“You are very, very important to us,” said Deputy Director of Tourism for the Americas at the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB) Donald "Donnie" Dawson, addressing 165 Canadian travel advisors Thursday night (Nov. 4) at Moon Palace Jamaica, where a glam gala was held to wrap The Travel Agent Next Door’s (TTAND) 2021 conference “Agent ExtraordinIRIE: Actions and Tactics.”
Thanking both agents and more than 30 suppliers who attended the week-long symposium, Mr. Dawson pointed out how Canada, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, produced roughly 300,000 visitors to Jamaica annually and, of that amount, more than 78 per cent of travellers went through a retail travel agent.
“I’m not going to stand here and sell you Jamaica,” Dawson told the crowd during the dinner. “I’m going to talk about you, the travel agent, and how important you are to us.”
“I refer to you as sellers of travel, which you are. And the Jamaica Tourist Board supports you.”
The focus of TTAND’s 2021 conference, which PAX is covering on location in Ocho Rios until Nov. 6, is on what actions agents can take to ensure they are successful in a new travel landscape and continue to grow their business.
“Agent ExtraordinIRIE,” the theme, marries the word “extraordinary” with “irie,” a Jamaican saying that means everything is alright and feeling good.
What makes a travel agent extraordinary?
“Lots of patience,” Mr. Dawson said at last night’s gala, which included a rocking live performance by Charlottetown, PEI-based singer Irish Mythen.
Awards were also handed out to top sellers and agents who have demonstrated leadership throughout the pandemic.
TTAND advisor Arlene Gibbons took home the “Peer-to-Peer Award” (an honour voted on by agents) for being the most supportive agent in 2020.
The “Extraordinary Agent Award” for 2020 went to Judith Coates, who emerged as a key advocacy figure during COVID after co-founding the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA) with her colleagues Brenda Slater and Nancy Wilson.
ACITA was (and still is) instrumental in giving independent travel advisors a voice in Ottawa during the pandemic as agents across Canada faced (and continue to face) barriers in accessing government aid programs and support for restarting, and rebuilding, the industry.
“I’m speechless and I’m in tears,” Coates told PAX after collecting her award while cheering agents in the room gave her a standing ovation.
Coates also received an “Industry Shaker” award, which also went to Shalene Dudley of Latitude Concierge Travels for her work in fighting for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the travel industry.
Christine Winchester received the “Ambassador Award,” which is based on the largest number of referrals provided in 2020.
Aaron Sidenberg, Sandra Swash, Jill Detonnancour, Julia Lutchman, Kerri Purgavie, Maizy Alexander, Sylvette Deveau, Wendy Gladstone, Carolyn MacMillan, Cory Tukeli and Debra Sheppard all received Rising Star awards, which is handed out each time an agency/agent produces $125,000 in preferred and approved commissions.
Trophies were also awarded to Sharlene Philipchuk for becoming a “4th millionaires level agent,” as well as PEI-based Stewart Travel Group, which was honoured for achieving a “3rd millionaires level.”
“We’re always learning"
“Being able to connect again, have some belly laughs, and in knowing we’re all in it together, has been fantastic,” Travis Stewart, co-owner of Stewart Travel Group, told PAX earlier in the day.
Attending TTAND’s conference in Jamaica marked exactly 611 days since Travis and his wife, Paula, also a co-owner, had boarded an aircraft and travelled internationally.
“It’s been so much better than I thought it was going to be,’ Paula said. “Everything has been so simple and smooth. I’m excited to go back and tell clients that we were here, that we did it.”
Experts in river cruising, Travis and Paula’s strategy at this year’s conference was like every other conference they’ve attended: keep it simple and come with a plan.
“We’re here for the suppliers and to get our face in front of them. That’s so invaluable for us,” Paula said.
Travis echoed that sentiment, adding how the week, for his team, was about establishing relationships with cruise lines, stepping up with new marketing tools (especially now that TTAND has joined the Travel Leaders Network) and hearing from others about ways to find, and hire, more staff.
“We’re always learning,” Travis said.
Free cruises for everyone!
Agents weren’t the only ones celebrated last night – partners got together to honour TTAND’s own Alma Ortiz, supplier relations and national conference manager, for her efforts in organizing the detailed week (she was gifted a stay at Toronto’s Shangri-La Hotel).
