about Collette as a guided travel provider in the United States and was excited about the opportunity to work for a company that changed lives.  

As we near the official 25th anniversary of the Canadian office's opening, I recently stopped to reflect on the aspects that have changed and those that have stayed the same in travel.  During that time, if you wanted to take a vacation, you visited your local travel agent. Business was booming for agents and Collette was anxious to be a part of it. In fact, more than 25 per cent of the workforce associated themselves in the travel industry. The Internet didn’t really exist, and therefore, agents were 100 per cent reliant on in-person communication. Although some will tell you otherwise, I still believe that human interaction is the best kept secret in the business.

The first year in the business wasn’t easy. I started just a few days before the San Francisco earthquake hit on October 17, 1989 as the first pitch was about to be thrown in the World Series. I was flying to Boston for a meeting and exited the plane to a crowd of hundreds staring at the airport’s TV monitors. I remember having a sinking feeling in my stomach that people would stop travelling out of fear for natural disasters such as this one.

Being the only employee (for about the first 18 months) certainly had its challenges along with so much excitement over the years. I counted on the support and resources of the team in the United States but it was ultimately my responsibility to build Collette’s brand as a tour operator in Canada and to grow relationships with travel agents over time.  

I spent my days visiting agents on the road and completed all of the paperwork in the evening. I really didn’t have much of a choice! There were no cellphones and technology just wasn’t the same as it exists today. I carried bags of change with me so that I could pull off the side of the road from time to time to make calls at various pay phones. I’d get very few appointments back then and I would never call to confirm for fear of them cancelling. In the years that followed, we slowly added to our sales and marketing teams. It wasn’t an easy job and turnover occurred more than I would have liked. Throughout it all, each year, we continued on to the next.

Collette's first Canadian brochureIn the early nineties, we primarily sold North American based tours. Travel destinations weren’t nearly so exotic during that time as they are today. In fact, most were considered land destination tours as guests typically didn’t want to fly. We may have had a few Australian and European tours, but the majority of the market share was in North America. Our top three tours until the year 2000 travelled to Arizona, California and Utah. It seems unreal to imagine that we now offer 150 tours to all seven continents. Although the days of sending faxes via thermal role paper have come to an end, the relationships that Collette has maintained with travel agents has blossomed and grown. We wouldn’t be where we are today without their support and trust. 

Many agents weren’t familiar with guided travel and I spent a great deal of time educating partners about the benefits of such. I visited travel agents who just wanted to be sure that their clients were satisfied and were hesitant to suggest guided travel. I can remember having to meet with some agents four or five teams before they would suggest Collette. Over the years, we earned their trust and to this day, are so very thankful for the relationships that have been made with our travel partners.

In the last twenty-five years, the company has grown to more than 40 employees in the Toronto and Vancouver offices. The United States remains our global headquarters and Collette recently added their fourth office in Sydney, Australia. And of course we are still supporting agents here in Canada. It’s a part of the business that will never change. We’ll always be grateful for getting our start in that one room office in the basement of the Royal York Hotel and for the agents that have chosen Collette over and over again. Without them, we wouldn’t have made it to today. Here’s to the next twenty-five years!