When Karen Salviato graduated from high school, she had no idea what she wanted to do.
But like most teenagers, she had one plan in mind – to start making some money.
So, she got a summer job working in a factory. It was the same one her mother worked at.
“I was the youngest person there and the others reminded me of that every day,” says Salviato, who was born in Edmonton, AB, but grew up in Ontario. “They really had good intentions.”
One night, after work, Salviato was catching up with one of her besties, who was talking about a travel school program that she had recently enrolled in.
“It sounded so interesting,” Salviato says, recalling that conversation so many years ago.
The silver lining of Salviato’s factory job (“which was grueling,” she admits) was that it allowed her to save up some cash, which could go towards taking a course in tourism.
Salviato eventually found her way to Seneca College, where she registered in a two-year program.
“Not going to lie, it was tough doing it on my own,” Salviato recalls. “It was one hour of class, per subject, once a week. A real sink-or-swim approach to learning.”
Ironically, that same sink-or-swim attitude has guided Salviato through her career in the travel industry for four decades now.
Her first tourism-related job was working as a hostess and receptionist at Toronto’s CN Tower. Then, after completing college, she landed a job at The Last Minute Club.
“I was hired on the spot by Harry Borenstein, without a resume,” Salviato says. “I worked there for 17 years.”
In those early days, work was just a job, not a career, Salviato admits. But it gave her joy.
“I was one of the least-travelled people for so many years, but that didn’t stop me from selling the dream,” she says. “I truly loved matching people with their perfect travel experience, and for the longest time, I lived vicariously through my clients.’
Salviato married young and had children shortly after. (“I praise our industry for allowing me to work my schedule around my life,” she says).
Later on, she broadened her experience and worked for 23 years at CWT (formerly Carlson Wagonlit Travel) where she held roles in corporate, meetings and events, was an account/business development manager, and ultimately, a supplier relations manager.
“This afforded me the most fabulous travel adventures,” Salviato says.
Then, as her career reached the 40-year mark, Salviato made a leap, leaving retail travel to join the team at Manulife Travel Insurance in March of 2019.
Today, she’s a national business development manager for independent agencies, “and I have never looked back,” she says.
“My role is to figure out the best way to work successfully with independent agents, which is the fastest-growing segment,” says Salviato, who recently moved to Mount Albert, a village located northeast of Toronto. “It’s about understanding their unique needs, building their confidence through ongoing education, and growing our mutual sales.”
“My strength has always been relationship management, and my retail background has allowed me to share my past experiences at a grassroots level with these agents.”
Here, PAX Checks In with Salviato to discuss the best place to find lobster in Maine, the time she won a disco dancing contest, and the things travel advisors should know right now about Manulife insurance.
PAX: What are three essential items you always travel with?
Karen Salviato (KS): Benadryl, wipes (you never know what for, or when you’ll need them) and make-up.
PAX: What’s your favourite airport and why?
KS: It’s not exotic, but I really like Charlotte Douglas International Airport. It’s a very welcoming environment with great art and comfortable Adirondack chairs.
PAX: What was the first trip you ever took?
KS: It was a family trip to Florida when I was around 13. We drove from Ontario to Florida like The Brady Bunch in an old station wagon, playing name the license plates. We were fortunate to stay for one month in an area not to posh, just outside of Miami. I met some locals, and we played Marco Polo. This was in July, and I remember my new local friends asking me what it was like to live in snow houses. I said, “Igloos?” Needless to say, we had a good laugh.
PAX: What’s the biggest splurge you’ve ever made on a trip?
KS: I’m not a big spender, but I recently spent way too much on some skin care products to the tune of $2,000.
PAX: What's the most memorable meal you've ever had while travelling?
KS: The best lobster, in Bar Harbor, Maine, after an incredible few hours of whale watching.
PAX: What’s your biggest travel pet peeve?
KS: When airlines offer to check in carry-on luggage at the gate for no charge while others paid the piper. Not to mention the people who are bringing more than their share of carry-on. This is why there is no space in the overheads.
