Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
“A good conference is like a good meal,” says Flemming Friisdahl, founder and president of The Travel Agent Next Door (TTAND). “A good meal has to look good to taste good.”
Friisdahl talks about his 2023 national conference, “Breaking Barriers Together” – happening April 18-25 at Majestic Elegance Costa Mujeres in Mexico – like a gourmet dinner, prepared at a Chef’s Table.
The week-long travel industry extravaganza, this year drawing 240 travel advisors and 67 suppliers from 42 companies, will be filled with the kind of “ingredients” that can elevate a “dish” to Michelin-star status.
“We’ve invested a lot in appearance,” Friisdahl told PAX over the phone last week, sharing exclusive details of what attendees can expect this year. “We’re using huge LED screens, not a traditional projector. It’s going to be very cool.”
This year’s symposium – a melange of supplier presentations, workshops, training sessions, panel discussions, awards, and dance-till-you-drop parties – will also have the most guest speakers TTAND has ever booked for a conference.
“We’ve invested more money than ever in education and training,” said Friisdahl, calling his annual event the largest independent home-based conference held outside of Canada.
“Breaking Barriers Together”
“Breaking Barriers Together” – a nod to TTAND’s nine years in business, and the many barriers the company (and its network of agents) have overcome, together – picks up where last year’s conference, “STTANDING Stronger Together,” held on board Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas, left off.
A lot has happened in a year. Back in April 2022, travel was just starting to open up after Ottawa (finally) lifted pre-departure testing for vaccinated travellers.
Restrictions on personal and professional lives, at that time, were still lurking in the shadows, and the future was, to a degree, marked by some uncertainty.
Since the removal of pandemic-related travel measures in Canada last fall, this year, for the first time since 2020, has never felt more normal.
Which is likely one reason why attendance at TTAND’s conference this year is at an all-time high – Friisdahl says nearly 22 per cent of his network of more than 1,100 agents are signed up.
“It’s phenomenal,” he said.
Friisdahl is also “stoked” about the high number of suppliers – reps from all corners of the biz – that will be on location to meet with agents.
Building relationships, after all, is the main mission at any conference.
“The only way we can grow sales is by putting travel professionals together with suppliers,” Friisdahl said.
This year will welcome conference newcomers from the supplier world, including Silversea, The Jordan Tourism Board and Project Expedition.
Travel execs will also be on the scene, including Air Canada’s Lisa Pierce, vice-president, global sales and Air Canada Vacations. (Air Canada, in addition to Majestic Resorts, is a main sponsor).
Spa-like luxury & sand dunes
As for the venue itself, Majestic Elegance Costa Mujeres – which is about 30 minutes north of Cancun – attendees can expect “beautiful rooms,” “amazing food,” and grounds that “don’t require a lot of walking,” Friisdahl said.
The 570-room, all-inclusive resort with adults-only and family sections, including alluring swim-up suites, opened in 2019, injecting some spa-like luxury into spread-out Costa Mujeres, a developing region of protected flora, mangroves and sand dunes.
Mr. Majestic himself Rod Hanna (the brand’s BDM for Canada) is already on site, and is pumped about connecting with agents over “mezcalita” cocktails, and showcasing the chic beachfront resort.
“I'm really looking forward to hosting our friends and industry partners from TTAND this coming week,” Hanna told PAX. “The support they continually provide us is very much appreciated.”
A jam-packed week
TTAND conferences are like an Apple product launch, jam-packed with fun and informative content, and surprises – and this year is no exception.
This week will welcome four guest speakers, including experienced executive, author and business coach Geraldine Ree, who will discuss ways to generate “more leads in less time” on April 20.
Corporate trainer Gary Gzik, CEO of BizXcel, (and long-time TTAND contributor), returns to conference with a workshop entitled “Building a Solid Future: The Power of Creating Strong Foundations Today.”
Social media expert and content creator Arienne Parzei, as well as Lori Gold, a Canadian travel advisor who lives in Mexico, will also be there to help agents unlock their creative sides.
As always, there will be surprise guest speaker (the name is still hush-hush). And attendees might notice a new flow to this year’s schedule.
To give participants more free time to do work, TTAND has rejigged the agenda to include more half days that end at 3:30 p.m., for example, instead of 5 p.m.
In addition to on-site cocktail parties and dinner dos (including an awards gala), there will be events held off property, hosted by star suppliers.
Transat is hosting a “contemporary Mexican” dinner at a local Secrets, while Air Canada Vacations is overseeing a “superhero” theme night at Palladium (watch PAX’s Facebook page for all the pics!)
It can be a lot to take in, especially if you’re new to the industry, which is why TTAND (in addition to flying 16 staff members down) has a “Buddy” program that pairs newcomers with agents who’ve attended the conference two or three times. Just so people can learn the ropes.
“Our agents are not competitors – they’re partners,” Friisdahl said.
TTAND’s annual “giveback day” also returns, giving attendees an opportunity to volunteer their time, for a worthy cause, in a local community.
And, during the week, there will be calls to support Pencils for Kids, which partners with communities in Niger, West Africa to create sustainable educational programs for children, as well as income generating opportunities for women.
The goal, this year, is to raise $40,000 to support ten students, which will add to the more than $173,000 TTAND has raised for the Canadian charity over the last seven years.
Home-based agents are “the future”
The conference’s salute to “breaking barriers,” and overcoming adversity, has been an ongoing theme in TTAND’s story.
“The big one was getting through COVID. We’re still here,” Friisdahl said. “We were able to keep all of our staff [during the pandemic], while not many could. We continued to grow our base of home-based agents.”
He noted TTAND’s high commission payout to agent partners – some $3 million dollars last December – and the host agency’s 66 per cent increase in sales in comparison to 2019.
TTAND, not long ago, also saw its highest month in sales (ever), generating some $45 million, Friisdahl said, adding to the time when agents sold a record $2.5 million in a single day.
“Those are the kind of barriers agents have broken,” Friisdahl said. “All of this validates home-based agents and their business.”
“You will always have storefronts and OTAs – they are part of the equation – but home-based agents are the future of the travel industry in Canada.”
Friisdahl’s advice to travel advisors attending conference this week?
“Meet as many people as you possibly can, talk to people during lunches and dinners. If you stay in your room, you’re doing it wrong. Get out there.”
PAX will be reporting on location from TTAND’s 2023 conference at Majestic Elegance Costa Mujeres all week.
Stay tuned for updates and “like” our Facebook page here for on-the-ground pictures!
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