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The top 10 travel industry stories of 2019

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  •   12-20-2019  12:00 pm

The top 10 travel industry stories of 2019

There's plenty of change in the Canadian travel industry each year - and 2019 was no different!

Of the hundreds of stories that PAX published this year to bring our readers the Canadian travel industry's best coverage, there were several that caught readers' eyes, in some cases generating multiple headlines as we followed developments throughout the year.

In no particular order, here are the top 10 stories of 2019:

1) Boeing 737 MAX 8 banned from Canada’s skies


Following two fatal crashes just five months apart, Transport Canada ordered the grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 series back in March. Despite Boeing’s numerous attempts to rectify a software glitch that was ultimately deemed responsible for the downing of both Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air flights, the company failed to get its fleet to pass inspection requirements by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that would allow its return to the skies.

As a result, major Canadian carriers including Air Canada, who relied on the MAX 8 for six per cent of its routes, Sunwing, and WestJet, who had 13 MAX 8’s in its fleet, were forced to devise strategies via rerouting, cancelling, or adjusting flying schedules in order to re-accommodate valued customers.

In a recent statement, the aircraft manufacturer said that it will suspend further production of the planes and instead focus on delivery of the approximately 400 aircraft in storage, citing the unresolved status of the ongoing review of the planes by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and global regulatory authorities, who are still determining when the MAX 8 will return to service.

The suspension of the MAX 8 means Canada's top carriers will have to continue to reinvent themselves and strategize accordingly to kick off 2020 on a strong note.

—Christine Hogg

2) Watch out: new rules mean passengers actually have rights


Besides missing your flight because you overslept, what could possibly be worse?

How about getting bumped off the flight because the airline overbooked, and being forced to find your own way? Or arriving to your destination, only to find out that your checked luggage never made it? Or worse yet, how does sitting on a sweltering tarmac in the middle of summer with about 200 other highly-agitated strangers sound, without access to enough food or water?

After the latter actually did happen, in December 2018, The Canadian Transportation Agency put forth a set of Air Passenger Protection Rights intended to better protect travellers in case of airline misconduct. The set of rules were developed in two installments—the first set of rules debuted in July, and the second set came into effect just last week.

As a result, airlines must make clear any and all rules and rights for their passengers, or face hefty fines—air passengers who are bumped from overbooked flights or who are forced to sit for long periods of time during delays could receive up to $2,400 under the proposed regulations.

—Christine Hogg

3) Calgary welcomes WestJet's Dreamliner

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is part of the next generation of planes: smarter (able to detect turbulence and reduce the effects of motion sickness by eight times, according to Boeing), more eco-friendly (25 per cent less fuel per passenger than a device of similar size according to the manufacturer), quieter inside the cabin, and offering better air quality.

WestJet's official Dreamliner launch took off out of Calgary on Jan. 18, 2019.

Its first-ever route, in service since Feb. 20, flies between Toronto and Calgary. The latter, where the carrier's head office is located, is the main departure point for its Dreamliner fleet, with several flights to destinations around the world: London (Gatwick) in England; Dublin, Ireland; and Paris, France. More recently, the carrier’s Dreamliner went west with a new route to Maui, Hawaii. During peak season, the airline will operate 22 weekly flights between Western Canada and Maui and up to 28 weekly flights between Vancouver and HonoluluLihue and Kona.

Toronto will also see service aboard the Dreamliner, heading to London (Gatwick). In 2020, it’s Vancouver’s turn to welcome the aircraft with a new route to London Gatwick starting April 26. A new route will also be added from Calgary aboard the Dreamliner to Rome, Italy, with a weekly service launching May 2.

⁠—Antoine Stab

4) TravelBrands & H.I.S. shake hands

Acquisitions were a running theme this year – and it wasn’t just the airlines.

Continuing a recent string of purchases in the Canadian travel industry, Japan-based travel company HIS Corporation announced in January that it would be purchasing Red Label Vacations, the parent company of TravelBrands, redtag.ca, itravel2000 (itself recently acquired by Red Label) and The Travel Experts (formerly Sears Travel). Before Red Label, in 2017, Transat sold its Jonview Canada division to H.I.S. in a $44 million deal, while the year before, HIS also entered into an investment agreement with Merit Travel Group.

The HIS acquisition marks the latest purchase for the brands under the Red Label umbrella: in 2013, Thomas Cook Canada was purchased by the DeMarinis brothers and renamed TravelBrands, encompassing brands such as Sunquest and Encore Cruises.

While HIS’ strategy in Canada is still unfolding, expect to see more synergy between these brands moving forward – along with any other companies that HIS may add to their portfolio in 2020 and beyond.

Blake Wolfe

5) ACTA & Virtuoso explain "that" partnership

It was a springtime head-scratcher: last April, Virtuoso issued a press release announcing it had become the “exclusive” consortium partner with the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA)

The brow-raising news spread like wildfire throughout the travel industry, prompting many to raise concerns over whether Virtuoso’s “exclusive” partnership would impact ACTA's ability to remain impartial in representing the interests of its membership. In response to the criticism, ACTA issued a press release of their own, in which President Wendy Paradis confirmed that ACTA does not, in fact, have an “exclusivity agreement” with Virtuoso. 

