Thursday,  March 4, 2021  1:15 am

TravelBrands on the art of keeping things simple during not-so-simple times

TravelBrands on the art of keeping things simple during not-so-simple times
TravelBrands CEO Frank DeMarinis. (Photo © Nicola Betts/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 Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

There’s nothing simple about running a travel company during the COVID-19 pandemic.

If the Canadian government’s latest round of travel restrictions has proven anything, it’s that travel can be taken away – restricted, banned, and demonized – at any time, and there’s very little businesses can do about it.

The travel industry, one of the hardest hit sectors amid the pandemic, has been in a sink or swim state for several months now as companies evaluate, and re-evaluate, their options and calculate next steps.

When will the travel industry rebound? At this point, who knows.

But as the saying goes, life isn't always about waiting for the storm to pass – it's about learning how to dance in the rain.

Travel restrictions can change at any time during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This has been the attitude at TravelBrands from the very beginning of the coronavirus crisis.

Throughout the bulk of 2020, leading up to now, the one-stop shop travel company has focused its efforts on simplifying operations for not-so-simple times.

“We’ve been using the last ten months to look internally and see where we can enhance processes,” Jamie Witmeyer, a communications specialist at TravelBrands told PAX in a recent telephone interview.

After all, TravelBrands, like many, has had time to do so.

Back when it all went down

It all goes back to March last year – the month it all went down – when COVID-19 escalated into a global crisis, prompting governments to close borders and ground airplanes.

The tsunami of travel cancellations, refund requests and postponements that followed put systems, software (and every working professional’s patience) to the test, all the while highlighting modern-day deficiencies.

That influx of cancellations “was the big thing” that brought certain issues to light, such as long wait times over the phone, during those first few weeks of the pandemic, Witmeyer said.

(This, of course, recognizing that tackling a beast like COVID-19 was, and still is, an unprecedented battle). 

Jamie Witmeyer, a communications specialist at TravelBrands. (Supplied)

So, when the dust settled, the team got together to review exactly what happened and devised a plan to streamline operations to better serve travel advisors and clients, with simplicity in mind.

This included improving Access, a platform created by TravelBrands that gives agents the ability to create vacation package for clients. It now has a customer service page that directs users to specific departments.

That, combined with updates to invoicing and internal programming, has sped up processes, arming TravelBrands for the next big catastrophe.

Which wasn’t that long ago, really. 

The last major crisis unfolded on New Year’s Eve, on December 31, when the federal government announced its new pre-departure COVID-19 testing rules for international arrivals – an order that took effect on Jan. 7.

That announcement caused another wave of cancellations, squashing the “slow and steady growth” in business that TravelBrands was seeing at that time, Witmeyer explained.

But, if anything, it gave TravelBrands an opportunity to put its newly-improved systems to the test.  

“We didn’t have any wait times – everything was super quick,” Witmeyer said, recalling the event. 

Keep it simple

But instilling simplicity into processes has been a primary goal throughout all of this mess. 

In May, TravelBrands launched an app that now lets travel agents manage their bookings, on the go, from mobile devices.

Available in the App Store and on Google Play, the easy-to-use platform has a variety of functions to assist the trade, such as allowing agents to securely access their files, view invoices, apply payments and review commission levels.

“It lets agents work remotely on their phone instead of being stuck to a computer all day,” Witmeyer said.

That same month, TravelBrands moved to simplify its systems for booking group flights, giving agents the ability to block air seats through Access (as opposed to via email or phone).

READ MORE: TravelBrands' new app lets agents work smarter, not harder

May also saw the introduction of a user-friendly Cruise and Air packaging program on Access, allowing for the customization of cruise and air options for clients.

An expanded partnership with travel financing company Uplift followed, making it easier for agents to assist clients with budgeting their future travel dreams.

Frank DeMarinis, CEO, TravelBrands and Denise Heffron, managing director for Canada, Uplift.

“Our focus is about not taking travel for granted and being able to service any type of customer, no matter their budget, interest, or length of stay, while customizing things and making it very simple for agents to service their clients,” Witmeyer said.

It also helps when you’ve got support at the top.

Japan-based H.I.S., which acquired TravelBrands’ parent company Red Label Vacations Inc. in 2019, has “given us a lot of support this entire time,” Witmeyer added.

“Our goal is to see the light at the end of this tunnel,” Witmeyer said. “They want us to succeed.”

From left: Frank DeMarinis, CEO, TravelBrands; Hideo Hatano, CEO, H.I.S. Canada Holdings & H.I.S USA Holdings. (File photo/Pax Global Media)

“Travel will always be on everyone's horizon"

President and CEO of TravelBrands Frank DeMarinis has been orchestrating the vision, maintaining perspective when perspective is needed most.  

“The travel Industry continues to face short-term challenges with the most recent announcement by the federal government,” DeMarinis told PAX, just days after Canada’s major airlines, in consultation with the Government of Canada, agreed to suspend service to Mexico and the Caribbean until April 30.

Another forthcoming travel challenge is the requirement to stay at a mandatory quarantine hotel, at the travellers’ own expense, on arrival.

“It’s important to remind ourselves that the global pandemic is an ongoing and changing event - not a permanent condition,” DeMarinis said. “We must remain positive for the future of the industry, while keeping the health and well-being of all travellers and people in mind.”

While people may not travel today, they will travel tomorrow, DeMarinis suggested.

President and CEO of TravelBrands Frank DeMarinis. (File photo/Pax Global Media)

“Our current efforts and dedication to the industry will prevail and we will bounce back stronger and more resilient,” he said. “Travel will always be on everyone's horizon.”

Preparing for the big boom 

Researching the latest travel trends and surveying customers has been equally important to TravelBrands as it prepares for the big boom – the influx of bookings that are expected to occur when vaccines are rolled out and people feel safe again.

“Travellers next year will not look like they did last year,” Witmeyer said.

As more Canadians stayed closer to home this past summer, TravelBrands has steered some focus towards promoting domestic travel, offering customizable trip ideas, from ski packages to local tours, coast to coast.

And, believe it or not, future cruise bookings for 2022 and 2023 are looking good, Witmeyer said.

“Cruise companies have been offering good deals, free cancellations, and upgrades for on-board credits,” she said. “Customers are seeing the value in it.”

TravelBrands, notably, recently announced a new partnership with Atlas Ocean Voyages, a luxe-adventure cruise line that allows guests to visit off-the-beaten-path destinations while enjoying one-of-a-kind experiences.

Atlas Ocean Voyages is set to launch in July 2021. (Atlas)

While bookings may be far out, “people who love to cruise are ready to go cruising,” Witmeyer said.

Another focus has been researching those “bucket list vacation items,” Witmeyer added.

“The people who usually take one to three vacations a year have saved up extra money for a special vacation for when COVID is over,” she said. “We’re hoping people upgrade their travel or go to bucket list destinations.”

The worldly experiences offered by TravelBrands’ Exotik Journeys program, for example, may attract a new following once travel picks up again, Witmeyer said.

Exotik Journeys offers culturally-rich vacations to destinations all over the world. (TravelBrands)

“We’re seeing that people may want to spend more and go to places like Africa and Asia, beyond the typical all-inclusive,” she said, noting the rising trend of extended stays.

Travel restrictions are hard to predict, Witmeyer admitted, but systems can evolve “to ensure that all parties are protected” as plans shift and change.  

“The biggest thing coming out of this, for us, is that we really want to emphasize that feeling of a special vacation while loving and appreciating travel,” Witmeyer said.

“We’re staying hopeful that, in some sort of way, we can travel and see the world again.” 

Simple as that. 

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