Tuesday,  August 16, 2022  3:57 am

Exclusive Q&A: Transat’s Nicole Bursey unpacks trade strategy ahead of July 30 restart

Exclusive Q&A: Transat’s Nicole Bursey unpacks trade strategy ahead of July 30 restart
Transat’s Commercial Director Nicole Bursey. (Photo: Pax Global Media)
Michael Pihach

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.

Make no mistake: there has been a whirlwind of activity at Transat over the past few months.

It was just last April that Transat and Air Canada mutually agreed to terminate a $190 million-dollar acquisition deal, leaving pundits to wonder if Quebecor President and CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau would swoop in with a takeover offer of his own (in the end, that fell through also).

Then, on April 29, the Montreal-based company reached an agreement with the Government of Canada to borrow up to $700 million in additional liquidity to help support its business and, notably, reimburse customers for cancelled travel during the pandemic while protecting trade commissions at the same time.

Then, in May, Mr. Jean-Marc Eustache, one of the principal architects of the creation of Transat in 1987, announced his retirement, handing the leadership over to Annick Guerard, who had been Transat's Chief Operating Officer since November 2017.

Transat is getting ready to restart operations on July 30. (Transat)

Following the release of a winter 2021-22 schedule, the plan, now, is to restart flights – and after months of suspended service due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions, the big relaunch is (finally) coming to fruition.

It’s an exciting time for everyone in the industry and Transat, for one, is confident in the strategic plan it has laid out for the coming years.

Ahead of the company’s July 30 restart, PAX caught up with Transat’s Commercial Director Nicole Bursey to discuss policy changes, commissions, survival, restarting flights, support for the trade and plans for the future.

PAX: Transat has been making several changes to its policies and program over the past year. This has significantly increased the workloads of travel advisors. What do you have to say to them?

Nicole Bursey (NB): Changes have been an unavoidable challenge that the industry continues to face, and we are terribly sorry for the inconvenience this causes. We are aware of how difficult the past year has been for the travel industry as a whole—and for travel agents specifically. We truly are infinitely grateful for their patience and confidence. We cannot stress this enough.

Despite growing demand from travellers, we cannot ignore the uncertainty that continues to hang over the coming months. The main reason for these numerous changes is the constantly evolving context of the pandemic. This is why we urge the federal government to provide us with better visibility on the next steps of its industry recovery plan so that we can plan our operations in a more informed manner, and thus reduce the volatility of the situation and the work created for agents.

PAX: Should agents expect more changes to Transat’s program in the coming months?

NB: We’re just a few days away from the resumption of our operations, and while we are very excited for this first step towards a return to normalcy, the pandemic remains present and circumstances remain exceptional on all levels.

With that said, we feel that the program, as it is presented today, is a realistic offer. However, we may have to adapt with the evolution of the restrictions. We made the decision to do a thorough review of our winter program and to make adjustments as early as possible. We recognize that this brought on some additional changes for travel agents to manage. However, we strongly believe that being proactive and making these changes now is in the best interest of the traveller, the travel agent, and our own teams. And who knows, if circumstances allow, the program could even be enhanced! Should further changes be necessary, travel agents will, of course, be informed of these changes, and we will be here to accompany them every step of the way.

PAX: Do you intend to modify the commission program in the future?

NB: We have no plans to make significant changes to our commission programs for travel agents.  We also continue to offer our BonBon program which allows agents to earn real dollars on every booking.

PAX: Is Transat solid enough to survive the pandemic?

NB: Absolutely. Thanks to the company's pre-pandemic financial health and the funding provided by the federal government, we’re in an excellent position to rise above the colossal changes we’ve all faced over the past 18 months. Now that many of the travel restrictions have been lifted across Canada and elsewhere in the world, we’re excited to gradually start flying again.

PAX: What part do travel agents play in the future of Transat?

NB: Travel agents have always been at the heart of our sales approach and they will undoubtedly continue to be. Supporting travel agents remains a priority for us at all times and, in fact, Transat maintained throughout these past months a sales team who are very accessible and responsive to travel agents. We have just strengthened this team with the appointment of Lindsay Merrill as Sales Manager. We will continue to develop new tools and enhance functionalities that help agents sell and manage bookings with Transat. We are convinced that with the support of agents, the Transat star will continue to shine brightly.

"Travel agents have always been at the heart of our sales approach," says Transat's Nicole Bursey. (Transat)

PAX: What can we expect for the future of Transat?

NB: The pandemic has been difficult for everyone in the travel industry, including Transat. But one thing is certain, we are and will remain the Transat you know! We are still the reliable, forward-thinking, trustworthy company, led and supported by passionate and committed people that agents have come to love over the past 34 years. The same company that has always taken great pride in developing new exciting markets and being ahead of emerging trends. And also, the same company that has been voted Skytrax’s best leisure airline two years in a row.

Actually, we couldn’t be more thrilled about our future as a standalone company, even more so with the laser-sharp vision of our new CEO Annick Guérard, this is very exciting for our teams. We simply can’t wait to get back to “brightening the everyday with the joy of vacation” and providing the best possible experience to Canadian travellers.

PAX: Following the relaunch, is Transat planning to operate mostly out of Quebec?

NB: As of July 30, we will be operating mainly out of Montreal and Toronto (with select flights out of Vancouver, Quebec City and Calgary), but we are dedicated to serving clients in Ontario and Atlantic Canada with plans to add flights from five additional gateways this winter: Hamilton, London, Ottawa, Halifax and Moncton. The details of our program can be found on our website and Agent Direct.

PAX: What’s the short-term plan for Transat’s operations?

NB: As mentioned in past communications, our recovery plan is conservative by design. That being said, our winter program will comprise of flights to nearly 50 destinations throughout the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America, the United States, Canada and Europe.

Destinations we fly to continue to share their plans on how they will welcome international tourists. We are monitoring this very closely and are reviewing our processes accordingly to ensure the best possible experience for travellers, notably with our practical guide, which provides easy-to-understand guidance, e.g. with entry requirements to foreign destinations and for returning to Canada.

PAX: Will Air Transat operate in the West anytime soon?

NB: Just like agents and travellers, we too are saddened that we are not going to offer a South program from Western Canada. Removing these programs was not an easy decision, but it was a necessary one – we must focus primarily on markets in Ontario and Quebec in order to expedite our recovery. We have been very transparent about this.

And while we will not be offering direct international flights from Western Canada for the foreseeable future, we are still operating a solid domestic program connecting Vancouver and Calgary to Toronto and Montreal, providing for opportunities to sell Europe.

I know it is taking longer than we would like but, we are committed to returning commissions that were recalled last year when we moved to refunds for files impacted by our decision to not operate flights from this region. Despite changes to our flight program, our sales team remains available to support our agent partners in Western Canada.

PAX: Will Transat’s rates change?

NB: We are following the evolution of the pandemic daily and, in the short term, it is difficult to predict market conditions and, consequently, fares. It is advisable for travellers to book early, and to purchase Option Flex Standard or Option Flex Extra for added flexibility. Waiting to book, in a time of reduced capacity and pent-up demand, is not a good strategy.

PAX: Is Transat still selling groups?

NB: Transat has long been recognized for its group department. We have won numerous awards and received accolades on how well we manage groups, and we remain focused on this business. In fact, our group sales have been very strong over the past few months and this demonstrates, as we anticipated, that group travel is one of the key post-pandemic trends.

The pace of bookings does indicate that Canadian travellers are hungry for discovery and excited to travel with family, friends and loved ones who they likely did not see much of during the lockdown.

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