Wednesday, 3 March 2021

Here we are...basically at the one year anniversary before everything shut down and still no resumption of travel and no roadmap as to how things may look as we move forward.  But, despite that lack of clarity, I do see many emerging trends for when the world starts moving again.  Some of the trends are based on surveys of both Canadian and American travellers, others purely from conversations from my clients and others have no "scientific" backing but rather just things that seem to make sense to me with my 30 years in the industry.  Like everything relating to Covid, take this with a grain of salt because the situation is constantly evolving!

Ok, so, everyone is saying that they can't wait to travel but what does that really mean?  Is it a plane ride a couple of provinces next door to see family and friends? Maybe it's recharging on a beach in the Caribbean? Or maybe it's setting off on a long awaited bucket-list trip?  My point is that "travel" looks very different from one person to the next and while I'm anxious for ALL of it to return, I don't think we are going to get a green light from government and then with the flick of a switch everyone is heading out in all different directions!  I believe it will be a slow and gradual build and if "they" (whomever "they" are) are correct, it will be well into 2023 before we see all of the flights, routes, destinations, and volume of travellers back to pre-covid levels.  Let that sink in for a moment.  That means more than 3 years to regain the business that I had in February 2020.  If you could actually see me know, you'd know that I'm shaking my head in disbelief.  Even though I'm living it every single day, I still can hardly believe it.  Anyway....I digress (as I often do).

So let's break this down.  WHO is going to travel? It seems those between the ages of 18 and 31 are first up as are those 45 - 55 and then followed by the 66 - 72 age categories.  There are many reasons these demographics are trending to be the first to resume travel.  

  • The youngest have a desire to travel and have been one of the least affected age groups by Covid.  Yes, they have maybe done their university courses online and limited their social circle, missed out on family gatherings but many have been able to carry on a relatively normal routine. 
  • The second age bracket has either continued to go to work as usual or had to transition to a work from home routine.  Either way, their life has involved making sacrifices, like so many others, all while trying to help their kids with schooling, while trying to keep a balance.  
  • For the oldest demographic of the group, it could be that they have many things they want to see and do while they are able and after a year of limitations, they want to be bold and start doing! Being housebound was not their vision for retirement.

WHEN/HOW/WHERE   For this, much depends on the roll out of the vaccine itself and the restrictions and protocols for specific countries.  Either way it will be a slow and steady climb a we rebound.  Once provincial borders open and any requirement for self-isolation is gone, Canadians in general will be exploring closer to home for the bulk of 2021.  This may be extended self drive holidays, or flying for example to one locations, renting a car or motorhome and then exploring on their own.  Also trending is the idea of vacation homes for a week at a time.
  • For our younger travellers, their focus may be on more authentic experiences and depending just how things progress with Covid or any variants, this group may start to be on the move as early as January 2022.  They tend to see life as an adventure - be that the destination itself or the style in which they choose to travel.
  • For the middle group, I feel they may be more inclined to resume All-Inclusive style holidays but at resorts that may be smaller, possibly boutique style resorts, that are adults only properties.  These resorts will have a high focus on new protocols and customer care and may be more upmarket than perhaps they may have gone to in the past. Again, depending how these next months go, they might be ready to holiday in this upcoming winter season.  This group of travellers also seem to be looking for a longer duration when it comes to holidays and many are siting 11 days or more as their preference.
  • For the oldest group, IF they have been vaccinated, I think we will see their return to travel in the second quarter 2022.  There will be some comfort knowing they have been vaccinated and that specific destinations are well set to welcome tourists.  It seems there is an interest in longer trips (ie: 16 days or longer). Travel for this demographic may be in the form of river cruises and escorted holidays where the number of travellers is limited and within a confined group.  Multi-generational family travel is likely to surge as well as everyone has the desire to be together an make up for all these lost months.  

WHAT kind of travel do we see as the hottest trend?  

  • The market with the highest uptick is definitely river cruising.  The ships are smaller, more intimate and have a high degree of attention to the details.  No other industry has made such strides in their cleaning protocols and healthy and safety as the travel industry.  
  • Bubble or pod travel is all the buzz as well.  This works well for the escorted holidays, multigenerational travel and even for the youngest demographic looking for local, socially conscious options. 
  • Adults only all inclusive holidays will remain popular but only with the resorts that have done the work to ensure their standards have gone above and beyond to ensure guests wellbeing.
  • Ocean cruising will see a spike in 2023 with many looking to cruise for durations of 14 days or more.
  • Self-drive holidays - whether this means here in Canada or renting a car in Ireland and exploring on their own, there is a sense that travellers can be in control of their own safety when driving and in many respects that is true.
  • Bucket-list travel will be on the climb.  No longer will travellers be ok to put off their dream safari in Africa or that epic Italian adventure.  Too much has been given up and now is the time to reclaim the dreams.
  • Wellness travel is another huge trend.  After all the months of being cooped up, we see the importance of self-care for mind, body and soul.

