CANCUN — Vicky Young had been working at Flight Centre for 15 years, up until the pandemic, when she was among the many agents who were let go when storefronts locked down or shut down.
When considering her options, she did her due diligence, speaking to five or six host agencies to find the right fit. “I had a beautiful spreadsheet,” she told Travelweek at The Travel Agent Next Door’s annual conference, held at the Majestic Elegance Costa Mujeres over the past week.
Young joined TTAND in January 2021. “My clients found me, so it was an easy transition to get back into my business, back to my happy place.”
This was also her first TTAND conference, the largest gathering of independent home-based agents held outside of Canada, with some 240 travel agents and 67 suppliers (from 42 companies) in attendance.
“Probably the biggest thing for me was the opportunity to network with suppliers – having this many suppliers come and want to be part of this also speaks to TTAND’s status within the host agency community,” said Young.
She was also surprised – and delighted – when she was called to the stage during TTAND’s supplier awards earlier yesterday, when she received the award for ‘Rising Star’ from G Adventures (Chen Ye was awarded G’s top producing agent). The Rising Star awards recognize the hard work and achievement of TTAND agents and agencies by suppliers.
The award was handed out by David Green, G Adventures’ VP of sales and customer operations and managing director for Canada. Green later surprised the audience of travel agents when next year’s conference location was announced.
AND THE 2024 CONFERENCE LOCATION IS …
Aside from adding to (and refining) its list of preferred suppliers, TTAND is also aiming to bring on more tourism boards, one of which is the Jordan Tourism Board.
Green took the stage with Omar Banihani, Jordan Tourism Board’s director of marketing for Canada, to announce that next year’s TTAND conference will take place in Jordan, in partnership with G Adventures. This will also be a celebration of TTAND’s 10-year anniversary.
In June 2024, participating agents will be transported to Amman via a private Royal Jordanian Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Perks will include a private dinner by candlelight at Petra and an afternoon at the Dead Sea. The keynote will be delivered by G Adventures’ founder and CEO, Bruce Poon Tip.
“I DON’T THINK THE BUBBLE OF POST-COVID IS GONE”
This year’s conference, however, was all about breaking barriers, and as travel rebounds, TTAND has hired more staff, added new suppliers and is paying more commission to its agent partners, with a 66% increase in sales from 2019. As outlined in this first dispatch from this year’s conference, TTAND is also onboarding, on average, 43 agents per month.
While the travel sector is booming, there’s some concern about an inflationary environment that’s creating higher prices for everything from transportation to accommodation.
“So do I worry about it?” said Flemming Friisdahl, TTAND’s founder and CEO, in an interview with Travelweek. “I would if we weren’t selling anything. I don’t think the bubble of post-COVID is gone.”
He also points to TTAND’s support model and high ratio of staff to agents (approximately one staff member to every 10 agents). And while TTAND is adding new agents, he wants to be careful not to add too many agents, focusing on quality rather than quantity, and maintaining a two-year onboarding process with mentoring opportunities. He also points to additional investments in education, training and marketing.
“I think that we’re in a comfortable position without being too comfortable,” he said. “I am not worried about sales coming down. I’m worried about making sure we have the right services for our partners.”
“PEOPLE ARE STILL LOOKING FOR TRAVEL AGENTS”
Shelley Cota is one of TTAND’s long-time agents who stuck it out through the pandemic and now is “a little bit too busy,” she told Travelweek. And it was education, training and marketing that helped her get through those tough times.
Cota has been with TTAND for eight years, after 27 years of working for other agencies. She opened her own storefront in December 2019—right before the pandemic hit. “And I was like, oh my god, I’m not going make it,” she said. But, for the following two years, she focused her efforts on preparing for a rebound.
“And our community – small town, central Alberta – they’re so behind us, which is amazing. When I look at my book of business, over half is from new clients,” she said. “It’s just so nice to know that people are still looking for travel agents.”
While she always learns something new at every conference, Cota’s takeaway from this year’s TTAND event is knowing that “we’re all in this together, and we really did succeed all together,” she said. “And it is nice to see new agents coming up and succeeding as people are retiring. Yes, we are still here. And we’re going to be stronger together.”
FREE ONE-WEEK STAY WITH MAJESTIC
While the audience of travel agents was already buzzing from the news earlier in the day about Jordan, it was abuzz again during the gala awards and dinner, when Majestic Resorts, which hosted this year’s conference, announced that all travel agents at the conference would receive a free one-week stay at their Majestic resort of choice.
TTAND also raised money for Pencils for Kids, which has been its charity of choice since 2016. Pencils for Kids partners with communities in Niger, West Africa, to create sustainable educational programs for children and income-generating opportunities for women. This year, agents and suppliers raised a total of $58,865 through a silent auction, 50/50 draw and donations, which TTAND topped up to $60,000.
Other highlights included a keynote speech from Tareq Hadhad, the CEO of Peace by Chocolate, who spoke about his family’s remarkable journey from Syria to Canada; a superhero-themed party at Grand Palladium Costa Mujeres Resort & Spa, hosted by Air Canada Vacations; and a contemporary Mexican-themed party at Secrets Playa Mujeres Golf & Spa Resort hosted by Transat.