Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
A well-known business development manager in Canada’s travel industry who’s built a successful career in representing all-inclusive resorts – primarily in sun destinations – is taking her talents global.
Diana Winters, who has been a BDM at Palace Resorts for ten years, is stepping away from the company – exactly one decade from the day she started – to pursue a new role at Exoticca, a tour operator that offers private and customizable experiences, led by local guides, in nearly 60 countries.
Winters – lovingly known as “D.W.” in trade circles – long represented Palace and Le Blanc Resorts in Ontario until that territory expanded to Eastern Canada in March of 2022.
She also oversaw Baglioni, an Italian hotel chain that Palace acquired last year as part of a plan to bring the brand to the Americas and the Caribbean.
Winters’ last day at Palace is today (Friday, April 28) and her official start day at Exoticca, where she will be a BDM for Ontario, is May 8.
She will report to Mike Quinto, Exoticca’s vice-president of sales for Canada.
“I’m so excited for this new canvas of product – it’s the stuff I dream about,” Winters said, speaking exclusively to PAX about her new direction. “Anyone who knows me knows that I love Europe. I’m European, and there’s so many corners of the globe that I have not seen yet.”
Exoticca, which is based in Barcelona, Spain, first launched in 2013 to serve the European market. It made its Canadian debut in 2019.
It’s a relatively young company that’s still new to North America, but that’s exactly what Winters finds appealing.
“I’m in a position to take my contacts and relationships and really grow this brand,” said Winters, who was a BDM for Barceló Hotels & Resorts before joining Palace. “I can’t wait to take this, run with it, and make a lot of noise.”
“I promise I will change your life”
If anyone knows how to make noise, it’s D.W.
The Hamilton, ON-based travel pro, never one to mince words, is renowned for her outgoing determination and ability to empower travel advisors in meaningful and authentic ways.
Among travel agents, she’s perhaps best known as the creator of “Diana’s Awesome FAMs,” a unique opportunity for travel agents that she developed with Palace over the years.
“It’s the feather in my cap,” Winters said. “I really believe, until this very moment, there’s no FAM trip quite like it.”
As experienced by PAX back in 2019, the idea is to not only show agents how all-inclusive vacations can still be luxurious experiences, but to also give participants ample time to discover a Palace property on their own, at their own pace, so they have an exact interpretation for their clients.
“It’s about experiencing a product just like a consumer,” Winters said. “This is why they were wildly successful. To this day, I have 1,200 agents on a wait list.”
But Winters’ legacy at Palace runs much deeper than introducing travel agents to all-inclusive resorts.
With support of the Palace Foundation, she also launched a give-back initiative, through her FAMs, that involved building homes in vulnerable communities in Jamaica.
With the help of donations from travel advisors, Winters, alongside a hired crew of contractors, would assist in building two to three homes, over the course of a week, on an annual basis.
The volunteer work also extended to helping renovate important institutions in Jamaica, such as St. Christopher's School for the Deaf.
In another instance, Winters once mobilized agents to help raise funds for a medical facility in Ocho Rios – a port town on Jamaica’s north coast – that needed new equipment.
“Agents were beyond generous,” Winters said. “It wasn’t about looking for accolades. It was about doing things for the love of other people.”
“I do things without any expectations other than to do it because your heart wants to do it. Which is why these FAMs became successful. It’s something I will always be proud of, and I’m grateful to the agent community for doing more, and giving more of themselves.”
“I would always say, if you come on my FAM, I promise I will change your life.”
Parking lot parties
Winters has also been a strong advocate for mental health.
In the summer of 2020, at the height of the pandemic, she organized “parking lot parties” in 35 Ontario cities that brought travel agents together, in person, after months of isolation due to the COVID-19 lockdowns that were happening at the time.
READ MORE: Palace brings back human interaction with parking lot parties for agents
The trade embraced these outdoor meet-ups with great enthusiasm, hauling lawn chairs to mall and office parking lots to attend the events, which had no set agenda – “other than to make sure we were all OK,” Winters said.