As I said at the start of this post, there is no roadmap.  We're all just figuring things out as we go but as we do that, trends begin to emerge and we see the potential in what may have been hidden only months ago.

Whatever your travel plans look like, we know one thing for sure and that is more and more will want to work with a travel professional.  If this past year of experiences has taught us anything it is that we need someone in our corner when things take a turn.  Someone who understands the ins and outs, who will work their tail off to get your home, to ensure you're safety and who will fight for credits and refunds and be there to answer your questions. Travel is not simple and even less so now and into the future.

We will travel again and although things may look different, there is still an amazing world full of incredible experiences just waiting for you when you're ready!

Friday, 11 September 2020

Looking Back

Like everyone else, I know where I was when I heard the news. On the morning of September 11, 2001, shortly after 8 am, I was getting ready for work.  It wasn’t just an ordinary day – it was more than that. It was an exciting day as it was officially the first day that I was the owner of my travel agency. 

On the other hand, I can’t say the same for Coronavirus.  It was on my radar (albeit in the background only) as I had clients who had been or were to travel to Asia and the virus had already been making its mark in that corner of the globe. Even though I knew of Covid-19, I truly had no idea the impact it would have or still be making so many months later. 

9/11 was an unforgettable tragedy that left 2,977 people dead and that event forever changed the travel industry.  As of this morning (11 Sept 2020), Covid has killed over 900,000 and counting globally. Every life is precious, every loss is devastating and yet, I can’t help but draw comparisons and differences to these 2 catastrophic events.

With 9/11 the impact was instant and gut wrenching and it unfolded before our very eyes.  We sat glued to the TV and saw the footage of those planes crashing into the towers, we saw the explosions, we saw the towers collapse, the smoke, the ash, the people fleeing the buildings. Later, we saw dazed people searching for their loved ones, signs and pictures of the missing.  We saw the tears and perhaps we even shed them. We saw the first responders using their training they hoped they would never need, we heard the wail of sirens and we saw everyday people become heros.

 A 3rd plane had hit the Pentagon, and a 4th had crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.  Even if you knew no one on those planes or in those towers, you could feel the horror and anguish unfolding in front of you. US airports began to close, airspace shut down.  Flights were diverted – many to Canada where the passengers and crew were welcomed with kindness and  compassion.  If we hadn’t heard it before, the word ‘Al-Qaeda’ became common in nearly every household.

In 2001 there was somewhere between 36,000 to 40,000 flights taking off each and every day in the USA. All these planes were grounded and no flights were allowed into US airspace. Many Canadian and global flights were also grounded.  

A short 2 days later, on September 13th, air traffic resumed. Airport security was stricter, screening had new benchmarks and as time went on, we saw many new safety and security regulations be added and enforced.

Travel and Tourism was hard hit. Demand dropped due to fear and the winter (traditionally high season) of 2001 was a washout. The years that immediately followed saw many companies involved in travel – wholesale, retail or aviation, being sold, consolidated or closed. It was not the best of times but we persevered.  9/11 was not the only blow to the Travel and Tourism sector.

SARS quickly followed it – a big issue especially in Canada for the 2002-03 winter season although some what more of a regionalized issue in the east. In 2008 there was a global financial crisis, then along came the H1N1 Swine Flu, followed by Ebola, MERS and the Zika scare. In the midst of all this, Iceland’s Eyjafjallaj√∂kull volcano erupted shutting down European airspace for several days and affecting approximately 10 million passengers.

Despite it all, the industry survived, coming back stronger as people’s desire and need to travel, both for business and pleasure, outweighed the issues of cramped seating, higher prices, surcharges for fuel, currency fluctuations, extra baggage costs, and the inconvenient security screening procedures. Whatever came our way did not deter the wanderlust.

And then, along came COVID-19.

COVID crept up on us. A strange flu in Wuhan that was hugely contagious and was spreading to other countries. Not all countries reacted the same way. Some responded immediately instituting various travel protocols, warning citizens to return home, and advising social distancing, the wearing of masks and washing of hands.

Once again, we watched this unfold on TV news coverage.  The tragic scenes of those on respirators, sobbing relatives, exhausted front-line health care workers, bodies being loaded into vans. But the impact – while initially shocking – was different. As tragic as these scenes were and still are, as horrific as the news is, unless we know someone, unless we are personally impacted, we often seem to be somewhat removed from the reality and truth of it all.

