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.
Sales produce awards, but fascination drives a good story.
While the COVID-19 pandemic is something most people in the travel industry would likely rather forget, it was an event that tested the sector’s resiliency (yup, there’s that word again) as travel advisors, faced with unfathomable challenges, fought for survival.
But within the darkness of flight cancellations, refunds, commission recalls, unequal financial support, travel restrictions and unpaid work, there were glimmers of creativity as travel professionals picked up the pieces of their business to reinvent themselves in profound ways.
Hustlers, movers, shakers and rule-breakers tell the best stories, and as Canada’s leading travel trade news outlet, we had a lot to chew on during COVID as readers shared with us their personal journeys of entrepreneurship and success.
And so, in the spirit of the late Barbara Walters, PAX has compiled its list of the 10 Most Fascinating Travel Advisors who glowed with intrigue during the pandemic.
These professionals are not only interesting, but they followed their own path, carving out their own destiny, and have inspired others.
Let’s face it: any travel advisor that got through the pandemic deserves recognition. But here, in no particular order, are ten individuals that caught our attention.
Laurie Keith of Boutique Travel Services. The Survivalist.
In 2020, when travel came to a pause, Stoney Creek, ON-based Laurie Keith launched a timely side hustle that tapped into what people really needed at that time: face masks (which, then, were mandatory indoors and on planes). With her travel business on hold, Keith opened a Shopify store, Casper Masks, that sold soft face masks featuring vibrant designs of destinations, from “Majestic Morocco” to “Vallarta Vibes,” and travel-related imagery, such as airplanes and passport stamps.
Call it primal survival instinct with a dash of entrepreneurial spirit. When Keith wore her masks at grocery stores, people would approach her and ask where they could get one (and hey, by the way, I’m a travel agent!). The idea was “to get people dreaming,” Keith told PAX at the time.
READ MORE: How this travel advisor launched a business selling travel-inspired face masks
Mask, and you shall receive. The business took off, with Keith confirming orders from as far as Alaska and Texas. She also shared her profits with travel advisor communities in North America, offering a commission on any mask sold using a promo code.
Casper Masks not only helped Keith, a busy Mom, keep the lights on at her business (which she has run for more than 25 years), but it also prevented the furloughing of staff. In fact, she hired three more people during the pandemic.
If that wasn’t enough, Keith went on to develop a Canadian destination wedding solution, www.ocanadaweddings.com, and participated in ongoing trade advocacy initiatives.
With travel demand surging, and masks now optional, Keith is back full-time doing what she loves: running a travel agency and training and supporting her team of independent travel advisors.
Stephen Sully of SWELL Destinations. The Gold Chaser.
Not long after the pandemic disrupted his less-than-one-year-old travel agency, Stephen Sully, in October 2020, left Lethbridge, AB, for sunny Mexico in search of Mayan gold. No, not buried treasure. An opportunity to start anew, in the Yucatan, as an expert in off-the-beaten path adventures.
Settling in Playa Del Carmen, Sully became a social media machine, posting on-the-ground updates from the coastal resort town. He wrote articles about health and safety protocols (a new concept at the time) and shot on-location photos and videos at whatever resorts were open.
His work offered a window into a reimagined world of vacations, deescalating the fear surrounding travel at the time. “I became a vocal proponent of travel when others were condemning it,” Sully told PAX in 2021. “As I’ve always maintained – you’re safer flying to Mexico than going to Costco.”
READ MORE: This travel agent left Alberta & reinvented himself in Mexico
Three years later, Sully has since relocated to Merida, the Yucatan’s capital. And he’s still at it, embracing life as a photojournalist, partnered with The Trip Goddess to develop campaigns that aim to keep wanderlust alive. Together, they’ve partnered with Mexican-Caribbean resorts to create content, from videos to posters to blogs.
Their motto? “Become travellers in Mexico, rather than tourists,” Sully told us. Their “Live Like a Maya” tour, for example, showcases rare experiences in the Yucatan that unpack culture and adventure.
The retired construction professional from Alberta has come a long way. Next year, Sully and his partner in crime are going on a cruise in Europe. “We only promote destinations we have experienced first-hand,” Sully said. “After all, not only am I a travel advisor, I am also a traveller!”
