11 questions with Trevello’s Zeina Gedeon: Service fees, NCFs and more
Zeina Gedeon

11 questions with Trevello’s Zeina Gedeon: Service fees, NCFs and more

TORONTO — Ask Zeina Gedeon what she wants to be in life and she’ll say “Empress of the World.”

A seasoned travel industry veteran and current President and CEO of Trevello, Gedeon is widely known for being a straight shooter with a wicked sense of humour. Maybe she’s joking about being an Empress. But then again, maybe she’s not. But as her many years in the industry have shown, once she sets a goal, chances are she’ll reach it.

This is why there’s no one better to lead Trevello during a time of incredible growth and change. As Gedeon noted earlier this week at Trevello’s Partner Launch Event in Mississauga, the host agency is currently in the midst of a five-phase evolution plan, with Phase One (the company’s name change from TPI to Trevello) and Phase Two (the launch of a new commission model, starting January 2023) now complete. Phase Three (an upheaval of backend systems) and Phase Four (expansion into the U.S.) are set for 2023, while the details of Phase Five have yet to be revealed.

The plan, which began in earnest earlier this year during the pandemic, underscores Gedeon’s desire to take Trevello to new heights, which she says can only be accomplished by lifting up its travel advisors. More commissions, more backend support, more flexibility and choice – Gedeon is laser-focused on providing all that and more.

Travelweek sat down with Gedeon to discuss a wide range of topics, from service fees to inflation to non-commissionable fares:

 

The big news that everyone’s talking about is your new commission model, which kicks off in January 2023. It gives advisors the chance to earn 100% on any product they sell, plus provides more choice and customization. Can you tell us about the reasoning behind it?

“We won’t necessarily make the same money with this new model, but we’re not looking at how much money we make but rather on how do we grow this company to be a proper network. It’s more about what is better for our travel advisors because they work so hard. If they don’t sell, they don’t make money. The new model is part of our long-term strategy.”

 

How are your travel advisors doing at this stage of the pandemic?

“It’s crazy, we have an advisor making over $700,000. In the history of the company, we have never had this many advisors making over $200,000 in commission, and that’s based on the old program. With the new program, they’ll make a lot more. We have more people doing more niche, which usually pays, but what we’re really finding now, after our advisors have gone through the pandemic and after we did a lot of training, is that they’re charging for service fees, they’re upselling, and customers have an appetite now after nearly three years of not travelling – and they’re willing to pay more.

 

Are the majority of your members now charging service fees?

“I would like to say all of them are but I would be lying. But advisors who have never thought of doing it before are doing it now, which is big for us. For those still holding back, confidence is the main issue. If they have a customer who they’ve been dealing with for 10 years, they don’t feel good about saying, ‘Now you have to pay me a fee.’ So what we’re seeing is advisors are not charging fees for their old customers, but they are for new ones.”

 

There’s a lot of concern about inflation and an impending recession. Are you seeing any impact from the high cost of living right now?

“Fortunately, based on the bookings, nothing is alluding to that. Honestly, I was concerned when we first heard ‘inflation.’ And I see it just like everyone else, what we used to buy for $100 doesn’t get you very much today. So I was very concerned that it would impact bookings but we haven’t seen much impact at all.”

 

During Travelweek’s Future of Travel Conference in May 2021, you told us that cruise bookings were doing really well. Is that still the case?

“Yes, it’s still growing. Cruise is growing similar to hotels for us, which used to be insignificant. But because people are doing a lot more FIT now, it’s increased significantly.”

 

What are your thoughts on NCL’s recent announcement that it will start paying commission on non-commissionable fares (NCFs)? Do you think more cruise lines will follow?

“The reality of it is that we’re all trying to innovate or differentiate ourselves. It’s definitely good news for our advisors. It’s always good news when we make more money for our advisors because as independent contractors, if you don’t sell, you don’t make. It’s not like your traditional travel agent who’s getting paid a salary.

“Do I think more cruise lines will follow? Yes and no. Everybody’s trying to find a different niche, maybe another cruise line will come up with something different tomorrow. But we know that NCL has been leaning in on different things, like dining. Everybody’s trying to do something different to innovate, and if Covid has taught us anything, it’s to innovate.”

 

So bookings are going gangbusters right now, which is great news. But what challenges remain for your advisors?

“Our biggest challenge is the same one as many of our suppliers. We can’t hire fast enough. We hired eight people in the last four weeks. Suppliers are also not handling well the pent-up demand, as we’ve all seen with the long hold times. That has been the biggest issue.”

 

What lessons have you learned from the pandemic that you’ll take with you moving forward?

“The biggest lesson we’ve learned is to put a lot more focus on the new generation of advisors coming up. For the longest time – and it’s not a bad thing – we talked a lot to our top advisors because they sell the most. But what we’re noticing now is, we have so many new young advisors and they have such amazing potential. Honestly, I am shocked by the passion they have. So we are putting in a lot of time and effort to mentor them, work with them and help them grow.”

 

How are your membership numbers?

“Membership is growing significantly. We’re sitting at 1,078. And we are picky – we don’t just take anybody. If you’re new, you need to have the passion. We’re not interested in someone just paying us the monthly fee because it’s a drain on our resources if they make just one booking a year and that booking takes five people to work with them. So we look for passion. We look for people who are serious about getting into the business, and we look for people who want to do the training and join our community. We look for a lot of things now versus before.”

 

What would you say sets Trevello apart from other host agencies?

“I’m proud to say that all our people are Canadian. But I’ll be honest, I’ll be the first to admit that I wanted to outsource, not because I didn’t want Canadians but because we couldn’t find people. Do you know how hard it was? Our guys were not happy because we had such a high level of support and we couldn’t provide that for a while.

“But my team was adamant. They said, ‘Out of the question, we’re not outsourcing, we’re Canadian and we’ll only do Canadians.” And it took us months. Like I said, we hired about eight people in the last four weeks. Now they’re all in training and we’re over that hump.”

 

What’s your message to travel advisors heading into 2023?

“I want to have advisors who want to be part of our family – and it is a family. When I first joined the company, which was called TPI at the time, I was shocked by how all the advisors were helping each other. Coming from Corporate, I was very, very competitive and had a man-eat-man mentality. But every day I see how our advisors – who are competitors – support each other and even give each other bookings. You should see our private Facebook group – everyone’s reaching out to each other to offer support with calls and bookings. I’m still shocked to see it because I’ve never seen such a thing, but I love it. Being a family has definitely contributed to our success.”