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.