Tannis Dyrland of Travel With Tannis. The Marketing Maven (and The Mixologist)
After almost a year of pandemic-related setbacks, Calgary, AB-based Tannis Dyrland had had enough. It was January of 2021, and the travel industry’s reopening was looking bleak after Ottawa unveiled even stricter restrictions. It was so enraging, you could just swear! Which is exactly what Dyrland did.
Capturing the industry’s frustration, Dyrland launched a head-turning marketing campaign called “The Fu*k-It List.” Aimed at securing future bookings, the list – a collection of worldly getaways, curated by Dyrland – urged people to commit to travel instead of putting it off. A proactive “Fu*k it – let’s do it” call to action, so to speak.
READ MORE: Tannis Dyrland's cocktail kits are making travel fun again – one sip at a time
“It’s about living life on your own terms to accomplish whatever your dreams are,” Dyrland told PAX in 2021 when she began promoting itineraries on her Instagram.
While the ever-careful travel industry isn’t accustomed to using such salty language (on public platforms, at least), the campaign was a hit, generating bookings for Dyrland and praise from other travel advisors. The list only featured companies that supported Dyrland during the pandemic, which made some suppliers sweat.
PAX’s 2021 story about “The Fu*k-It List” was, notably, one of the most-viewed articles on our site that month.
Later that year, Dyrland launched a line of cocktail kits, “Mile High Cocktails,” containing ingredients that can be mixed with the alcohol that’s served on planes. (One drink, appropriately, is called the “Fu*k It List”).
The Fu*k-It List is still around today and the cocktail kits have become a “bigger success than I ever could’ve imagined,” Dyrland tells PAX, noting strong sales in the gift-giving market.
Above all, Dyrland is back to selling travel, supporting the “incredible women that work on my team, making sure we are making our mark in the industry.”
Shalene Dudley of Latitude Concierge Travels Ltd. The Changemaker.
"How can we talk about building back without building it back properly?"
This was a question Oakville, ON-based Shalene Dudley began asking herself, and others in the travel industry, shortly after the pandemic began – specifically in regards to how people were confronting the realities of anti-Black racism.
Following the 2020 murder of George Floyd, the travel industry was among many sectors that began evaluating the ways in which anti-Blackness played out in professional life.
Dudley, alongside the organization Let’s Get Uncomfortable (LGU), and guest speakers, spent months leading this conversation, via webinar, educating anyone who was willing to listen about ways of prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion and demonstrating true allyship, while emphasizing accountability.
The events put pressure on suppliers to diversify their marketing images with more BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) representation and shared ideas for progressive change.
Meanwhile, Dudley transformed her travel business, leaving her host agency in 2021 to go independent. She also racked up awards and recognitions. She was nominated twice for the RBC Canadian Women Entrepreneur Award in 2021 and 2022. Last year, she won the Gerald Heifetz Advocacy award from ACTA and “The Amazing Agent” award from Hyatt.
She’s on the Sandals Canadian Chairman's Advisory Board. She’s also the recipient of the inaugural Baxter Media “Travel Agent and Beyond” award.
“I am continually amazed and humbled by how blessed I am to be surrounded by great colleagues, partners and friends,” Dudley tells PAX. “Each of whom believe in me and support my endeavours whenever a challenge, opportunity, or social justice cause arises.”
Diane Cook of 7 Seas 2 See Travel. The Flight Creator.
Diane Cook loves Kitchener/Waterloo regional airport. It’s a stress-free facility. But as travel reopened, the Fergus, ON-based travel advisor grew tired of the same all-inclusive sun options that were being offered there every winter.
And so, in March of 2022, Cook took matters into her own hands, launching her own air charter program from the airport to Barbados, with land and cruise options, for takeoff in December.
READ MORE: This advisor launched a private air charter from Kitchener & Ottawa to Barbados
Partnering with Canadian North, Cook designed an elevated flight experience, reflective of a high-end vacation, for her luxury-minded clientele. The route even allowed passengers to board in Ottawa.
“I chose Barbados based on the stability and economic health of the country and the variety of experiences I could offer,” Cook says. “I looked at all of the small ship cruising options, villas, and connecting flights to other high-end islands for yacht charters.” She also opened seats up for other travel advisors to sell, paying a commission.
But just as radio and online advertising ramped up, Russia’s war on Ukraine escalated, jacking up fuel prices. Eventually, the decision to pull the program was made “as there was no way we could price the flights to be profitable,” Cook says. Clients that had booked ended up flying out of Toronto instead.
