They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.
Now, it’s a gathering spot for travel agents to support one another during the pandemic.
“Palace Parking Lot Parties” are back with a special winter edition, giving travel pros in Ontario an outdoor space to partake in some good ole’ fashioned human interaction.
The travelling tour, organized by Diana Winters, business development manager for Ontario at Palace Resorts and Le Blanc Spa Resorts, launched last summer, turning parking lots in some 35 Ontario cities into meetup points where social distancing and capacity rules were respected.
The summer series was extremely popular with agents – so much so that Winters, in some locations, had to host multiple events, at different hours, to accommodate the demand while keeping group numbers low.
Her name may be synonymous with iconic FAM trips in sun-kissed destinations like Mexico and Jamaica, but Winters hosts an epic winter event, too, as PAX learned on Monday (Jan. 25) at a stop in St. Catharines, ON.
“These parties have never been more important to me,” Winters told PAX at Monday’s do, which unfolded in a partially-empty Toys "R" Us parking lot. “The restrictions keep growing with more and more roadblocks and so many unknowns."
Giving travel agents an opportunity to connect, in person, is “the most valuable gift I can give them,” Winters said.
“Human connection has never been more important," she said.
There’s no set agenda or formal presentation at these socially-distanced team huddles, which can run anywhere from one to two hours.
The instructions are BYOC (Bring Your Own Chair), to dress warmly, and to come with an understanding that all topics of conversation are welcome, from surviving life in lockdown to travel restrictions to the latest on Palace properties or health and safety protocols, if curious.
Taking Ontario by storm
Winters said the response to her winter tour, which kicked off Jan. 18, has been “overwhelming.”
“It's clear that this journey we're all on is going to continue for a little while longer,” she said. “What is most important to me is making sure that my agents know that I am here for them and I believe they know that.”
There were also some cities last summer that didn't get a parking lot party, “so I owed them,” Winters added.
D.W. (as Winters is known in some circles) has, so far, taken her winter series to parking lots in Barrie, Markham, Peterborough and St. Catharines and has plans to expand further.
“Some cities have had as many as six sessions and they are divided over a couple days,” she said.
Winters is eyeing Ottawa, Mississauga, Etobicoke, Ajax, Hamilton, Waterloo and Windsor next, she said.
“And yes, Northern Ontario is on the list!” she added. “The number of agents that have requested a visit from the north is astonishing.”
“If agents make a lot of noise for their city, I hear it and add it in.”
While the tour requires significant pre-planning, Winters adjusts the format as she goes, if need be, to adhere to Ontario’s ever-changing lockdown rules.
The winter tour was originally intended for a maximum of ten people. Now, in accordance with the latest laws on outdoor gatherings, events are capped at five.
Winters promotes events using the hashtag “#5PaxMax” to get the point across and will schedule multiple seatings in one city, as she did last summer, if the interest is there.
Having smaller groups is nice, she said, as it creates an intimate setting for chit-chat, “allowing us to have one-on-one conversations.”
“The challenge for me is having many hours in the cold, but they are worth it,” said Winters, who keeps her guests warm and toasty with Palace-branded toques and cups of hot chocolate.
Hello St. Catharines
Monday’s stop in St. Catharines drew a small but mighty group of two travel advisors both from TravelOnly – Colleen McDonald and Sandi Laing.
Reflecting on the day, McDonald said she loved having the opportunity to “express, without condemnation, what we, as agents, are going through trying to service clients when the industry is in flux.”
Laing echoed that sentiment, telling PAX that it was “so important to see faces, reconnect, and look forward to a time when the industry is back, because it will bounce back. It’s just going to come back different, stronger and it’s going to take a while.”
“We just need lots of patience.”
Winters understands the uncertainty that exists within travel communities these days.
“We all agree that riding out this storm to the end will prove to be incredibly rewarding,” she said. “Agents are tired, but they are really taking this time to re-evaluate their business plans and how they will do business moving forward.”
“They haven't lost all hope.”
How to attend
With potentially tougher travel restrictions coming to Canada, travel professionals may need to wait a little longer before business returns to normal.
But the fact that these parking lot parties continue to generate wait lists is proof that the industry is keen on staying connected.
And that it hasn’t given up on the fight.
Travel agents interested in attending a future event are invited to register on this private Facebook page that Winters runs for Ontario-based agents. (Note: the group is open to Ontario agents only).
Here, the cities and dates are listed with registration instructions.
“Reconnecting, talking shop and hearing about their families is a reminder that, without the relationships, there is no business,” Winters said.
“It's humbling to know that one short hour, a hot cup of hot chocolate and a girl from the Hammer [Hamilton] can bring just a little bit of sunshine to someone’s day.
“Even if it's in a parking lot, in the middle of winter, in my son's snow pants.”
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