Really, everyone was a winner last night – the room erupted into a sea of gasps and whoo-hoos when Colin Price, a strategic account manager at Royal Caribbean International, joined Flemming Friisdahl, founder of TTAND, on stage to announce that all agents in the room would be going home with a free three or four-night cruise for two people departing from either Florida or California.
Oceanview rooms? You bet. Talk about an Oprah moment.
“Tonight is about showing that travel is safe and possible,” said Friisdahl, noting how the week represented the first in-person, Canada-only conference for independent travel advisors to take place in a destination since the pandemic began.
Protection & safety
Agent ExtraordinIRIE unfolds as TTAND’s sales and commission numbers see an uptick due to rising vaccination rates, eased travel restrictions and growing consumer confidence in the marketplace.
In response to travel’s new normal, and to assist its network of 924 total agents (that’s primary and associate), TTAND now offers an insurance solution, a premium “Passport Protection” that, for roughly $55-60 USD, features COVID-19 medical coverage that includes an emergency evacuation flight back to Canada (if it’s needed)
TTAND purchased this coverage for all conference attendees as “we wanted to give agents and suppliers a sense of security,” Friisdahl said, noting how the insurance is meant to complement ordinary medical coverage.
While the enthusiasm to re-connect with fully-vaccinated others was high, reminders to follow COVID protocols were shared continuously throughout the week.
Moon Palace’s guest safety program, called Purely Palace, was active, and TTAND had rules, too, such as “no hugging” (although many, to be honest, broke that protocol).
“It’s important we get together, but safety is number one,” Friisdahl told PAX in a previous interview.
"Travel is back"
Agent ExtraordinIRIE revived face-to-face interaction with supplier sessions, a Halloween beach party, a “Travel Agent Think Tank,” presentations on personality temperaments and recovery strategies by motivational speaker Gary Gzik and a special guest keynote by actor and comedian Shaun Majumder.
The conference also showcased the fruits of Jamaica’s hard work in rebuilding tourism through industry-leading health and safety protocols.
Jamaica’s Resilient Corridors – designated sections for tourists that has been designed to encourage safe tourism practices – for one, is driving the market’s confidence in feeling safe in destination again.
So is having Canadian travel advisors physically in Jamaica, posting about their experience on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
In addition to the 165 agents attending TTAND’s conference, the Jamaica Tourist Board, last week, brought 43 Canadian agents to destination as part of an “Irie Hour” FAM – a trip for loyal supporters of the JTB’s virtual chill and chat forum of the same name.
“We have taken over social media,” remarked Angella Bennett, regional director of tourism for Canada at the JTB, who was spotted at last night’s gala.
On last week’s Irie Hour FAM: “We showed agents an amazing time,” she said. “Hotels rolled out the red carpet. They were meeting, greeting, hosting and toasting. They were so happy to see agents back on the island.”
Seeing a ballroom full of TTAND advisors at Agent ExtraordinIRIE “speaks volumes for the confidence of Jamaica,” Bennett added.
“To be able to host this mega event here is a confident step in our protocols in terms of how safe, secure and seamless everything is,” she said. “Tonight is phenomenal. Travel is back.”
“Agent ExtraordinIRIE” wraps up today as some attendees fly back to Canada (PCR testing, by the way, was done on property) while others go on excursions to local attractions like Dunn's River Falls.
Due to COVID restrictions, TTAND, this year, was unable to organize a “Give Back Day,” which is when attendees take time to help out at a local organization.
However, TTAND still collected donations for St. Christopher’s School for the Deaf in Brown's Town, Jamaica, which were presented today.
Fundraising efforts for TTAND’s charity of choice, Pencils For Kids, which provides classroom supplies to communities in Niger, West Africa, also played a part this year.
A total of $35,470 dollars was raised at this year’s conference, bringing TTAND’s total-to-date contribution to Pencils For Kids to $125,008.
Which TTAND agents won at this year’s Supplier Awards? See the list here!
Supplier Top performer
|Air Canada Vacations
|Globus Family of Brands
|Manulife - Top Sales for an Agency
||Stewart Travel Group
|Manulife - Top Sales Individual Agent
|Manulife - Top Closing Ratio
|Insight Vacations & Luxury Gold
|Playa Hotels & Resorts
|Regent Seven Seas Cruises
|Regent Seven Seas Cruises
|Royal Caribbean International
||LEE ANN JENSEN
|Royal Irish Tours
|Unique Vacations - Sandals & Beaches Resorts
|Unique Vacations - Sandals & Beaches Resorts