“There was no shop talk,” she said. “It was about banana bread, new cats…whatever agents wanted to talk about. It was so important to be connected, beyond the never-ending webinars. It was free therapy, it’s what people needed.”
READ MORE: We attended one of Palace’s parking lot parties (and we didn’t want to leave)
When Winters’ territory expanded into Eastern Canada, she had opportunities to engage with even more travel advisors in person, in more provinces.
Including Quebec, which was challenging, “because my French does not go beyond poutine,” Winters admitted.
“But I still managed the best I could, and continued to make relationships happen. Even with a larger territory, it was just as rewarding.”
“Time is really precious”
Some BDMs spend their entire career trying to reach a level where they become synonymous with a brand. Why is D.W. shaking things up now?
The deciding point to leave Palace, Winters said, was when she realized how much she (and travel) has changed over the past few years.
“What I’ve learned is that time is really precious,” she said. “We have no idea what will happen tomorrow. This is the moment to seize opportunities and try something different.”
“I love the beach, but the beach will always be there. There’s an entire world that needs to be explored. And after years of being locked up, people are looking for extraordinary experiences.”
“The world is the biggest territory”
Without a doubt, she’ll find that at Exoticca, which offers tours (at affordable prices) in far-flung destinations around the world, from South Africa to Italy, Greece and Portugal, to Peru, Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands to Egypt, Morocco and Jordan to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam and many, many more.
“The world is the biggest territory, and that’s what I’m going to showcase,” Winters said.
Exoticca includes air, accommodations and ground transportation in its packages, and what Winters finds most appealing about the brand is that its small group tours include free time to explore.
“To me, this is what travellers want. They want simplicity, culture, and the freedom to see things without being on a strict schedule,” she said.
She also believes Exoticca, in trade communities, is generating a lot of “buzz and hype” because every component of their trips is commissionable.
As a BDM for the tour operator, Winters will conduct trainings, one-on-one visits, and give agents the tools they need to be successful.
“I want to be boots on the ground, face-to-face with agents, and continue to make those interactions. I thrive on agent connections, on a street level, if you will. Over the years, it’s those relationships that have kept me going. I want to continue to do that.”
And, yes, there will be FAM opportunities with Exoticca. Will Winters keep the “Diana’s Awesome FAMs” moniker? She hasn’t decided yet, but incorporating that “life-changing” aspect into the name is a real possibility.
“Because that’s what these trips are,” she said.
“A perfect fit”
It’s an exciting time, for sure, but like with any job transition, there’s an emotional side as well.
“I feel a sense of sadness in leaving [Palace] – there’s no question about that,” Winters said. “It’s bittersweet. If you had asked me five years ago if I would leave, I would have said, 'Absolutely not.’ But when this opportunity fell into my lap, I said, ‘This is a perfect fit, and I want it.’”
She said Palace is still “the best all-inclusive in the world” and “it’s a brand I’ll always love.”
She’s also very proud of the growth Palace has experienced in Canada over the years.
“I owe all of that to agent loyalty, relationships, and the trust people had in me,” Winters said. “I’ll forever be grateful for that. If it wasn’t for agents, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
As Winters sails off into the sunset, a search for her replacement at Palace is currently underway.
Agents that email Winters at her Palace address will now receive an out-of-office message containing all the alternative contacts they need.
The best bet, for now, is for agents to email email@example.com if they need help, Winters said.
U.S.-based Maria Guadalupe Cordero, affectionately known as “Lupita,” was named Palace’s corporate director of sales for Canada, the U.K., Europe and Asia in January – “and I’m confident she will steer Canada back to the same success, if not better, then what we saw pre-pandemic,” Winters said.
As for Winters, she’s going to take the next week to decompress, and is advising the trade to “stay tuned” for further announcements, including word on her Exoticca email address, which will be ready soon.
“I’m super, super grateful for this opportunity,” Winters said, “and I’m going to make this just as successful as Palace.”
“This is going to let me do things that set me on fire.”
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