Many of us wear masks, we keep 6 feet apart in our attempt to social distance, but we are also more casual about it all. Sure, maybe we are not going to wild parties, or political rallies, or crowded beaches but many of us seem to have relaxed somewhat.

We do meet friends on patios or head to the cottage with a few friends for weekend fun. We visit family without wearing masks, schools have re-opened.  We are human and as such, we need human connection and interaction and so, we assess the risk and decide for ourselves what we are comfortable with and what we’re not.

So, the big question is, are we ready to travel?  Perhaps some are while others may not be.  As an industry, 1 in every 10 jobs around the globe are related to Travel and Tourism.  That said, we do hope travel bounces back quickly but realistically, it’s going to be a slow recovery.  This industry was the first (and hardest) to be hit and we will be the last to recover.  But make no mistake…We Will Recover!

Even if you’re not ready at this moment to travel, we encourage you to keep the dream alive!  So many tour operators, airlines and travel providers have stepped up to provide safer travel options.  From small “travel bubbles” with a limited number of travellers, to flexibly changes to $99 low risk deposits, they are doing all they can to make travel possible in the future.

For those of us in Travel and Tourism it has been a devastating year. For the airlines, the cruise lines, the tour operators, hotels, transportation companies, the theme parks and attractions, the destinations, and travel agencies who represent them all – it has been brutal. There have been massive layoffs many with no recall dates on the horizon, a continued workload for months on end with no compensation all to ensure clients make it home safe and sound, refunds get processed, ever changing credits are tracked. To my industry friends and colleagues, I tip my hat to you and understand the incredible stress that has been our lives for many, many months. No one can possibly understand unless they too have lived this reality.  Travel isn’t what we do – it’s who we are.

So, as I reflect on the tragedy that was 19 years ago, I can’t help but also give some serious contemplation to the time we are living in right now. Let’s be considerate of the people around us. If we are going to travel, go to the bank, or buy groceries, please, please, do your part by to physically distancing, and continuing to follow health recommendations. 

When the time comes and you’re ready to travel again, please book with an ACTA certified travel consultant.  Find one in your area:

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

We Are Here For You

I feel exhausted; both emotionally and mentally - uncertain, grateful, fearful, anxious, and hopeful.  Yes, all of these emotions have been swirling around and come in waves.   If there’s one thing I have learned from the rapid spread of the Corona-19 virus is that this job is not for the faint of heart.  For the nay-sayers who feel our job description has been replaced by impersonal online giants or that we’ve gone the way of the dinosaur, I’m here to say otherwise.  My role as a Travel Agent/Consultant/Advisor (use whichever term you prefer – I will answer to any) is more important than ever in these difficult days. I know my undeniable value and thankfully so many of my amazing clients do as well.  In the span of a couple weeks we have seen the world take an unprecedented turn our industry has not experienced since 9/11.  Even that isn’t a true statement as this is undeniably more impactful and far reaching.  We’ve never before seen this.

Everyone has heard the stories or seen on social media about the unimaginably long hold times to try and reach the airlines, tour operators and online travel agencies like Expedia or  Endless stories circulate about the hold times for hours on end only to be disconnected.  Travellers scheduled to be departing for fun-filled destinations in a matter of days were unable to get through and unleashed their fury when there were unable to speak with anyone to process their cancellations, refunds or future travel credits.

Que the Travel Consultants and immediately we were in springing into action by prioritizing those clients with the most immediate travel plans and those who need to return home.  Sure, we might be traditional and Mom and Pop storefronts but we were reaching out to clients (not sitting back waiting for them to call us).  It was the agents advising clients of the options for refunds, credits or rescheduling.  This is a service and human connection not a single online travel provider is able to duplicate. 

The impact of the pandemic is hard hitting and immediate for everyone in the industry and I suspect it will be for many months to come.  Just how long is the question.  For my own agency, it isn’t just the half a million dollars worth of travel that has been cancelled in a matter of days (sales that originally took months to build throughout the sales cycle) , nor the 20+ hour days that we dedicated to getting our clients home safely, the sleepless nights, the late night text messages from clients and their concerned families, DMs and facebook conversations (on personal accounts not just work) but also the fear of how the future looks for travel in general and for my agency, my staff and myself.  I feel a personal obligation toward clients to ensure that each and every one who are currently in destinations from Scotland to Mexico to Thailand and Peru, know that we are here for them, ready and able to assist in repatriation back to Canadian soil.  There is the concern for our team members who may be facing lays offs in light of the growing economic impact and immediate loss of revenue. The uncertainty of my own financial stability also weighs heavy.  Despite all of that, we work diligently to assist in this time of crisis with little regard for the extra work load for no additional pay. 

