Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
They don’t call her “The Travel Queen” for nothing.
You may recall travel advisor Kim Paquette, who made headlines last month for becoming the first Canadian to wrap an RV with a Sandals-branded covering.
But this enthusiastic, Ottawa-based agent, who operates Travel by Kim, an affiliate of Travel Professionals International (TPI), did a lot more this past summer than decorate her wheels.
Paquette, who goes by the nickname “The Travel Queen,” spent July and August touring some of the most picturesque locations in the world – in Western Canada and Europe, to be exact – via train and river ship.
READ MORE: Meet the "Travel Queen" who owns Canada's first Sandals-wrapped RV
Being fully vaccinated against COVID-19, Paquette set out to not only see how travel restrictions have changed the way clients explore the world, but to also “future-proof” her business by gaining on-the-ground knowledge of how destinations, and brands, are adapting to pandemic-era life.
“This is the time to invest as much as humanly possible in your business,” Paquette told PAX in a recent telephone interview. “My clients like to see that I travel. I wanted to be able to report back on what’s going on out there.”
Her itinerary was extraordinary.
The adventure kicked off on July 15, when Paquette embarked on a scenic railway experience from Vancouver, BC, to Banff, AB, with luxury train operator Rocky Mountaineer.
She did this, connecting with dreamy Canadian landscapes, until July 25.
Then, on July 26, she jetted off to Europe, landing in Amsterdam, where she boarded the AmaSiena with AmaWaterways and, as part of the ship’s inaugural voyage from July 29 to Aug. 5, sailed down the Rhine to Basel, Switzerland.
A week later, from Aug. 12 to 19, Paquette joined a second river cruise (again with AmaWaterways), this time on the AmaLyra, and sailed the Seine from Paris to Normandy and back while stopping in small towns along the way.
“I could have stayed,” Paquette said, reflecting on her final week in Europe.
That, in fact, is one of Paquette’s main recommendation to clients these days: go and stay.
“Make it a long stay,” she said. “Why come back?”
As global vaccination rates rise, and as border restrictions ease, more travel pros, like Paquette, are going beyond the headlines to experience today’s fluid world of travel firsthand.
It’s a task that isn’t for everyone: there are still some out there who aren’t comfortable yet with the idea of boarding a train, plane or ship during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But for travel advisors who are game, and who trust the safety protocols that have been developed, a world of opportunity, knowledge and professional growth awaits.
After all, how can you trust a travel agent that hasn’t travelled?
“If you’re excited by what you do, it shows,” Paquette said, who has worked in the travel industry for 21 years, working as a travel advisor for the past seven. “Clients feel it, it’s good for business.”
“You create enthusiasm by being a doer.”
Taking care of business, one itinerary at a time, Paquette made several observations during her rail and river adventure this past summer.
Here’s what she learned.
Trains favour bubbles
Rocky Mountaineer, where the Canadian Rockies meet the comfort of luxury train travel, showed Paquette how riding the rails has evolved since the industry was derailed, so to speak.
COVID-19 health and safety protocols were evident immediately as all passengers had to be tested for the coronavirus, via nasal swab, one day before boarding in Vancouver.
Remember, COVID-19 is just one of many obstacles that can impact travel these days.
During the summer, British Columbia was coping with its third worst wildfire season on record, which created the real possibility of trains not being able to access some routes.
Rocky Mountaineer’s season launched in early July, and fortunately for Paquette, the nature-covered route she chugged along wasn’t interrupted by thick smoke, she said.
“It was a very relaxing and enjoyable way to travel,” Paquette said. “It’s a slow pace and great for people who enjoy being disconnected for a couple of days as cell service is not available in some parts.”
In terms of COVID-19 protocols, the reduced capacity on train cars, and in dining areas, stood out the most, she said.
The seating was “very different,” she said, mask-wearing was encouraged (except for eating and drinking) and groups were placed together in their own cars.
“Only our bubble was on our car,” she said. “It wasn’t full.”
What’s more is that “everything was spotless, all the time,” Paquette said, and staff did “everything humanly possible” to ensure spaces remained sanitary.
Rollin' on the river, fully vaxxed
As one who specializes in cruises, Paquette was excited to board the 156-passenger AmaSiena in Amsterdam.
And locals were excited to watch.
On departure day, a local TV station and crowds of tour guides assembled at the port, playing accordions and waving flags, to see the ship off.
