TORONTO — By now we’re all familiar with the term ‘Zoom,’ not as a verb to signify speed but rather as the video conferencing platform that proved so indispensable throughout the pandemic.
It became a lifeline for many of us during pandemic-related lockdowns, whether we were participating in work meetings, engaging with clients, or simply catching up with friends and family. But now that people are returning to the office, restrictions have largely lifted and life is once again returning to normal, has Zoom outlived its usefulness?
Not so, says Kim Hartlen, owner of Kim Hartlen Travel-TPI in Halifax, NS, who tells Travelweek that she will most likely continue to use the platform long after COVID-19 finally dies down. Having never used it prior to the pandemic, Hartlen started using Zoom out of necessity while working remotely, as a way to provide her clients with up-to-date information amid ever-changing travel rules and requirements. When she once again started hosting groups in the fall of 2021, her Zoom calls became an essential way to disseminate information all at once and ensure group members had all necessary documents prior to departure.
“My slogan throughout all this has been ‘I am here for you,’ and Zoom was just one other way for me to be there for my clients,” says Hartlen. “Having virtual meetings helps get all the necessary info out to them and have fun at the same time. It made me feel alive again to bring travel back to my clients, even if it had to be done virtually.”
To make her Zoom sessions more informative and engaging, Hartlen reached out to her suppliers to take part and provide first-hand accounts of the resort, destination or, most recently, the cruise line. Having just returned from hosting a river cruise group of 24 clients with Emerald Cruises on the Rhone River earlier this month, Hartlen says having an Emerald rep on the Zoom call was invaluable.
“They presented the Emerald side of things, including the itinerary of our seven-night cruise, while I focused on what needed to be done pre- and post-cruise, like vaccination, country requirements and ArriveCAN. It was great for my clients to see us face to face over Zoom and have us answer their questions in real time because having all this done over emails would’ve been a little overwhelming,” she adds.
Prior to the pandemic, Hartlen would host on average three groups a year. Over the course of 14 years, she’s hosted close to two dozen groups to Sandals Resorts properties in the Caribbean and with river cruise lines in Europe. The pandemic, of course, put a pause on all travel, however, with borders reopening and global travel restrictions easing since last summer, Hartlen says her group bookings have already bounced back to pre-pandemic levels. Following her Emerald group trip, she’ll be hosting a group in November to Sandals Emerald Bay, and next year she’s already confirmed to host groups in January, April and September.
“I would say that my groups are actually growing in numbers because I’m getting a lot of previous clients refer me to their family and friends. Plus, my social media has been a wonderful way to be more visible,” she says. “Even in the middle of the pandemic, I had many people reach out to me who otherwise wouldn’t have. They’re really wanting to book with someone who’s specialized, knowledgeable and experienced. So the business is definitely growing.”
The business, certainly, will continue to grow now that Ottawa has lifted all COVID-19-related travel measures at the border, including mandatory use of the ArriveCAN app, starting Oct. 1. And with more group bookings come more opportunities to host groups, something Hartlen is truly passionate about.
“It’s not for everyone,” she says, noting the time and energy it takes to not only manage a group booking but also cater to different personalities. “It can be demanding, you have to watch and keep track of everything and it’s definitely not a vacation for the agent.
“But my groups tell me all the time that when I’m with them, they don’t even need to think as I take care of all the details. And to know that some of them may not have booked the trip if I wasn’t travelling with them is so rewarding. It really is a win-win for everyone.”
This end-to-end service that Hartlen provides is something that she has perfected throughout the years. Now, when clients hear about an upcoming Kim Hartlen group, they know that everyone will be efficiently prepped and all details will be thoroughly checked – and yes, Zoom calls have become a big part of that.
“Whenever I announce a group, I’ll do a virtual event, often with the hotel or supplier who’ll show my clients the beaches or the rooms or the cruise ship, which is just so enticing,” she says. “I really do enjoy using Zoom. It kept me from losing my mind during the pandemic, helping me stay connected with other people. Now, even though things are returning to normal, I’m still going to use Zoom to stay engaged and reach more clients who aren’t local.”
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