The only failure is not to try, as actor George Clooney once said. In the category of fascinating strategies, Cook gets the Oscar.
And it may not be the last time we hear about this idea. When asked if she would try the program again, Cook’s response was: “Yes, when the time is right.”
Paul Chin-Aleong of New Wave Travel. The Fearless Leader.
There’s nothing simple about organizing a safari in East Africa for 28 people during a global pandemic.
Just ask Toronto, ON-based Paul Chin-Aleong, who escorted clients on an adventure through Kenya and Tanzania in November 2021, just as the Delta wave was ending and Omicron was beginning.
READ MORE: In between Delta & Omicron, this travel advisor hosted a group safari in East Africa
“We made it happen,” Chin-Aleong told PAX at the time, reflecting on that “stressful” booking that took two years to plan. “But everyone got there, and returned home, safely.”
It was a trip of African bliss. The Maasai Mara National Reserve, Serengeti National Park, "Big Five" animals, hot air balloons, Ngorongoro Crater, high-end hotels and luxurious tents.
Kenya and Tanzania “never really closed,” Chin-Aleong said, noting how safaris take place almost entirely outdoors (which mattered at the time).
Then there was having to keep tabs on shifting border protocols and visa requirements, and coordinating pre-departure PCR tests (‘member that?) for 28 clients who lived in different countries.
But thanks to Chin-Aleong’s razor-sharp organizational skills, instinct and fearless ability to navigate travel amid a health crisis, everything went according to plan.
“There were no mishaps, no missed flights, no flights cancelled,” he said.
East Africa was just the beginning. Chin-Aleong, last year, escorted 22 folks to Sicily and Malta and recently, he took a group to Thailand. His next big trip, in November, will head to Japan. Then, in January, he’s hosting a cruise from San Juan to Barbados.
We don’t have a trophy to give Chin-Aleong, but we have this list.
“Travel is back with a vengeance,” Chin-Aleong told PAX. “Sometimes I am overwhelmed, but I’m grateful for the continued support of my clients, who are booking in advance and spending more to fulfill their travel dreams!”
Kemi Wells of Wells Luxury Travel. The A-Lister.
Despite the challenges of the pandemic, Kemi Wells was convinced the luxury travel industry, guided by pent-up demand, would rebound stronger than ever.
Even in January of 2021, when travel was crippled by restrictions, the Vancouver, B.C.-based professional believed the right clientele would be happy to pay for expert planning services.
And so, looking forward, Wells turned a crisis into an opportunity, launching her own business, Wells Luxury Travel. It was a leap of faith, when faith was hard to come by.
“I work 24/7, but I love what I do,” Wells tells PAX.
Despite her work schedule, Wells is still active in the community, helping launch the first Canadian chapter of Millennials in Travel in spring of last year. She also sits on advisory boards for Virtuoso, Travel + Leisure, Lindblad Expeditions and Explora Journeys.
U.S.-based Travel and Leisure, in fact, named Wells an "A-List" expert this year on its 21st annual list, which celebrates the “world’s finest” travel specialists.
“Ever since joining the industry in late 2014, I've been welcomed with open arms,” Wells says. “I’m so grateful for the constant support and encouragement during this amazing journey so far!”
Kim Paquette of Travel by Kim. The Travel Queen.
We call Kim Paquette “The Travel Queen” because that’s literally her nickname. And after learning about a larger-than-life marketing plan she launched in September 2021, you’ll understand why.
Ottawa, ON-based Paquette, in a move to future proof her business, covered her RV with a Sandals-branded wrap, turning her vehicle into a moving billboard.
READ MORE: Meet the "Travel Queen" who owns Canada's first Sandals-wrapped RV
The free Sandals Car Wrap program, which is typically used for cars, was utilized by hundreds of Canadian travel advisors during COVID. But Paquette was the first one in Canada to slap the beach-and-ocean covering on an RV.
"I’ve watched Sandals constantly reach out to agents, offering support, and they have invested hugely into their properties when business was down. I feel their business values align with mine,” Paquette told PAX at the time.
In a recent follow-up, she called the wrap an opportunity to “re-energize my business, refocus my expertise and strengthen my identity.
“Bold women go to the extreme, so the wrap idea came naturally for me,” Paquette said.
Was it worth it? “Hell yes,” she said. “My business has grown to a level that brings me happiness and peace....This investment, combined with extensive world travel and niche building, has opened doors beyond my wildest dreams.”
