TORONTO — Fernando Gonzalez is embarrassed to admit that he had no idea just how nice Canadians really are.
The New York-born co-founder of First in Service Travel (F1S), who currently resides in Miami, didn’t really grow up with any Canadian friends, nor did he have any in his inner circle as an adult. So when he and his sister/co-founder, Erika Reategui, decided to branch out their Virtuoso-affiliated travel agency into Canada in 2019, he was able to witness for the first time the down-home hospitality and friendliness Canadians are world-famous for, not to mention a level of professionalism and efficiency that’s hard to match.
“The Canadians we’ve been dealing with have been so straightforward and direct, they’ve been so wonderful to do business with,” Gonzalez tells Travelweek. “I didn’t recognize that there were such wonderful professional agents in Canada. This isn’t to say that Americans are different, but with Canadians it’s just been really refreshing and easy.”
The family-owned, New York-based F1S has been steadily growing since its inception in 1991. Starting off as a corporate agency servicing European clients in Spain, Italy and France, the company was forced to pivot after 9/11, bringing in Independent Contractors (ICs) for the first time in 2001. Since then, IC’s have largely contributed to F1S’s expansion into the Luxury Leisure and Entertainment & Events divisions, with additional offices opening in Los Angeles, Miami, Madrid, Bogota and, now, Toronto. By September 2022, Gonzalez hopes to launch in Montreal and Vancouver, too.
“We’ve followed our instinct this whole time, following where our agents have led us, which is now Canada,” says Gonzalez. “Our growth has been very organic. Today, we have 180 members in our organization, 140 of whom are ICs. The leisure side is really where ICs have come into play, where they’ve been such a critical piece. As of now, Corporate makes up 50% of the business, Entertainment 30% and Leisure 20%, but Leisure is growing very quickly thanks to our ICs.”
Case in point, the new Toronto office, which in 2019 had just four ICs and now includes 25, the bulk of whom are leisure agents working from home. However, the team is only now celebrating their official launch, says Gonzalez; the pandemic struck just a week after F1S received approval from IATA and TICO to operate in Ontario, putting grand opening celebrations on hold for close two years.
“We never had an opportunity to celebrate and officially say we’re here in Canada,” says Gonzalez. “But now that we’re here, I hope that Toronto becomes one of our top markets and that our brand extends with the same respect and presence that we’ve worked so hard to build in the United States. Canada is a whole other country and culture, and we’re going to work twice as hard to make sure that we fulfill all of our promises and become number one in the market.”
To read what Gonzalez had to say about how sales are going, what he’s noticed about Canadian booking habits and his recruitment approach, click here for the March 3 edition of Travelweek.