It was AmaSiena’s inaugural voyage, after all, which was “a big deal,” Paquette said.
“It reminded me of the ’40s and ’50s when people sailed on ocean liners to America,” Paquette said. “We were up top, waving. Everyone was happy and jolly.”
From there, it was smooth sailing along the river Rhine. Well, for almost everyone.
The day before departure, Germany, which played an key role in the week’s itinerary, changed its travel rules, barring the ship from docking unless everyone on board was fully vaccinated.
A handful of American passengers hadn’t received their full series of shots and, as a result, they were not allowed to board.
If anything, that now meant that everyone on board the AmaSiena was fully vaccinated, which is “one thing I enjoyed,” Paquette said.
Every tour guide, server, bus driver and “anyone else we came into contact with who was Ama related” was fully vaxxed also, she said.
Other onboard provisions Paquette saw were daily temperature checks before breakfast and assigned seating in the ship’s restaurant – you could only dine with your travel companion(s), not others.
In praise of ships
“The cruise industry already has a great reporting system that other industries are not enforced to follow,” Paquette said. “I have no idea how many people go in and out of resorts in Mexico, whereas with ships, [as each person boards], numbers are recorded.”
“I am most comfortable selling cruises right now.”
River cruising, in particular, was already set up with elements that, during the pandemic, have become in demand and common, Paquette pointed out.
For instance: river ships only hold so many people (on Paquette’s AmaSiena sailing, there was roughly 100 guests on board), which helps with social distancing.
These ships tend to stop in smaller towns, away from big crowds, where the risk of contracting COVID-19 is lower, she said.
Excursions, too, typically involve private venues, which keeps the ship’s bubble together.
“My only complaint was that the service was too fast,” Paquette said, referring to her voyage on the 144-passenger AmaLyra, which hosted just 50 guests. “If that’s your only complaint, then you have nothing to worry about.”
Ships on European rivers are also in a good position to handle last-minute changes to itineraries, if they arise, given how countries are so close together, she said.
“It’s not a big deal to sail to another port or stay longer somewhere else,” Paquette said.
A practical tip she shares with clients is to carry snacks when venturing off into towns – especially if someone is diabetic.
Due to COVID: “So many local businesses, like corner stores, are not maintaining normal hours,” she said.
Tips from The Queen
Here are Paquette’s top nine travel tips for travellers and travel advisors:
- Pack your patience: “Be prepared to wait,” Paquette said. “You’ll wait at the airport, the parking lot...You’ll wait in line for testing."
- Have a positive attitude: “Expect things to change,” she said. “Changes can happen at any minute and your attitude will make the world of a difference.”
- Be mindful of restrictions: “Especially if you’re planning to cross borders or go island hopping,” she said.
- Sell things you’re comfortable with: As COVID-19 numbers and protocols vary between countries, not every travel advisor is keen on selling every destination right now. Paquette, whose clientele is mostly over the age of 55, isn’t selling destinations like Mexico just yet. Recently, she turned down a group that was seeking a spring break vacation. “I wasn’t comfortable booking them,” she said.
- International travel isn't for everyone (yet): "You must be totally comfortable with your travel plans," Paquette said. If clients aren't ready to travel abroad: "There are many beautiful, luxurious and unique options near home or within Canada that will be truly genuine experiences," she said.
- Don't forget insurance: Even if clients sign a waiver refusing insurance, there’s always a chance they’ll run into trouble, in destination, if COVID-19 strikes. “How am I going to feel if my client calls me, crying, because they didn’t take insurance?” said Paquette, who insists customers are equipped with insurance that she prepares.
- Flexibility wins: There’s still an element of uncertainty in today’s marketplace. “I do not book non-refundable stuff,” Paquette said. “People are OK to book as long as they have a refundable option.”
- Prepare for the worst: Even with a full series of shots, you can still contract COVID-19, which can interrupt life plans. “None of us our immune,” Paquette said. “Be prepared. You may have to stay in destination longer. Have provisions in place.”
- Travelling helps business: “If I’ve done it, I can sell it,” Paquette said, who encourages other agents to get out and see the world. “Business is slow, we’re not making money. This is an opportunity to get out there,” she said (a rare one, too, backed by historically low prices). It’s also about getting “motivated and pumped” about selling travel again. “In the long run, the investment will come back to you,” she said.
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