We had many people contacting us who hadn’t even booked with us in the first place but needed help.  Some we were able to assist while others because of the very nature of the privacy policies in place, we were unable to access their reservations.  That doesn’t mean we didn’t want to help or that we wouldn’t have lent a hand in their time of need.  We have been here, doing what we can, as quickly as possible and doing a damn fine job of it!

But here’s the thing. We continue to do everything we can for our clients, regardless of our own losses (and don’t think for a single moment that they aren’t staggering figures) but arguably most importantly, we’re answering our phones.   You can reach us!  You can’t say that about an online travel agency!

There is a common misconception out there that travel agents are just for those who can “afford it”.  It’s thought that our fees can be avoided by taking advantage of online options like the big dogs such Travelocity or FlightHub or by going directly to the airlines.  The fact of the matter is that it is more likely we don’t have any fees associated at all because in many cases we are paid a commission that comes directly from the supplier (airline, cruiseline or tour operator for example).  There are some products or fare levels that do not pay us commission and to those, yes, we add a fee, for which we are unapologetic because with that comes experience, knowledge, guidance, personal connections and a responsibility to YOU – our valued client.  
Frankly, we are middlemen (actually mostly women) that provide customized personal service that the giants like Expedia simply can not.  Have you ever heard of an online provider calling with a genuine interest in how your trip went? Hint, call-bots just don’t do that.  We provide all of this and more at little to no added cost to you.  Seems almost too good to be true, but it isn’t!
As travel agents, we are trained in the art of crisis management.  Goodness knows we’ve seen more than enough of it!  From SARS, Ebola, 9/11, Zika, H1N1....we’ve handled everything that gets thrown our way.  More often is the phone calls from destinations with emergencies on a much smaller scale such as a broken bone, a missed connection, or a lost passport but the point is that we go above and beyond for our clients.  This is simply the standards that we all adhere to.
Now, how about this one?  Picture having booked a $10,000 vacation.  Wham! Coronavirus hits and you make the tough decision to cancel. You first call the cruise line to inquire about your options. After a long hold, they tell you to call the big-market online wholesaler because that’s who you booked it through.  So, you call the number provided. Three hours of terrible music later there’s a click and then nothing. You’ve just been cut off. You finally get through after repeated attempts and the person on the phone — someone who you have never spoken to before — informs you that there is no insurance on the package so it’s non-refundable. You opted out of the insurance because there wasn’t someone personally explaining its importance. It’s easier to click no when you don’t fully understand what it is all about.
In all these ramblings... (yes, I’m well aware I’m off in many directions but at this point it’s really more for my own mental health)... there are a few major points I’d like to highlight in all of this.
1)     Find a travel consultant you are comfortable working with and use them.  Small fee or no or no fee at all, they have your back when the unforeseen and unthinkable may happen.
2)     Take travel insurance!! Of course no one could have predicted a pandemic, nor the death of family member, nor sickness of a child, a broken leg before you’re to leave on vacation, a gall bladder attack, the loss of a job or that your home may burn. This is precisely why you need insurance!  

During any crisis there is bound to be mass hysteria.  With that comes mass confusion and it’s so vital to have someone there to give you peace of mind, especially in times like these. Use an agent!  A real, live, trusted agent – they are worth their weight in gold.

In a do-it-yourself world that frequently leans more towards independence, automation and instant gratification, it could take an event like this outbreak to make us realize that customer service is still alive and well.  We're still out here ready to tackle these major travel issues with our clients' best interests in mind.  My fear is that the value of the travel consultant will be top of mind right now because of the uncertainty and unknown at the present time but how quickly we soon forget.  We've seen it before - agents "save the day" for someone but a year later that same person who needed "saving", is back clicking and mouse-ing around on the internet thinking they can do our job just as well as we can.  My hope is that the travellers learn from this and allow those who have the skills, knowledge and training to do what they do best.

As the days have progressed and the virus has reached every corner of the globe it’s become apparent that it’s more than just the travel industry being attacked.  The economic fallout is already apparent in the stock markets and current investments.  While some surge with additional demand and business such as the producers of hand sanitizer, don’t forget the others that are not so fortunate.  Remember our frontline health care workers putting on a brave face when danger is staring right back at them. Think of those airline crew who volunteered to rescue flights to bring Canadians home. Keep in mind the amazing people who are ensuring  that the food supply is still intact from the farmer to processors to the delivery folks and the people you see every time you go to the grocery store.  This pandemic has made superheroes out of everyone who is doing their part to fight this virus. 

Sunday, 24 March 2019

Canada's North - a true gem!