She still has the Sandals wrap on her RV. In fact, this June, Paquette will head to Eastern Canada and spend the summer touring her “billboard on wheels,” talking travel with people along the way.
And people are curious. Paquette says she’s already received an invitation to park her RV at a major fundraising event in Eastern Ontario.
She even received a booking after someone saw an article about Paquette’s Sandals RV in PAX News.
Which makes us feel wheely good.
Ola Ulewicz of Jet Lag Voyages. The Do-Or-Dier.
When one door closes, another door opens. And for Ola Ulewicz, that meant opening a travel agency in downtown Barrie, ON.
In March of 2022, Ulewicz opened Jet Lag Voyages, a storefront, after managing Flight Centres for ten years. At the time, brick and mortar agencies (new ones) were a rare entity. While border restrictions had only just begun to ease, there was still some doubt if travel, after two years of shutdowns, was truly reopening.
In Ulewicz’s eyes, it was, and so she opened a dynamic space, full of globes and retro suitcases, where customers could comfortably turn their travel dreams into a reality.
“Although times were uncertain, I was certain travellers would want that human connection, more than ever, when it all came back,” Ulewicz told PAX.
READ MORE: “People need us”: Why this travel advisor opened a storefront agency during the pandemic
The risk paid off. Last year, Jet Lag Voyages was recognized by the city of Barrie and won the “New Business Award.” As well, Ulewicz’s agency ranked in The Travel Agent Next Door’s top 10, and earned a spot on its “Top Performers” list, achieving close to 2.5 million in sales.
This year, Jet Lag Voyages’ sales are already surpassing 2022, and may possibly triple, Ulewicz says.
And, as one of the highest-ranking agencies on Google in the area, the agency has tripled its client list since opening as it sees more walk-ins and local searches.
“We have gone from me working completely solo to a team of six – four of us being full time,” Ulewicz says. “We easily need two to four more agents to handle the speed of growth.”
On making PAX’s “Most Fascinating” list, Ulewicz calls it “very humbling.”
“It does not escape me that opening a travel agency during a pandemic was incredibly risky. However, I believe in the industry wholeheartedly and I knew it would be a success.”
“This is just additional validation that others see this too, and I’m incredibly thankful.”
The Founders of ACITA. The Disrupters.
This next one comes as a collective.
When travel advisors Judith Coates, Brenda Slater and Nancy Wilson discovered a shared concern that independent travel advisors (ITAs) were falling through the cracks as the travel industry fought for its survival at the onset of COVID-19, they knew they would have to disrupt the landscape in order to make a difference.
Putting their competing agencies aside, they formed a grassroots group in June of 2020 that, today, is known as the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA), which fights for fairness on behalf of independent contractors.
During the pandemic, ACITA’s work led to big industry wins, from ensuring that ITAs could access federal aid programs to securing commission protections with airlines to helping politicians understand sector-specific needs.
They rallied the industry on a private Facebook group, (which now has nearly 2,000 members), where advisors were urged to contact their local MPs to schedule Zoom meetings so they could explain why they needed help.
The dialogue between ACITA and Canada’s politicians led to campaigns that resulted in the words “independent travel advisor” being spoken in the House of Commons for the very first time.The group was also responsible for federal petitions that called for the easing of travel restrictions.
“ACITA,” quickly, became an influential buzzword.
“ITAs needed a voice, especially as the number of ITAs steadily increased,” Slater and Wilson told PAX in a joint statement. “ITAs now outnumber travel advisors that work in brick-and-mortar agencies. We knew we needed a voice, but what we didn’t realize was that we needed support – most importantly, emotional support.”
The group has since undergone some restructuring. Last summer, Coates left ACITA to focus more on her business (she still remains a vocal advocate). And others have joined the team, notably Heather Kearns, Lynda Dennis, Michelle Gaudet and Bronwen Hill.
While travel is reopening, ACITA continues to support its membership in helping wade through the CRA recall notices for CRB/CERB payouts. The group is also shedding light on airline and tour operator cancellations and how that affects the bottom line of travel professionals.
They’re continuing to push boundaries.
“We are working towards ensuring we are protected from this ever happening again. We continue to look for representation across the country, and work toward change in our industry,” Slater and Wilson said.
“When we all succeed, our industry is better because of it. ‘Community over Competition’ is the motto of independent travel advisors. United we are stronger together.”
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