This story originally ran in the August 15, 2019 issue of Travelweek magazine. To get Travelweek delivered to your agency for free, subscribe here.
TORONTO — Sandals Resorts’ first annual Canadian Home-Based Travel Consultant Conference brought agents from across Canada, from host agencies including TPI, The Travel Agent Next Door, TravelOnly, The Destination Experts and Nexion Travel Group (Canada), to popular Sandals South Coast for five days of excursions, site inspections and cocktail receptions, plus a Business Marketing Forum targeted specifically to home-based agents.
The home-based sector in Canada is decades-old and seeing suppliers work so successfully with home-based agents is nothing new.
But while the early years of home-based growth was a slow and steady climb, in recent years the number of agents making the switch to home-based, or getting into the industry at ground level, has skyrocketed.
And now Sandals’ Canadian Home-Based Travel Consultant Conference, which took place last month, is the latest show of support for a segment of the retail travel industry that has become a major player in a relatively short amount of time.
“Several of our top-producing agents in Canada are home-based. In fact, 20% of our Top 10 list are home-based. It’s a very important segment for Sandals Resorts with an incredible opportunity for growth, as more and more agents make the switch from a traditional bricks-and-mortar agency to home-based,” says Maureen Barnes-Smith, Director of Sales & Marketing, Unique Vacations Canada Inc.
She adds: “Home-based agents are a fast-growing segment of the travel industry. We want them to know that Sandals values them and supports them, just as we do agents in a traditional bricks-and-mortar agency. We wanted to turn the spotlight on them, and only them, at this inaugural home-based conference to highlight the many sales and marketing opportunities that exist for them, by partnering with Sandals and leveraging our brand power to increase their bottom line.”
Barnes-Smith brought two members of her team for the first-ever event: Lorna Richards – National Training Manager; and Omar Josephs – Senior Manager, Events.
Also making presentations were Sandals Resorts’ wedding guru, Marsha-Ann Donaldson-Brown, who is Director of Weddings & Romance, and Manon Martel, ACTA’s regional membership manager, Quebec.
With Barnes-Smith, agents learned about the ‘ABCs’, Sandals-style. With Sandals, she says, “Agents plus BDMs equals Commission.”
Sandals has nine BDMs across Canada but the entire Canadian team is available to support agents. The Sandals travel agent portal (taportal.sandals.com) is key to an agent’s sales growth and success, she added. Agents need to register every Sandals and Beaches booking on the portal within 30 days of making the booking. “It’s the only way that they can tell which agent made the booking.”
Reaction from several home-based agents who took part in the Sandals South Coast conference was positive across the board. Seeing the property first-hand ticked off boxes for many.
For Yvonne Campbell with Yvonne’s Travel & Tours in London, ON, the event was worthwhile as it provided an opportunity for a more personal and up close look at Sandals South Coast. “Staying at the resort and experiencing the service the guests receive goes a long way. It also helps in qualifying the client for the best resort that suits their needs. I strongly believe that visiting the resorts enables you to confidently promote and sell each one,” said Campbell, a Nexion Travel Group (Canada) member.
Scott Penney, a Dartmouth, NS-based travel specialist and member of The Travel Agent Next Door, said working with Sandals as a home-based agent is “amazing. My BDM is always just a phone call or email away. I feel everyone at Sandals really appreciates the value we bring as agents and that is a win-win for both of us.”
Penney added that Marsha-Ann Donaldson-Brown’s weddings presentation during the Business Marketing Forum was “fantastic”: “I came away knowing so much more than I thought I did.”
Kirsten Etmanski with Pure Magic Vacations specializes in Disney vacations but is also a strong Sandals supporter. The conference was her first trip to Jamaica. “Since I’m not personally familiar with Jamaica as a destination, I found it incredibly helpful to get a better perspective on the location of South Coast versus Negril, and the very different atmospheres and vibes of the two areas and their resorts – and which of our clients they would appeal to.”
One highlight for Etmanski was the Island Routes excursion to YS Falls, with an opportunity to add on a zip lining experience through Chukka Tours “which was a definite high point to my overall experience. I absolutely now plan to ensure that any clients I send to Sandals South Coast also include an excursion through Island Routes to this incredible piece of heaven in the midst of the Jamaican tropical forest. It was simply stunning.”
Says Barnes-Smith: “It was an extremely productive few days, meeting with agents, listening to them and learning from them. It was an engaged, enthusiastic group. Everyone asked me about next year’s conference … all I can say is, stay tuned.”
All the agents taking part in Sandals 1st Annual Canadian Home-Based Travel Consultant Conference were hand-picked and personally invited by their local Sandals BDM, and the response was “incredible”, says Barnes-Smith, with a wait-list for agents wanting to attend.
If Sandals repeats the Canadian Home-Based Travel Consultant Conference for next year, no doubt there will be even more home-based agents looking to go. The sector is growing fast.
Just how many home-based are there in Canada these days? Flemming Friisdahl, founder of The Travel Agent Next Door, says he’s confident that over 30% and as high as 40% of travel agents in Canada are now home-based. “Consider that when The Travel Agent Next Door started five years ago, only 25% were home-based agents. This is over a 40% increase in just 60 months,” he says. TTAND has projected $200 million in sales for 2020.
The growth of the home-based sector in Canada is great, says Friisdahl, but there are some red flags. “My big concern is still the provinces that are not regulated. In all but three provinces (Ontario, Quebec and B.C.) you can put a sign on your front lawn saying you are a travel agent and pay IATA $365 to get a TIDS number. I feel this is terrible because you deal with a lot of money and consumers’ dreams as a travel professional.”
Friisdahl added: “Then you have some retailers that charge a ‘new’ travel agent $499 and give them a binder and business cards saying they are a travel agent. Are you kidding, no formal training? This is why it is important that any supplier that takes agents on a fam makes sure they have an IATA card that verifies they have earned at least $10,000 in commission.
Friisdahl said he recently met a rep from a U.S. agency, “they have 24,500 travel agents (more than all of Canada) and they sell just a little bit more then we sell, and are they really a travel agency or a card mill? This is something Canada needs to make sure does not happen.”
TPI CEO Zeina Gedeon says it’s full steam ahead for home-based. Coming off its 25th anniversary, TPI has posted record-breaking double-digit growth in sales, commission and membership. “It does not appear to be slowing down,” says Gedeon. “The leads are continuous. We now have three employees in business developments.”
Home-based advisors are passionate about the business but more importantly about being their own boss, making their own hours and deciding on who their customer is, says Gedeon: “Our advisors are picky about who they work with, we would have never seen this before.”
More than 50% of TPI advisors are full-time home-based professional advisors, she adds. “This is their primary job and we see this number growing year over year.”