The entire concept of this “cool” adventure all started back at the annual Ensemble Travel Group  conference that took place in Nassau, Bahamas in October 2018.  Each year Ensemble, works with many very generous suppliers and partners who donate prizes that are then featured at the Circle of Excellence dinner and charity auction to benefit the Children’s Make-a-Wish Foundation.   As part of the evening Ensemble invites a Make-a-Wish child and their family to tell their story at the gala event.  This year was a very courageous and incredible eloquent 12 year girl.  As she shared her story it was easy to see that this girl had something special – you could sense her ambition and her gratitude and excitement.  By the time she was done, there was hardly a dry eye in the house.  The charity auction raised over $272,000 that evening which pushed the 8 year total to almost 1.15 million dollars.  I can’t help but think it was this incredible girl, her ambition and ability to tell her story that made everyone want to open their wallets!

 I will admit that the only vacation thoughts on my mind at this time were ones that involved sunshine, sand and tropical umbrella drinks but as the auctioneer was announcing the details of the next item up for bid, my excitement and need for a different adventure grew.  The trip was to Yellowknife!  Sure, it might be sunny, but that wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I was thinking sunshine.  Suddenly out of nowhere, my hand was flying up to bid.  It was as though it wasn’t even an extension of my own body.  At one point, Ken leaned over and asked if was “just bidding up the auction item or if I really wanted to buy it?”.  It seemed like the kind of trip that was very much out of the ordinary, at least for me...and just like that I was awarded the honor of the highest bidder. Yeah me!

This Yellowknife experience was put together and donated by Touch the Arctic Tours, NWT Tourism, Canadian North, The Explorer Hotel, My Backyard Tours, Bluefish Services, and RCO Tourism Marketing Services.  We embarked on this adventure with no real expectations.  My one goal was to get at least 1 decent photo of the aurora dancing across the sky and we certainly succeeded! (more on that later)

As we boarded our flight in Edmonton on Canadian North, it was the first glimpse of “northern hospitality”.  What a delightful surprise to be served a full hot breakfast during our short 1hour, 51 minute flight into Yellowknife.  You certainly never get to enjoy that sort of service much anymore unless on long haul international flights.  The plane itself is not very roomy, especially if you’re travelling with your bulky winter coat or parka but that said, it’s comfortable enough for the short duration and the surprise of the meal and free luggage, easily made the squishy quarters all seem worthwhile. 

Upon landing, My Backyard Tours was there waiting for us and just as soon as we had collected our luggage we embarked on our introduction to Yellowknife with a city tour, which helped us get the lay of the land for the days ahead.  We were driven past and/or stopped for photo ops at iconic things such as the Welcome to Yellowknife, the Wildcat Cafe, stopped at the Pilots Monument, Prince of Wales Museum, Mining Heritage Museum, the famous Snow Castle, legendary Bullock’s Bistro, Legislative Assembly, Yellowknife’s answer to Starbucks – the Birchwood Cafe, drove the Dettah ice road, regaled with stories and the history of the area.  It was the perfect introduction to a new city!  My Backyard Tours also provided us with our arctic gear.  Of the 4 of us, 3 had good fits overall however I always have to be the fly in the ointment.  One call to Amanda and a time was set to meet the next morning to try some alternate options.  What a doll – she came to the hotel loaded down with different makes and styles for me to try on and seemed more than happy accommodate me on my quest for the best fit!  We did find a gem and I was toasty warm the entire time!

We arrived at the Explorer Hotel around 12:30pm with the intent to just leave out bags and gear but, as luck would have it, were able to check in right away.    We were accommodated in the new section of the hotel.  The rooms were great – new, of course, but very comfortable beds, crisp sheets, fluffy duvet, contemporary furnishings and everything we could need.  The Explorer is well located and within a 5 minute walk to many things like the Prince of Wales Museum (great lunch spot by the way), the Legislative Assembly, Black Knight Pub, Shoppers, NWT Diamond Centre, etc.

Queue the dog sledding with Tugah Northern Experience - this was probably my second most  anticipated excursion.  I love wildlife and animals of all kinds but in particular dogs
 so it was very exciting to see these 'fellas' in action.  Tolson and his team were ready and waiting when we arrived.  They did a brief tour, showed us how to harness up the dogs and then, just like that, we were off and running.  Literally!  Now, I'm going to be a prairie girl, I've always had this vision of sled dogs being more husky-like...thick fur coats with the distinctive markings and coloring, maybe at least one blue eye...but these guys...well, they were built for speed.  They were a little mix of everything and everything but clearly they possessed the most important characteristic needed in a sled dog - they loved to run!  After the dog sledding we enjoyed hot chocolate, bannock and some tales in the cabin.  All in all, a great time but next time, I want to learn how to be the musher!