The industry was, generally, unsure of what to think of it all, so ACTA issued a second press release, that same week, to (again) reiterate their point. Really, Virtuoso was the inaugural and only partner, at the time, enrolled in ACTA’s new Consortia Partner category.

It seemed the word “exclusive,” which was used in the title of Virtuoso’s release, is what confused everyone. Was it simply a typo? To ensure everyone fully understood, ACTA then issued a third and final release, this time from ACTA’s chair of the board, Mary Jane Hiebert, who, again, clarified ACTA’s position, explained how the Consortia Partner Program worked and, ultimately, apologized for the confusion. Did a publicist for Virtuoso use the word “exclusive” incorrectly?

Something went awry somewhere, and we may never truly know what happened. ACTA won’t comment on the issue further (c’est la vie). But the whole ruckus was nothing but a week-and-a-half of mea culpas that just looked weird. Which, really, was unfortunate, given all the good work that ACTA was (and still is) doing

—Michael Pihach 

6) Playa's t-shirt war comes to an end

What do you get when you mix fabulous t-shirts, savvy marketing skills and a team of highly-competitive business development managers? 

One helluva social media campaign, that’s what. The “Amanda who?” t-shirt war, as it was known, was the brainchild of Canada’s BDMs for Playa Hotels and Hotels – Freddie Marsh in Western Canada, Amanda Morris in Ontario and Christian Roussin in Quebec and Atlantic Canada. Essentially, Marsh and Morris, friendly long-time rivals, began mailing custom-designed t-shirts that dissed one another to Canada’s trade. Recipients of the shirts were encouraging people to post pictures of themselves on social media, wearing the shirts, and proclaim if they were Team Freddie or Team Amanda.

The campaign went viral, industry-wide (seriously – you couldn’t go a day without seeing one of Freddie or Amanda's t-shirts grace the top of your social media feed). Things went further when Christian Roussin designed a t-shirt of his own, and mailed it out. That’s when the nation rallied, joining an entertaining race for Playa BDM supremacy. The Playa team, respectfully, ended this thing in September, but the team’s efforts were not forgotten.

Amanda who? was, hands down, a master class in how to use social media effectively, and a wildly creative way of keeping Playa’s brand top-of-mind amongst travel agents during the slow summer months. PAX’s coverage of the story was also the most-viewed story in August, proving just how much our industry enjoys a little drama. 

Rumour has it that Playa’s BDMs are scheming a new idea for 2020. We don’t know any details, but we’ve got our popcorn ready.

Michael Pihach

7) WestJet and Onex sign purchase agreement

As evidenced by two such entries on this year’s list, Canadian airline acquisitions made for many headlines in 2019.

While Air Canada’s purchase of Air Transat is yet to be finalized, the purchase of WestJet by Toronto-based investment firm Onex, originally announced in May, was closed on Dec. 11 after receiving final approvals from the Canadian Transportation Agency that the airline’s ownership will remain Canadian.

What will 2020 bring for a post-acquisition WestJet? While he declined to provide specific details, WestJet CEO Ed Sims told the Financial Post on Dec. 13 that the purchase will allow the airline to expand its Eastern Canada presence while maintaining its Western Canada roots, calming fears of the carrier becoming “EastJet,” he joked.

And as seen by new features, such as the new Business and Economy class seating on the airlines’ recently-acquired Dreamliner aircraft, and the addition of more international routes, it’s safe to say that WestJet has grown out of its role as a low-cost alternative carrier –  a title that can now be claimed by its ULCC subsidiary Swoop.

Blake Wolfe

8) Dominican Republic tourist deaths: a case for the FBI


While the Canadian media was more reserved, the hype south of the border has been significantly more sensational. 

In particular, it was suggested that the poisoning cases in the Dominican Republic this year (11 in total) could have been a result of travellers consuming contraband alcohol from the room minibars. The reputation of several well-respected establishments, including Luxury Bahia Principe Bouganville, Gran Bahia Principe La Romana, and Hard Rock Punta Cana, were soured, and many Canadian travel agents saw a spike in travellers cancelling their holidays to the DR.

As a result of the Dominican Republic's tarnished, once-sunny image, there's been a significant drop in the number of international visitors to the destination. 

For its part, the tourism board described the incidents as "unfortunate," while specifying that they were all distinct, isolated, unrelated to one other. A set of safety measures was also enacted to put traveller's minds at ease. At the same time, the Dominican authorities called on the public, professionals and the media to avoid engaging in irresponsible speculation while awaiting the conclusion of official investigations. In June, the FBI took over to determine whether or not the cases had a common denominator.

In fact, the Dominican authorities concluded that the deaths were all from natural causes. And in October, the US State Department's Office of Consular Affairs reported that the results of the FBI's toxicology investigation were similar. In early December, a group of hotel owners and managers representing more than 50 properties in Punta Cana jointly signed a commitment called Punta Cana Promise in order to restore the confidence and sense of security of travelers visiting the area.

