This story originally ran in the May 10th, 2018 issue of Travelweek magazine. To get Travelweek delivered to your agency for free, subscribe here.
TORONTO — Tripcentral.ca is looking to grow with new locations in Western Canada and in Quebec but timing is everything and the travel agency chain, now with 26 storefronts in Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, says getting its expansion ‘right’ is more important than getting it ‘right away’.
Growth into Quebec would be either a strategic acquisition or partnership, says Tripcentral.ca President Richard Vanderlubbe, adding, “out West would be fun too. We do better when we have a presence on the ground, but the distance is bigger and we’d need to do it carefully. We’re not in particular hurry – if the timing is right, you never know. Each location and opportunity is evaluated uniquely, since our locations are not only a place for our agents to work, but also a live billboard for the website and a trust factor for a geographic market.”
That website, Tripcentral.ca, is the travel agency’s calling card in the consumer market, and one of the original online travel sites, going back to the very early days of OTAs. The site was launched in 1996, the same year Expedia and Travelocity got their start. When Tripcentral.ca launched, seven years after the travel agency was founded in 1989, very few travel agencies had their own domain name, much less a functioning site.
“It started with Microsoft Access 1.0 and my ex-wife literally keying last minute package specials faxed to us into a database,” said Vanderlubbe. “We eventually made that database public on the web in 1996. From there we were able to eventually have all Toronto departures, not just last-minutes, and then national. The site was branded tripcentral.ca in 2001, and we branded our locations tripcentral.ca in 2003.” These days Vanderlubbe and industry veteran Paul Foster own and operate all 26 of the company’s storefront locations in Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
While the Tripcentral.ca site has become a powerhouse, the majority of the company’s sales still come through the bricks-and-mortar agencies. “People will be surprised that most of our volume is through our traditional channels but our website is not in competition with our agents. We use the multi-channelled approach because that is what customers want. They want the convenience of web shopping and booking at any time, and they like the trust and knowledge of our agents.”
Tripcentral.ca’s agents are credited back web bookings when they have been in recent two-way contact. There’s overlap, and that works to the company’s advantage, says Vanderlubbe, with each point of contact building brand recognition for the other points of contact. “It becomes very hard to determine exactly what is online, local phone, or web-influenced … and there is strong action to call an agent and interact on the phone or over chat.”
The ratio of pure, unassisted online bookings to non-online bookings hasn’t changed much for the company, he adds. “Today we are not heavy into the flight-only marketing. If we decide to, our flight-only transactions would likely have a much higher online percentage. When people are going to spend a week or more of their precious holiday time, they usually have a lot of questions.”
While Tripcentral.ca certainly isn’t the only retail travel agency to have a website, Vanderlubbe says Tripcentral.ca’s vertical integration with online and bricks-and-mortar, going back more than 20 years, has given the company a multi-channel experience that is an entirely different model from lead-generating sites where agents make bids for would-be bookings. “Those businesses would not necessarily have the consistency of customer experience as Tripcentral.ca.”
Back in the mid-1990s, bricks-and-mortar and online seemed like two increasingly at-war camps. Then came the realization that travel agencies needed to be everywhere their clients were, and that included the web. “I’ve always said, the Internet is not a channel of distribution. It is a channel of communication, just like walk in, phone, etc. You never saw a travel agency that only dealt in person and not by phone,” says Vanderlubbe. “In the 1980s and 1990s there were not ‘fax only agencies’.”
He adds: “Back in my early days, it was 1-800 numbers everyone was freaked about. Customers are customers who want value for their money and a trusted place to book. That has not changed.”