“We need to lean on each other and keep moving forward together,” said Diana Winters, business development manager for Ontario at Palace Resorts and Le Blanc Spa Resorts.
Last week, PAX revealed that Winters had launched an Ontario-wide summer road tour, called “Palace Parking Lot Parties,” that was bringing travel agents together, in person, after months of isolation due to the COVID-19 lockdown.
The outdoor meet-up that’s set to take place in parking lots across 35 Ontario cities by the end of this summer has brought back the type of human interaction that the travel industry, once upon time, lived and thrived on.
In this era of COVID-19, staying connected has never been more important, so PAX attended one of Winters’ parking lot parties to see the get-together unfold, first-hand.
“Anything you all want to talk about is fair game,” said Winters, addressing roughly 20 travel advisors sitting in lawn and camping chairs, scattered about in a circle, under a massive tree in the empty parking lot of the Queensway Cineplex Cinemas in Etobicoke, ON, last Friday (July 17th).
Winters hosts these events in cinema lots because there’s privacy and lots of space (theatres, notably, are still closed).
There’s no set agenda or formal presentation – participants are welcome to chat about anything, whether that be details about their latest summer projects at home, their thoughts on the pandemic, or even questions about Palace’s new health and safety protocols.
“The whole idea is to connect physically with agents, face to face, and get people out of their houses,” Winters told PAX. “It’s not about pounding more information into people’s heads. This is more of a mental health visit.”
All people need to do is bring their own lawn or camping chair (and sunscreen and/or umbrella, if needed).
Winters, meanwhile, brings a cooler full of blue, red and orange freezies, bottled water, soft drinks, and a speaker for tunes.
“Without this kind of interaction, I don’t know how we’re going to survive,” Winters told the lively bunch, who let out a cheer every time somebody new showed up to join the gathering. “Having you all here means everything.”
The morning even had surprise special guests – Angella Bennett and Racquel Queensborough of the Jamaica Tourist Board (JTB), who arrived with JTB-branded gifts and mouthwatering jerk chicken in tow (which also generated a round of applause).
“I’m so excited to here...I’m excited to be around people!” said Bennett, the JTB’s regional director for Canada, addressing the group. “It’s been really tough. We’re into hugs, talking, getting together, and all of this has changed.”
The JTB has found creative ways to stay engaged with travel partners during the pandemic, such as by hosting a weekly Jamaica “Irie” Hour online, which encourages participants to have a cocktail and get caught up on the latest news out of Jamaica.
“We will continue to stay with you because this will pass. We will get back to business,” Bennett told the group. “Whatever we have to do, we are with you.”
Also spotted at the gathering was Kelly Schmitt, general manager at Spoiled Agent.
“This feels likes a backyard family barbecue”
Winters has already hosted Palace parking lot parties in Toronto, Ajax, Burlington, Oakville and across Hamilton.
Her upcoming stops include North Bay, Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury, Milton, Mississauga, Niagara, Brampton, London, Ottawa, and Kingston.
“This feels likes a backyard family barbecue,” as one agent, in between taking selfies and chowing down on jerk chicken, was overheard saying at the Etobicoke event.
Social distancing rules were followed as participants jumped from conversation to conversation, laughing and sharing memories about life and past travel adventures.
“We’re doing this responsibly,” Winters told us. “Despite us wanting to hug each other, nobody is doing anything like that.”
For attendee Greg Tom, a consultant with TravelOnly, the event provided a healthy dose of positivity after months of doom and gloom.
“The last few months has been tough for everyone, and those of us in the travel business were affected especially hard,” Tom told PAX. “A parking lot party is a wonderful idea to check-in with each other and lend support on a social level. I am so happy to see so many familiar faces here today, and everyone is smiling.”
For Brigid Fisher, a travel consultant with Travel Professionals International (TPI), the gathering doubled as an opportunity to share advice and help others.
“It’s wonderful to hear everyone's stories and situations and learn methods of dealing with work and COVID,” said Fisher.
Georgia Rakopoulos of UNIGLOBE Enterprise Travel, said she felt a “huge surge of joy” when she got out of her car and saw her travel colleagues sitting there.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes— travel friends! In real life and time!” exclaimed Rakopoulos. “It felt amazing to be together and yet so poignantly sad that we couldn’t touch or hug, which was an overwhelming urge.”
PAX can attest to the joy of seeing of seeing travel colleagues, live and in person, after so many months of isolation. The parties last about an hour-and-a-half (although, we could have easily stayed all afternoon).
How to attend
The dates and locations for these events are posted one week at a time in a private Facebook group that Winters runs for Ontario travel advisors. Click here to join the group (but note that it's only open to advisors that are based in Ontario).
The parties are rising in popularity across the province, Winters revealed. To confirm a spot at an upcoming event, advisors are encouraged to email Winters directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Agents have been asking to come to other cities so they can continue to reconnect with their peers,” said Winters. “This is how much they appreciate it.”
What's it like attending a Palace parking lot party? Here's a video capturing the moment the Jamaica Tourist Board arrived!
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