All this fresh air has our tummy growling and thankfully had called ahead to make a dinner reservation.  Bullock’s Bistro had been highly recommended and it did not disappoint – what a treat!  So fresh and tasty!  This is a must visit and as a self proclaimed foodie, it was quite amazing watching as the one lone cook was banging out dish after dish, all the while chatting with patrons in a very relaxed way from behind the counter of the open concept kitchen. 

For the aurora viewing, it initially felt like we may not see anything at all.  We tried to temper what would be our disappointment and kept reminding ourselves that you can not control the weather or the solar flares.  If clouds rolled in or the sky decided not the put on a show, we’d still enjoy the experience of sitting out on the hilltop watching the night unfold, the dogs yipping and barking in the distance, shooting stars darting across the sky.  By 11:45 at Aurora Village, we were rewarded for our patience as the faintest white shadows began to appear.  That haze was very quickly replaced with an amazing sky filled with a 360 degree view of choreographed lights that ever so slowly grew with intensity.  Aurora is nothing new for me being from Manitoba.  Often we will see the white and green dance at the horizon.  This experience was different because it started at the horizon and went straight up and all the way across to the opposite horizon.  Of course, when you take photos, you’re able to capture even more color intensity than is visible to the naked eye.  So, yes, we did manage to get a few really great shots of the beautiful aurora.

Ice fishing in the comfort of the snowbear with Greg of Bluefish Services was such a fantastic afternoon!  It was so relaxed and comfortable and Greg was just delightful telling stories of the lake and fishing
and OHH his excitement at seeing a lake trout on the camera!!  Sorry to disappoint you Greg but we’ just couldn’t convince that trout to jump into the frying pan.  We each did have some nibbles on our lines  (apparently I may have been able to actually
catch a fish had I listened more/talked less!)  but in the end, no one was able land anything.  It didn’t matter though – ½ the fun of fishing was the time spent with friends and the fish tales!  Greg even arranged for one of his buddies to bring out a special delivery by snowmobile – Tim Horton’s coffee and donuts.  What could possibly be more Canadian than delivering Tim Horton’s on snowmobile to a group of people ice fishing in the middle of the lake!  Love it! :)

The temperatures during our stay were perfect!  We had daytime highs of around -12C and the nights were -20C.  Again, being from the prairies, I’m no stranger to the cold but this was actually at least 10 degrees warmer than I had been thinking we’d experience.  The challenge was figuring out the optimum clothing and outdoor gear to wear for the different activities.  It’s hard to know how many layers and what the right combination is in order to be not too hot but not too cold.  I felt like Goldie Locks trying on multiple options before settling on my “regular Manitoba jacket” for our next excursion, “Shopping in the Birch Grove”.

What an incredible afternoon spent with Rosie of Strong Interpretation!  We snow-shoed  approximately 3 kms on mostly unbroken or semi-broken trail through the boreal forest.  Rosie would point out specific animal tracks, plants indigenous to the area and explain the various uses for medicine or for cooking, baking and even in martinis. (she had me at martini!)  She carried with her a bag of “visual aids” – a rabbit foot, candied pine needles and birch syrup to taste, and anything else she needed to help us interpret her stories.  At the end of the trek we settled in for a winter picnic in a small hut used when the birch trees are being tapped.  Before us were her tasty homemade offerings (some of which we had already heard rave reviews of from Greg during our fishing trip).  Everything she had prepared incorporated many of the forest items she had harvested in the fall from cranberries to mint and rosehips.  It was a delicious reward after a wonderful outing!  Interestingly enough, Rosie was originally from Manitoba!

For dinner we took a cab over to Old Town to try out the Woodyard/NWT Brewhouse, Canada's most northern brewery.  Great food, fantastic service and we almost had to roll out of there after several flights of brew!  This is sure to be a place for a few casual beverages and a great dinner.  Try their in-house brews made with Canadian grain and the freshest, clearest water in the country. 
The annually built Snowking Castle seemed to always have some sort of activity happen day and night.  Saturday was the Royal Ball and having no idea what to expect, we were blown away by the talented musicians.  It was such a fun event and in a very unique setting!  Those in attendance made dancing in winter gear look easy but I'm thinking that only comes with practice!  We even saw the ‘Snow King’ himself!

And what trip to Yellowknife would be complete without talking about a little bling!  Canada (and NWT in particular) is one of the world's leading producers of the 'girls best friend'.  A visit to the NWT Diamond Centre was interesting and informative to see how the diamonds are mined and the process to take it from its rough form to the polished and dazzling brilliant stone in the finished state.  I even tried my hand at polishing a diamond and held in my own hand a 4.02 carat diamond priced at $175,000.  Needless to say, that little bobble did not come home with us!  