Serge Abel-Normandin

9) Thomas Cook folds in the U.K.; strands thousands 

On Sept. 22, 2019, travel giant Thomas Cook collapsed, and created a turbulence that was felt around the world. 

Some 600,000 travellers were stranded around the world, while multiple airlines affiliated with the company were grounded. The tour operator's bankruptcy left 50,000 Thomas Cook travellers stranded in Greece; up to 30,000 people stranded in the Canary Islands of Spain; 21,000 in Turkey and around 15,000 in Cyprus. 

As a result, the British government has had to repatriate approximately 150,000 customers of Thomas Cook - the largest operation of its kind since the Second World War. In addition, almost 21,000 people lost their jobs. However, the effects of the disappearance of Thomas Cook were less felt in Canada where the company had little presence. In 2006, Transat A.T. purchased the network of travel agencies Thomas Cook Travel Limited in order to consolidate its presence in Ontario as well as in the west of the country. Founded in 1841, Thomas Cook was the oldest tour operator in the United Kingdom. Society had overcome many crises, including both world wars. For years, the carrier struggled with increased competition from low-cost airlines and the convenience of booking low-cost accommodation online. 

Here in Canada, Air Transat said that it still expects to receive a number of A321 aircraft from the U.K.-based tour operator this winter, part of an annual airline exchange established between the two companies in recent years.

Additionally, Thomas Cook-owned Condor Airlines remains in service, with the airline applying for a bridge loan from the German government to avoid short-term financial challenges.

Serge Abel-Normandin

10) Air Canada buys Transat


Arguably, it’s probably the travel industry's biggest story of the year.

A saga worthy of a television series that kept us going all spring and last summer, and whose future episodes are expected in 2020. 

So, grab your popcorn, get comfy, and let's start with episode one:

On April 30, PAX learned that Transat was in preliminary discussions with several players in the industry for a potential sale of the company. 

Episode two: On May 16, the Air Canada is named as a possible buyer, after the national carrier signed an exclusive 30-day negotiation agreement with Transat A.T. 

Episode three: On June 4, developer and property owner Groupe Mach, and its president Vincent Chiara, outbid Air Canada by $1 per total shares, offering a purchase price higher than that of Air Canada's original offer of $13 per share (a $520M transaction).

Episode four: On June 27, Transat's Board of Directors unanimously approved Air Canada's proposal and recommended its approval by the shareholders. 

Episode five: On Aug. 23, despite Mach’s final counter-attack, Transat A.T.’s shareholders supported the proposed alliance with Air Canada, which had previously agreed to pay even more, $720 million instead of the original $520 million. 

Season finale: On August 27, Transport Canada announced that it would consider Air Canada's takeover of Transat. The review began on Nov. 4, 2019 and the final report is expected to be delivered to the Minister of Transport, Marc Garneau, by May 2, 2020. We can't wait for season two! 

— Antoine Stab

Runner-ups

Last but not least, here are some additional stories that also caught the attention of PAX and the industry in 2019:

Uplift debuts in Canada

Book now, pay later? For those who have a dream vacation in mind but just can't afford it in the moment, finally, a solution has arrived.

In March, Uplift came to Canada, led by Denise Heffron

Purpose-built for travel, Uplift works exclusively through industry partners by integrating a monthly payment option seamlessly into their booking flows. The business also offers a custom-tailored solution for travel agents and call centres, ensuring access for off-line transactions. Following the debut, many Canadian suppliers have gotten on board, including Centre Holidays, Contiki, Fareconnect.com, itravel2000, Niche Travel Group, Northstar Travel & Associates, Redtag.ca, SellOffVacations.com, Sunwing, TravelOnly, Travel Professionals International (TPI), and Travel Masters.

—Christine Hogg

Trump administration enacts Cuba travel ban

Doubling-down on a reversal of his predecessor’s outreach to Cuba, the Trump administration announced in June that it would ban U.S. cruise ships from calling in the destination. While it may have affected some Canadians’ travel plans, Cuba continued to see record numbers of Canadian arrivals in 2019.

—Blake Wolfe

Hurricane Dorian makes landfall in the Bahamas

On Sept. 1, Hurricane Dorian made landfall in the Bahamas as a Category 5 storm. Hurricane Dorian struck over Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco, which was severely damaged. Popular tourist spots Nassau and Paradise Island, which are home to the country’s most extensive array of resorts, hotels, restaurants and tour operators, were not affected.

Following the hurricane’s touchdown, the travel industry was quick to roll up their sleeves and dive in to help, sending foreign aid and relief via fundraisers, supplies, and words of encouragement, with the Bahamas Tourist Board front and centre, urging Canadian travel advisors to keep sending their clients down to the islands, as tourism is always the best way to help rebuild.

—Christine Hogg


From all of us at PAX Global Media, thank you for reading and following along! We look forward to sharing the latest news and developments with you when we return in 2020. Have a safe and happy holiday season!


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