When one door closes, another door opens.
And for Barrie, ON-based Ola Ulewicz, that entailed opening her own storefront travel agency in a downtown neighbourhood in her city.
Jet Lag Voyages, which opened its doors as part of a soft launch last month, is a rare entity: a brick-and-mortar travel agency that has launched during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Its opening comes more than two years after the coronavirus was declared a global pandemic, a crisis that, over time, has forced many storefront travel agencies to close, or switch to a remote model, due to poor demand and uncertain travel conditions.
But in Ulewicz’s view, times are a-changin,’ and as travel restrictions ease, and as consumer confidence in travel returns, there has never been a better time to engage with customers, live and in person, once again.
“We believe our community needs a new and inviting space to turn all their travel plans into a reality,” Ulewicz told PAX. “And we think we have accomplished that with our incredible space in the heart of downtown Barrie.”
After two years of lockdowns, border closures and social barriers, the world, perhaps more than ever, is craving human connections, she said.
“People are now ready to travel and getting that human connection and travel into one place is very beneficial,” Ulewicz said.
Going for it
You could say running a storefront travel agency is in Ulewicz’s DNA.
For ten years, she managed retail stores with Flight Centre, with her most recent location being an agency in Barrie’s Georgian Mall.
When COVID-19 hit in 2020, forcing global travel to a near halt, Ulewicz admits she was “one of the casualties of the pandemic” as Flight Centre began to downsize its operations with layoffs.
Given the choice to either reapply for her job, or accept a severance, Ulewicz chose the latter and went her own way.
“After getting laid off, it was about deciding what else I could do with my life,” Ulewicz said, “And the answer was nothing. I love what I do, I love my clients, I love travel and I love being a travel advisor.”
And so, literally three days after accepting the pink slip, Ulewicz got busy, laying the groundwork for what would become her very own enterprise.
She shopped around for host agencies, eventually selecting The Travel Agent Next Door, which gave her the creative freedom to operate under her own brand.
Aptly-named Jet Lag Voyages first launched as an online business in January 2021, before transitioning into its storefront space, where Ulewicz, alongside her colleague Lisa, now greet clients face-to-face.
“It’s been pretty wild,” Ulewicz said, reflecting on her whimsically-decorated business, which celebrates its grand opening on April 22. “We’ve received a lot of support from the local BIA, there have been a lot of walk-ins and appointments, too.”
Ulewicz, at the same time, maintains a team of remote business specialists.
“We’re booked solid, business has been great,” she said. “People are excited to see a travel agency again.”
Have a seat, stay a while
Ulewicz’s vision, from the get-go, was to design a space devoid of clerical elements that are traditionally associated with storefront travel agencies.
“I didn’t want brochures all over the walls,” she said. “I didn’t want it to feel like a stuffy office, a place where you’re being sold travel.”
Instead, utilizing an earthy-green colour scheme, patterned area rugs, a wall-sized map of the world, and a shelf installation showcasing globes and retro suitcases, Ulewicz created a comfortable and welcoming space that could pass as somebody’s home.
“I wanted it to be a beautiful place where you could sit down for a few hours, if you needed to, and see travel inspiration,” she said. “Instead of brochures and price points.”
Having a space that’s beautifully decorated “makes people feel that experience from start to finish,” she said.
“People need us and it’s wonderful”
Ulewicz’s agency caters to all types of clients, specializing in customized experiences, whether that be honeymoons, cruises or tours.
After two years of limited travel, Ulewicz’s customers, these days, are gravitating towards “monumental trips,” she said, such as adventures in Australia, New Zealand and Asia, African safaris, and expeditions in Antarctica.
“Wherever people have dreamed of going, that’s where they’re going,” Ulewicz said.
If anything, having a space where Ulewicz can sit down with clients and review travel’s new normal has been a blessing, because “there’s still a crazy amount of rules associated with everything you do,” she said.
The biggest shift Ulewicz has noticed lately is in the way customers, more and more, have begun to see the value in using a trusted travel professional.
“The relationship is different,” she said. “[Pre-pandemic], it was always a question of ‘Why should I use a travel agent?’ I haven’t been asked that question in over a year.”
Operating in a personalized space also nurtures a type of dynamic that isn’t always achievable online, Ulewicz argues.
“Building trust with clients starts with that in-person interaction,” Ulewicz said. “Not every client is like that, but some of the best relationships I’ve had started from that in-person contact. And that starts in a store.”
“Be incredibly adaptable”
Ulewicz’s advice to other agents considering a new direction?
“Be incredibly adaptable to everything around you,” she said. “Listen to travellers and see what they want. Being in this industry, it’s not about you. It’s about who your travellers are and opening yourself to new ideas.”
In Ulewicz’s case, this meant getting out of her comfort zone and appearing on camera to talk about travel in videos that she posted to social media.
In the early days of Jet Lag Voyages, several leads were obtained directly through Instagram, thanks to “reels” and other forms of engaging content Ulewicz posted online.
“Through that, we built a community. And that is what allowed us to open a storefront,” Ulewicz said.
Jet Lag Voyages is located at the 5 Points in downtown Barrie on 13 Dunlop St. W. It celebrates its grand opening at 11:00 a.m. on Friday, April 22 with a ribbon cutting ceremony hosted by the Greater Barrie Chamber of Commerce and an open house until 6 p.m. The event will continue on Saturday, April 23 from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.