Our final event before we headed to the airport was taking in the Sugar Shack Brunch, again held at the Snowking Castle.  We suited up one last time in our warm artic gear and enjoyed not just a tasty meal but some toe tapping entertainment too!

I feel truly fortunate to have experienced this part of Canada that is so often overlooked as a destination in itself.  This little part of Canada's Great White North is not just a northern gem but certainly a Canadian gem!   I’d like to extend my sincere thank you to Antje and Susan of Touch the Arctic for their part in helping us experience Yellowknife and this fabulous adventure and to our good friends, Garry & Alanna for being game to try something new and out of the box!

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Agent vs Online

Book Your Travel Online.

Huh?  Did I really just  say that?  Not only say it out loud but actually put it in writing?  Me... someone who has dedicated their career to upholding the benefits of using a travel consultant?  Yup, I sure did! You have to know that I'm not going to just leave it at that simple statement.  I need to explain WHY I'm saying go ahead and book your own travel online.

How many times have you heard someone say to you any of the following:

  • Oh you should go to XYZ, it's amazing and you'd love it!
  • We stayed at the ABC hotel and it was the best ever!
  • Don't fly with that airline.  They delayed our travel for 2 hours and they are the worst.
  • This is a great cruiseline.  The kids has so much fun ziplining across the pool and trying the flo-rider.

Everyone seems to think they can research the best experience or that they know better.  Opinions and experiences from friends and family or random unknown people on sites such as tripadvisor are really great to give you some direction.  Truly they great to give an overview and set you on a path BUT...that's where it ends.  There is so much more to crafting the perfect holiday and checking off boxes (known as aggregates) can not possibly replace the human connection and intuition. My new favorite mantra is:

"Please don't think that your google search will ever replace my 30 years of education, knowledge and experience."

In this current day and age when everything is available at your fingertips or news is spread like wildfire through social media, an incredible (read: overwhelming) amount of information is right there with a few key strokes.

Let's say as an example, that you are thinking about going on an all-inclusive holiday.  You do a google search typing in "the best all inclusive resorts".  Google proceeds to do it's thing and comes up with 121 MILLION options (no exaggeration) for suggestions of "the best all inclusive resorts".  Don't believe me about the 121 Million results?  Try it for yourself but I've also included a screenshot for the nay sayers. 

Seriously? 121,000,000 - how can there possibly be THAT many of THE best?  Who has time to go through all those options and start weeding through the seemingly limitless possibilities?  Certainly not your average traveler and I'd venture to say not even an extraordinary traveler! 

Que the experienced travel consultant to the rescue!  It's our job to filter through the noise and by working with the client, by asking questions that lend us insight we begin to narrow the options to ones that are geared to fit that particular client.  We can help define what your ideal vacation looks like and then find the appropriate solutions.  With a simple conversation we are able to quickly garner what it is you want from your holiday.  Is it relaxation or do you want non-stop nightlife? Maybe there is a focus on well-being? Do you want adventure, are you looking for exceptional culinary experiences or are you a history buff? Maybe you have a love for architecture or are celebrating a milestone life event?  There is no one perfect holiday that is suited to everyone.  No one size fits all vacation package.  What your friend said was the worst, may very well be an ideal option based on your own needs.  Or, that cruiseline your co-worker's sister-in-law went with may have been great for her family with teenage boys but may not be something the next person would enjoy when their image is of a smaller, more intimate ship with casual but elegant service as they celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary.  The point is that everyone has a different vision, different needs, different expectations and it is our job to provide options based on all this criteria.  Our goal is to offer a much more manageable number of ideas rather than 121 million that google suggests as THE best for your holiday.

Can you book your own travel online?  Sure - of course you can... and you may very well have a wonderful vacation!  By the same token you can also google your medical symptoms!  WebMD may take that ache or pain, turn it into full blown doom and gloom and will have you quickly getting your affairs in order as it suggests you have a serious, life ending condition.  Is your google search really a replacement for seeking medical advise and attention?  Or what about doing your own taxes?  Can you do those yourself?  Certainly, by all means you can do your own taxes and you may even net a decent refund in the end!  Is there any possibility that you might actually miss out on what could have been an even greater refund?  Absolutely!  There is no way that someone who does a handful of taxes each year can possibly know as much as a professional who deals with this on a daily basis.  It is very unlikely that you know all the tax benefits, loopholes, credits etc.  On all accounts, I think it's best left to the pros!

