Fergus, ON-based travel advisor Diane Cook knows that it’s a treat for her travelling clients to fly out of Kitchener/Waterloo regional airport.
Being a smaller facility, “it’s beautiful,” as she puts it.
“It’s 20 steps to the check-in counter, you can see security from where you’re standing. And then you’re in the lounge with a coffee. You can really relax. It’s not stressful or complicated at all,” Cook says.
Plus, for travellers who live in or close to the region, it’s a luxury not having to make the hour-plus drive all the way to Toronto Pearson International Airport, which is prone to delays, long lines and crowds.
But Cook, owner of 7 Seas 2 See Travel, a bespoke trip planning company and affiliate of Travel Professionals International (TPI), has one tiny bone to pick with her local airport.
For too long, the facility has offered the same all-inclusive vacation options – a situation that Cook says has limited people in the area to the same destinations, year after year.
And vacationers, whether they like it or not, continue to visit the same places, Cook says, because passing through Kitchener airport is such an easy-breezy experience. The opposite of Toronto.
This is where Cook, a travel advisor of 38 years, saw an opportunity to do something innovative and different.
Making it her mission to offer something new and upscale, Cook launched a 13-week private air charter program from Kitchener to Barbados – a destination that has not been offered from Kitchener airport before – with dynamic land and cruise options, departing this December 2022.
“Barbados was the best choice,” Cook, who spent a year researching the idea, tells PAX. “It has wonderful land stays, villas, condos, golfing and small ship luxury cruises that depart from there.”
"Barbados also connects to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, where clients can charter their own boat or a crewed vessel to explore the area.”
For "clients I want to work with"
It’s a bold and beautiful move as travel advisors, one of the hardest-hit professions amid the COVID-19 pandemic, pick up the pieces of their business and look to the future with daring and reimagined strategies.
Partnering with Ottawa-based airline Canadian North, Cook, an award-winning Virtuoso advisor, designed a charter experience reflective of a high-end vacation, aligning with the desires of her own luxury-minded clientele “and the clients I want to work with,” she says.
Only two-thirds of the plane will be sold – two seats of every three-seat row – totalling 92 passengers so guests have extra room.
And it’s an all-in price that includes seats, checked bags, a hot meal (“Not just a wrap,” Cook notes), select beverages, as well as cancellation/interruption, COVID and cancel for any reason insurance. (For air only – other insurance required in destination is separate).
This, Cook says, is an attractive option to clients because “everyone is sick and tired of being nickel and dimed.”
While the flight doesn’t offer business class seats (there’s nothing Cook could do about the seat pitch), it does offer an elevated, small airport, high-service experience, anchored in a belief that “the flight doesn’t have to be the worst part” of a vacation, Cook says.
At the same time, Cook has no interest in being the cheapest option on the market either.
“It costs what it costs,” she says. “It’s for clients that want to be a traveller, not a tourist.”
While Cook’s program will appeal to a variety of demographics, her “ideal” customers are age fifty-plus, active adventurers and foodies who enjoy wine and exploring destinations outside of a resort. (But luxury resorts, of course, are on the menu).
Or travellers who enjoy small ships. A seasoned cruise expert, Cook is working with luxury lines that have voyages out of Barbados – notably Star Clippers, Seabourn, Windstar, SeaDream Yacht Club and Regent Seven Seas – on dates that match her departures.
Multi-generational families are another target market, she says, because Barbados is packed with spacious villas and condos.
“It’s for people not looking for the cheapest of anything, but they understand the value that comes with the price,” Cook explains.
She also isn’t packaging air, land (or cruise) together like a supplier would. Everyone travelling on Cook’s charter will belong to a unique and curated booking.
“Everything I do is custom from start to end,” Cook says. “Ninety per cent of people aren’t getting on a bus and showing up at a hotel. There will be private transfers.”
Open to Ottawa too
The flight — which departs every Friday from Dec. 16, 2022, to March 10, 2023 — is also open to Ottawa residents (or those who live near there) as the plane originates there before flying to Kitchener and then onwards to Barbados.
Return flights are on Saturdays and clients can choose their length of stay in paradise, whether it be one week, two weeks, an entire month. Or longer.
Because insurance is included, the price varies as it depends on the makeup of the client(s) involved.
And prices aren’t available just yet – as the airline industry faces a sudden spike in fuel prices, Cook (on the advice of Canadian North) is holding off on releasing her prices for another week or two as the airline evaluates its own costs.
But that’s not to say there isn’t any interest.
Cook’s program was recently featured in her local news outlet, Guelph Today, and the more than 100 inquires that followed were “very exciting and encouraging,” she says.
“I have 80 emails, some 20 voicemails, plus Facebook and text messages,” she says. “People are very interested. I have some saying, ‘As soon as you know [the price], I want to be the first one booked.’”
Incentive for agents
There’s also an incentive for other travel advisors to get involved. Cook is paying a $100 commission for every seat that is sold “so agents feel the value of us working together.”
She’s doing this not only because she wants to have a full and successful winter season, but also because “together, we are stronger when we support each other.”
“There’s enough business to go around,” says Cook, who is also urging advisors to charge their own fees for putting the package together, just like she does.
Between her airline partnership, possible collaborations with other agents, and the opportunity to offer clients something new and glamourous out of Kitchener (and Ottawa), “I’m hoping it’s a win-win for everybody,” Cook says.
Her hope, she says, is for the program to be 50 per cent sold by June. “Book it now, then people can look forward to it,” she says.
But talk about taking a product to new heights. (“I’ve never worked harder,” Cook admits).
Her advice to other agents looking for ways to make a splash in the marketplace, as it wakes up to easing travel restrictions, is to “continue to take steps forward and not be deterred.”
“I just keep making the next step,” she says. “Even though you can see what’s beyond it, take one baby step and believe in what you’re doing.”
Travel advisors who would like to contact Diane Cook can email her at email@example.com.