Happy Travel Agent Month! To celebrate the annual event commemorating the role of the travel agent in Canada, PAX spoke to a group of agents from various markets outside of the hubs of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver to learn about their experiences as travel advisors in 2019. It likely comes as no surprise that business is booming! Read the previous entries here:
In a part of Canada with few roads and where air travel is the dominant form of transportation, who better than a travel agent to ensure travellers get to their destination?
“That’s why we have a job – because things happen!” Victor Tootoo, owner of Iqaluit-based Northern Allied Nunavut Travel Inc., told PAX about travelling in the region.
A member of Travel Professionals International (TPI), Tootoo has cornered a niche for corporate travel within the territory, predominantly working with Inuit land claims organizations as well as businesses operating in Nunavut, such as shipping companies. With Northern Allied being the only Nunavut-based corporate agency, Tootoo enjoys a considerable advantage over competitors from elsewhere in Canada.
“Booking travel to Nunavut is very different from the rest of the country,” he said. “Large agencies don’t do well getting people in and out of Nunavut; for instance, it’s not an open economy when it comes to air travel. There’s three carriers that service parts of the territory and link to the rest of Canada. Many of the hotels that accommodate our clients don’t have an online presence, so if you think of your typical travel agent trying to close off a PNR in Sabre without any information on one leg of the journey and the accommodations, it’s very difficult.”
In addition to a more involved booking process for airfare and hotels, Nunavut’s landscape and weather patterns can also provide some unique challenges, Tootoo explained.
He pointed to the example of Grise Fiord, the territory’s northernmost community, where only one regional airline (Kenn Borek Air) provides a single weekly flight from the community of Resolute Bay on a Twin Otter aircraft.
“If a passenger arrives into Resolute Bay and misses the connector, they’re there for an additional week,” he said. “That actually happened! A two-day meeting became three weeks long.
“Weather is also a challenge; the plane may not arrive at Grise Fiord and it can be another week before the next flight. You don’t have multiple options; there’s only three carriers and it’s mainly one for each region.
“Then you get a backlog – if only one carrier goes into a location and they have a capacity of 30 passengers, if they don’t get on out on a Tuesday, Wednesday’s flight is already full. Wednesday passengers are guaranteed to fly, but you have to deal with the Tuesday passengers. That’s where we come in, to help the airlines rebook as quickly as possible and if required, we’ll ensure that they have accommodations if delayed.”
Tootoo explained that in addition to inbound travel to Nunavut, he also offers clients outbound VTA (vacation travel assistance) flights to points south, such as Edmonton, Winnipeg or Ottawa, where travellers can connect to destinations further afield.
However, due to the prohibitive cost of air travel and the size of the market, outbound leisure flights from Nunavut remains a small part of the business.
“A flight from Iqaluit to Ottawa economy return is $2,200 per person; that’s a week’s vacation for many people in the south!” he said. “We have 358,000 residents in the entire territory -that’s a postal code in Toronto! The amount of people who would do leisure travel is equivalent in scale, due to the cost. If 10-20 per cent of Nunavut can afford to travel, it’s only 7,000 people in the entire territory. It’s not a target market to expand the business.”
“By comparison, the governments of Canada and Nunavut are key markets – they spend hundreds of millions on travel.”
Cost of doing business
Running a business in Nunavut is also a different experience from the rest of Canada, Tootoo said.
“Phone and internet is often over $2,000 a month because of our toll-free number; but also our internet is expensive to begin with and the bandwidth is not the greatest. It was just increased to 50 MB and before it was around $300 per month for up to 5MB.”
And with a smaller talent pool to draw from, salaries and benefits must be competitive enough to attract employees.
“That means we have to provide benefits such as travel and lodging; if a trip out is $2,200 and you have to cover a family, it adds up pretty quick.
“The cost of these benefits on top of a salary package, if you’re competitive, can be up to $50,000. The base salary also needs to be competitive.”