Now I can hear it already!  Someone will say "But I can get a better deal online"Well ...actually you can't! The price, is the price, is the price.  The airline, cruiseline, tour operator, hotel/resort, car rental provides the pricing to us, the travel agent. We sell the product at exactly the same rates you would find online. <gasp> Really?  How can that be?  How ever would you stay in business?  Well, it's simple system and on as old as time.  They pay us a commission to sell their product.  To elaborate further, that commission whether paid to us or not, would not change the selling price to you, the client, regardless of where or how you book (directly with the tour operator, airline, online, storefront travel agency, or home based agent) the pricing will all be the same.  

Not to keep beating the same drum but..... if a Sunwing package to Mexico is $1249 including taxes per person through any online travel agency (more on that later) or directly on the tour operator website then you can be 100% assured that this is the price a travel agency will also sell it to the client for.  Most people do not realize that the Big Dogs - the Expedias or Redtags of the world  - are simply travel versions... but still travel agencies all the same.  Yes, they are "online" rather than storefront or homebased but all that means is that you have to do everything online and you can never have a face-to-face conversation even if you wanted to.  They, like every other travel agency, sell the packages that are provided by the tour operators at the price the tour operators set. Again, don't believe me?  The proof is in the pudding!

As travel consultants, we have not just our own extensive personal travel experience from which to draw on but also feedback from thousands of clients.  We are also able to utilize a variety of tools that are not always available to the average consumer. We bring added value by being able to plan activities in destination, knowing the better seat on the aircraft, or maybe even being able to arrange a special upgrade or surprise during that cruise or resort stay.  Travel agents are trained to examine the fine details, to look for gaps and provide solutions that fit.  Travel is unique and there should be nothing cookie cutter about your buying experience.

And how many times have you had something go off the rails with your travel plans?  A missed connection, a flight delay, cancellation due to weather, an emergency?  Yes, that's life and life isn't always perfect.  Things do happen that are sometimes out of our control (out of your control as a traveler as well as mine as an agent).  That said, would you prefer to go it alone because you did your own arrangements or know that there is someone in your corner helping out as best they can?  As I type this on a Sunday afternoon, I chuckle to myself - not because I find flight cancellations or problems entertaining - it's the exact opposite actually!  I'm grinning to myself because in the span of the past 24 hours I've had 3 different clients contact me because they have hit a road block and needed help.  For me, I'd far rather the client reach out to me for assistance than work themselves into a frenzy or loose precious holiday time.

Client 1 - Is having such a great time they decided they wanted to

stay a little longer in their destination so would I make the necessary arrangements to extend their air, accommodation and car rental.  
  • All of the above is done and communicated with the client,     documentation delivered and the client lost only 3 minutes of      their vacation by reaching out to ask me to look after the arrangements.

Client 2 - Her husband is currently in the Emergency Room and they are to depart for their 1 week vacation in just a matter of hours. She was unclear on her cancellation coverage and didn't want read through all the insurance options but wondered what to do, are the covered if they need to cancel and how to make a claim
  • A quick phone conversation and the client now understands the various options available to them and can focus on her husband and not worry about what to do next.

Client 3 - There is a terrible weather system moved in and the client's flight home for today has been cancelled.  The airline is  telling them they will have to wait and extra 48 hours and take a routing that has them flying here, there and everywhere.  
  • A few text messages later, and the client has been rebooked without them having to be on hold for over an hour with the airline.  They are now on a direct non stop flight that has them home earlier than what the airline provided.

In each of these cases, I ask you, what was it worth to the client to know that they were able to just make a phone call or send a text to have this looked after without loosing valuable time and without added stress?

On a weekly basis travel agents continue their education by upgrading knowledge and professional development.  Our experience along with the vast network of suppliers around the globe make an agent  the best investment in corporate travel, complex around the world airfare, all inclusive destinations, customized holidays from an African safari to a honeymoon in the South Pacific, to the adventurous trek in Nepal. We have a wealth of experience in destination weddings and family holidays from Disney to Harry Potter tours.  The value and multitude of positives that working with an agent can bring to the overall travel experience is second to none.  A travel professional continues to learn and never stops developing their skills and training to assist their clients. We develop relationships with hoteliers and tour operators so that when we don't know the answer to your questions, we can reach out to the person who does.

I am local.  I am available to answer your questions or meet with you.  I'm one of the many local businesses who support various initiatives in your community that you enjoy.  I am supporting the local charities, services, sporting events and more that help make your community a great place to live in!  You are my neighbor and friend.  Can you say the same about your online booking engine?  Do you know their names or how to reach them like the clients above?

So, do you still feel travel is best looked after in your own hands?  If so, then very likely nothing I say will change your opinion.  If you are of that belief the please, by all means, go ahead and book online! Happy travels.