PAX: What is your funniest travel anecdote?
KS: I was at the Mayfair hotel in Vancouver, taking the elevator from my room to the lobby, when it stopped and in entered Christopher Plummer. I always try to respect everyone’s space, and especially someone like this, but I did mumble something like, “You are awesome and have a good evening.” I feel like there should be key things you should say, or ask-ready things in your pocket, that makes celebrities want to engage with you.
PAX: Would you travel for a month in luxury or for a year on a budget?
KS: I’m going to get selfish and say a month in luxury. I have lived on a budget for way too many years, and my top priorities would be seeing my family, so one year would seem like a lifetime.
PAX: What do you consider your greatest achievement in recent years?
KS: This year, I celebrate 40 years of marriage to my incredible steadfast husband, and I’m so proud to be a mother of three awesome adults and two very sweet grandchildren. Professionally, I’ve had a great couple of years. In 2022, I was awarded one of the Top 25 BDMs at the Baxter Awards, which meant the world to me as this was the voice of my very awesome customers. In 2023, I was one of a select few Manulife Emerald Award winners, which again caught me off guard, seeing my short time with Manulife. They treated us to an all-expenses-paid trip to Portugal for two. I’m still in awe. In June, I was named Top Supplier Partner of the year for 2022 by TravelOnly. Again, this meant so much as this was a result of a poll of all TravelOnly members.
PAX: What is your motto?
KS: “Just Do It,” like Nike says, and “Keep it simple, stupid.” I also throw around, “Is the juice worth the squeeze?”
PAX: What is your idea of perfect happiness?
KS: Being healthy, happy, knowing I’m loved, and that I love. And seeing my family grow. My heart skips a beat when my granddaughter, who is not yet two, runs across the room, shouting, “Nana!”
PAX: What is your biggest fear?
KS: That our young will be mortgage poor, into the millions, and the financial stress will have them revert to living like our grandparents, cutting out the joys in life, like travel. After all, travel is good for the soul.
PAX: Who is your favourite singer or band?
KS: It’s too hard to just pick one as I like all kinds of music. I call my car ‘Karen’s Karaoke’ as this is my forum to belt it out with confidence, especially on the backroads.
PAX: What are your hidden talents?
KS: Not so much now, but once upon a time I did win a dance contest during the disco era to the song “Le Freak.” Yep, I could get freaky.
PAX: How has the pandemic changed your outlook on business?
KS: I always say, as catastrophic as the pandemic was, there are silver linings. People are resilient and they are not going to give up experiencing this awesome world. Life is too sort and I, for one, am so glad we are back to warm embraces versus virtual hugs. Additionally, consumers are asking more questions. There is evidence they better understand and appreciate that our industry is made up of professionals that will guide and support them. With record-breaking sales in most of Q1 this year, this could be the new benchmark year and can set the pace for the next few years.
PAX: What is the biggest challenge facing the travel industry right now?
KS: From my point of view, quality/quantity supply and demand. There is a desperate need to have airlines reach more points of departure. There is a growing interest in niche locations and accommodations. There has been no shortage in requests for vacations that cost more than $30,000 per person, which requires more attention and knowledge. Group travel has been a real issue, and on a good note, this simply means bookings need to be made further out. I think last-minute sales are going to be more limited, which is music to most suppliers’ ears, I’m sure.
PAX: What is this year’s top travel trend?
KS: We are seeing more groups, higher spends on trips and longer stays. Entrepreneurial travel professionals are already working on their 2025 promotions. I also think we will continue to see some industry trailblazers retire in the next two years, leaving huge voids. We need an industry-wide plan to replenish the sales force with some young go-getters.
PAX: What should travel advisors know right now about Manulife?
KS: We are an award-winning team and have the largest sales force with both in-person and virtual support across the country. We have a unique and best-in-market product with a Premium Protection Plan that was created specifically for our retail partners to set them and us apart. Manulife is a people-centric company, and it is because of this I made the leap from retail to Manulife.