WestJet and WestJet Vacations kicked off its fall travel trade expo series at the International Centre in Mississauga, ON, Monday night (Sept 12) with news that its capacity and sales are surpassing 2019 levels.
“Travel agents need to begin working with their customers to book early so they get the destinations, hotels, and pricing they want,” Chuck Crowder, WestJet’s vice-president of sales and distribution told PAX at the event – one of three happening in Canada this week.
“As capacity starts to diminish, especially over Christmas, pricing is going to be very high. Some hotels are already sold out in Mexico and the Caribbean."
It’s a positive sign the Calgary-based airline is well on its way to a recovery after more than two years of pandemic-related challenges.
Last night’s event – WestJet’s first in-person trade gathering since the onset of the pandemic, and first expo in three years – gave advisors an opportunity to connect with the WestJet team, and dozens of suppliers at a trade show, to map out a sales plan for the coming months.
Addressing attendees on a stage in a front of a screen that displayed a projection that read “We love travel agents,” Mr. Crowder outlined WestJet’s strategy as it begins the winter 2022-23 season, which will see a restart of 17 sun and leisure routes, a 60 per cent increase in transborder flights and 24 per cent increase in transatlantic flights.
As previously reported, WestJet has returned to its roots by growing its presence in Western Canada by offering more direct, non-stop flights to communities.
The carrier, for one, will restore non-stop service between Calgary and Amsterdam in November and, because of its codeshare with KLM, it can offer flights beyond Amsterdam to 19 cities in Europe.
WestJet has also expanded with year-round Calgary-London (Heathrow) service.
The airline has shifted its 787s to the west, “which drives efficiencies for us,” Crowder explained.
“Grow where we can win"
So, where does this leave Eastern Canada?
In July, WestJet announced that it will suspend winter service to Fredericton, N.B., Sydney, N.S., Charlottetown, P.E.I., and Quebec City, QC.
Crowder stressed that WestJet is not abandoning the east. The plan, instead, is to “grow where we can win.”
“What you’ll see us doing with our strategy is not flying intra-east – so intra-Ontario to the Atlantic provinces – but we’ll pick up more flying from east going west, like Ottawa into Calgary,” Crowder said.
Toronto, meanwhile, will be a leisure hub “where you’ll see more added service into sun flying, but also east-west flying to connect to other cities,” he said.
“We are reducing some service, but we’re not shrinking as an airline. We’re growing our services as well.”
Focus on leisure
Leisure is where WestJet is focusing its attention, as that segment is driving this season’s spike in business, the team said.
“Leisure has come back faster than corporate travel,” Crowder said. “On the corporate side, small businesses are outpacing 2019, but its large corporations, while returning, aren’t returning as quickly.”
Dave Cecco, director of WestJet Vacations, said that all of the tour operator’s destinations are “basically all back.”
“Which is awesome. It’s a good sign,” Cecco told PAX. “We’re increasing capacity for this winter over 2019 to our leisure sun destinations. There’s more for us to sell.”
Cecco reminded the industry that ultra-low-cost carrier Swoop, which is part of the WestJet Group, is now included in packages with WestJet Vacations – on option that is only bookable through travel advisors.
“Swoop has gateways that WestJet doesn’t have, like Hamilton to Cancun, for example,” he said. “Swoop can have a more attractive price point for vacation packages as well.”
WestJet Vacations will include a carry-on for whenever customers are booked with Swoop, which is the same inclusion guests would be entitled to if they were on a WestJet flight.
As one might expect, with rising fuel and host costs, the price of a vacation is going up, Cecco added.
“We’re watching to make sure our prices are competitive,” he said.
What Crowder and Cecco both emphasized was the importance of booking clients early to ensure they get the product and price point they want.
“Rooms are filling up,” Cecco said. “Looking at Christmas and New Years, we already have hotels that are out of inventory. You want to make sure you secure your booking in advance.”
WestJet still offers a travel protection plan that allows clients to book with confidence if they need to change or cancel their booking.
“Another feature that makes us super competitive is that we have an instant price match,” Cecco added. “It’s only for the trade – if agents have a better price from one of our competitors, they can call in and get it applied to their file.”
New live chat feature
Speaking of file changes, WestJet Vacations, last night, launched a new “live chat” feature, which allows agents to connect with a rep (a real human) if they want to make changes to a file, like add WestJet dollars or change the form of payment.
Even if WestJet Vacations’ call wait times, right now, “are super low,” agents can message a representative, get whatever they need added to a file, “and save a lot of time and energy,” Cecco said.
The tool, first introduced on WestJet’s consumer site, is now active on westjettravelagents.com.
Pending Sunwing deal
The team also took time to address WestJet’s pending acquisition of Sunwing, a deal that is currently being reviewed by the Competition Commissioner and Transport Canada.
“We expect a decision by the end of October,” Crowder said. “The great part about it is that Sunwing, being the largest tour operator in Canada, has a strong east coast presence. So, putting the two together, we feel this is better for Canadian consumers. We feel this will offer more choices for them. It gives us the ability to offer more destinations and pricing.”
Praise for the trade
What isn’t lost on WestJet are the challenges travel advisors have faced ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“It has been so difficult over the last two-plus years because of all the changes and regulations. Every partner was doing something different…We know how difficult this is on you,” Crowder told attendees.
“We want to thank you. You’re a natural extension of our sales force. Without you being successful, we can’t be successful.”
WestJet’s Canadian travel trade expo continues this week with stops in Calgary and Vancouver.
Watch PAX’s on-location video report from last night’s Toronto stop!