TORONTO — It wasn’t easy for Collette to launch an Advanced Commission Program for travel agents during a global pandemic, with little to no revenue coming in for 14 consecutive months.
But the U.S.-based tour operator, now in its 106th year, stuck to its guns and did what it had to do to protect and support its agent partners, says CEO Dan Sullivan.
“We knew they needed those dollars to get through and, even more, we promised to not recall their commissions. That’s making a huge difference, not only during the pandemic but also today as things open back up. It gives agents extreme confidence in booking with us, and lets them know we’re their partner,” Sullivan tells Travelweek during a recent visit to Toronto.
The program, launched in September 2020, includes $100 per booking for land-only bookings, $125 per booking for land and air bookings, and $200 per booking for any booking that includes Collette’s Travel Protection Plan. Though introduced specifically to assist agents during the pandemic, Sullivan says there are no plans to end the program now that travel has reopened and bookings are pouring in. This, he says, is Collette’s way of honouring and giving back to the agent community, which brings in 95% of Collette’s business.
“We haven’t talked at all about ending it, it’s been working very well,” he says. “We certainly look at everything every year but there are no discussions to change the program.”
While the Advanced Commission Program is relatively new, Collette has been known for its progressive policies for decades. Its Cancel-For-Any-Reason policy, for example, was introduced way back around 1985 and has been very popular among travel agents and their clients ever since.
“We have the best cancellation policies, allowing clients to cancel for any reason, with a cashback. With many other suppliers, travellers will get just a voucher,” says Sullivan. “We’ve had great support from the agent community with this and we’re seeing that support come back in the booking channel.”
Collette’s stance on commissions and cancellations are just two of the company’s hallmarks. With 2022 bookings “through the roof” over 2019 (the company’s Small Groups Explorations Tours are up 120% over 2019 levels), and all 160 of its tours back up and running to all seven continents, we asked Sullivan how he thinks 2023 will play out and what Collette will be focusing on in the years ahead.
How do you think Collette fared through the pandemic?
“Obviously it was the most challenging situation that any of us in the travel industry have had to face. We had no revenue for 14 months for the most part, and then when things did start picking up again, it would start and stop and start again due to regulations and rules of various countries, provinces and states, which made things very difficult.
“But we have a tremendous logistics team that was able to handle everything in stride and really help our partners get through this. They helped figure out where travellers could go and couldn’t go, which in some cases was changing daily. I think we emerged as the leader not only in the tour industry, but the travel industry. Many consortiums had already considered us a leader, but during COVID when the chips were down, I think our reputation was enhanced. And now with our numbers, we thank our agent partners for the dramatic increase – we’re way ahead over pre-pandemic levels.”
One of the biggest issues we saw during the height of the pandemic was long reservation wait times. Collette, however, was able to keep wait times down to a minimum. How do you think you managed that?
“Our reservations team was averaging 2.5 minutes per hold time. It was never really a long wait, clients were able to get through to one of our agents relatively quickly, whether it was for a refund or to ask about changing protocols. Our call centre team has been brilliant, from Toronto to Vancouver to the United States. And I should also note that Australia’s call centre team was always helping out even though travellers weren’t going outbound. We have 24-7, around the clock service.
“How were we able to keep wait times down? We staffed up to make sure we were on top of the situation the entire time. The team monitored the phone lines every day, we had levels of classes coming in to train. And because of our reputation, it helped some reservation agents want to come back into travel, and new ones to want to get into what I think is the best industry in the world – travel.”
Which destinations are selling well right now?
“They’re all selling well. Japan’s come back after recently opening up again, so has the South Pacific. Iceland, Ireland and Italy are all selling great, and the Patagonias of the world too. And Canadians are loving Canada right now, like the Maritimes, the best of Eastern Canada and the Canadian Rockies. We’re getting strong demand pretty much across the board.”
Collette unveiled a new logo last year. Can you tell us what inspired the rebrand?
“We have a very strong brand team, my family is very involved. My daughter, Jaclyn, is the president of Collette, my other daughter, Nicole, is a Creative Director. It’s still a family-run business and it will stay that way. The new logo simply enhances what we’re already doing, and that is creating immersive experiences that make every tour memorable.”
Collette has really focused on sustainability in recent years. Can you tell us a little about the company’s sustainability goals?
“We want to make our local communities where we work and where we travel to better. We want to partner with local partners and support local businesses that you wouldn’t normally hear about. A big part of our sustainability efforts is about giving back to local communities. We’ve also signed the United Nations Global Compact, which encourages businesses around the world to adopt sustainable and socially responsible policies. Travel is a force for good. It’s important to remember that as a global community, we need to work together to make a world a better place. That is Collette’s mission.”
What’s your message to travel agents as we start 2023?
“We want to thank them for their support and for trusting Collette. If we can get through the pandemic and build back up to full capacity, we can do anything together. We’re here to support them and help them grow in every way possible. We have a live sales force on the ground to help train internally and externally. Just yesterday, we met with two home-based agents at a coffee shop. We’re committed to building a one-on-on relationship with each and every agent, from the top down – I, myself, am on the road all the time. It really is a true partnership.”
Collette was founded in 1918 by Jack Collette and was purchased by Sullivan in 1962. It is now in the third generation of family-ownership, with offices in the U.S., Canada and Australia. It offers 160 tours to all seven continents in five different travel styles: Small Group Explorations that dive deep into local cultures; Classic, expert guided-tours that includes must-see sights, regional cuisine and centrally-located hotels; Spotlights, single-hotel stays; River Cruises onboard four-star vessels; and Faith, a collection of religious tours in world-famous spiritual locations.
For more information visit www.gocollette.com.