TORONTO — There’s no crystal ball in travel, especially during a pandemic. But there are numbers to help predict the future, and in TL Network Canada’s case, the numbers are looking really, really good.
Consider this: 198 travel advisors registered for yesterday’s in-person Canadian Regional Event in Mississauga, the biggest turnout in TL Network history. Another 93 have registered for the company’s Calgary event on Nov. 7, and 116 for Vancouver on Nov. 9
In terms of membership growth, TL Network Canada has seen a steady incline since 2019, its last normal year pre-pandemic during which it signed 28 new members. In 2020, there was a minimal slowdown in growth with 21 new members, which doubled in just one year in 2022 to a whopping 42 new members. And the momentum continues to build this year, with 39 new members being added year to date. In total, TL Network Canada is sitting pretty at close to 700 members across Canada.
The good numbers continue with 14 new suppliers in 2022 year to date, a good mix of airlines, niche market suppliers and destinations, bringing the total number of suppliers to over 100. As for its airline portfolio, TL Network Canada is actually ahead of Travel Leaders Network in the U.S., with 18 airline agreements with carriers like Delta, Air France-KLM, South African Airways, Fiji, Alaska Air, Lot, Condor, China Airlines, Asiana Airlines and more.
“It’s just been phenomenal growth,” said Christine James, Vice President, TL Network Canada, at yesterday’s event. “And judging by today’s turnout, clearly our members are very eager to re-engage again face to face. We did launch in-person events last year and we had great numbers, but they’ve just been blown out of the water this year.”
Of course, nothing predicts the future like booking numbers. According to James, winter advance bookings are up an incredible 135% in some cases over the same period in 2019, with clients “locking in their winter vacations now.” The top three destinations being booked for winter are perennial Canadian favourites Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba.
“When I look at our numbers, even in the mass market, we’re exceeding 2019 numbers, some even by double digits,” said James. “In addition to the number of bookings, people are also extending their vacations, where before they would normally take one week off, they’re now doing it for two weeks. And not only that, they’re upgrading, going from four star to five star and upgrading their staterooms on cruises. So our members are seeing their average sale go up.”
One of the biggest surprises this year has been cruising, which James said has really picked up following a slower restart in Canada compared to other sectors. Pulling the latest data from the company’s preferred suppliers, she noted that cruising now represents 36% of TL Network Canada’s total business, a stark contrast to the approximate 10% of total Canadians who were cruising 40 years ago when she first entered the travel industry.
“Lines like Regent Seven Seas, Royal Caribbean and MSC are saying their exotic destinations like Asia are sold out. Regent, in particular, said its whole season for Asia has already sold out for 2023, which is unbelievable,” said James. “AmaWaterways, another key partner of ours, did their Seven River Journeys, which sold out within a week.”
Member benefits and 2023 EDGE conference
Referring to it as the company’s “huge success story,” James said that Agent Profiler, TL Network’s lead generation tool available to all members and included in membership fees, has already delivered 9,556 leads to members year to date in 2022.
“Compared to our pre-pandemic year when it did 6,900 leads, it’s just been unbelievable,” said James. “And the average lead our members are getting is over $6,500, so it’s quality leads that we’re delivering.”
Another major perk for members is TL Network’s Specialist Program, which includes five different modules at a cost of $299 each. The fully accredited program includes Luxury, Groups, Action & Adventure, and Newcomers/Leisure and, the most popular, Destination Weddings & Honeymoons. Members have up to two years to complete the program.
“It’s all done on demand and we don’t restrict you if you want to cram it all in in just a few months,” said James. “It has been really successful, and we even have a whole graduation ceremony at our Edge conferences.”
Following the success of 2022’s EDGE conference in Colorado this past June, James confirmed that 2023’s conference will take place in May in Nashville, Tennessee at the Gaylord Opryland Resort. TL Network is currently finalizing the agenda before opening registration. More details to come.
Is inflation a factor at all?
When asked whether Canada’s inflation rate is impacting bookings, James said luckily, it hasn’t factored in much at all. But it is putting a dent in other ways, namely on booking windows.
“I think the only impact we’re seeing in terms of inflation, even with some of our higher-end suppliers, is that booking windows are a little shorter,” said James. “We haven’t returned yet to pre-pandemic booking windows when people were booking out much longer. But the good news is they’re certainly longer than when we were just coming out of Covid.”
James also noted that inflation hasn’t had any impact on ultra-luxury clients, including those who are booking around-the-world products.
The ongoing challenge of staff shortages
Despite all the positive numbers, James said the biggest challenge continues to be staff shortages, for both its members and suppliers.
“We lost a lot of talent over the course of the pandemic, and a lot of people who were close to retirement were pushed over the edge. So what’s happening now is that our members are finding it hard to get talent to come back, and suppliers are having the same issue. They just can’t keep up with demand and business,” said James, adding that she’s heard from a few travel advisors who’ve been on hold with suppliers for up to eight hours, and from others who’ve lost multiple groups due to delays.
But during a suppliers panel at yesterday’s event, several suppliers said hold times have either vastly improved or have returned to normal.
WestJet’s Sevi Anagnostis, Key Account Manager, Canada, said that hold times were down to less than 10 minutes in August and September, which went down again to under seven minutes in October. In addition, WestJet has a new callback option, which allows agents to receive a call back within the same day, as well as a live chat function.
Manulife’s Carol Reid, BDM, Ontario, confirmed that the company’s wait times are back to normal, with its Los Angeles referral desk reporting a 60-second wait time. She also reminded agents of Manulife’s self-serve options, including the ability to email the LA team directly.
And Sunwing’s David Wright, Director of Sales, Ontario and Atlantic Canada, said that Sunwing has been luckier than most when it comes to hold times. Other than a couple of “really bad” weeks when Sunwing (like most airlines flying in and out of Toronto Pearson in the summer), saw multiple delays and cancellations, “we haven’t really had any problems with wait times.” However, despite the fact Sunwing has hired new staff, Wright did note that they’re still learning the ropes and thus taking longer than usual to fulfill agent requests. “That’s our main issue, but we’re working on that. But in terms of actual wait times, you shouldn’t really have to wait more than a couple of minutes,” said Wright.