It’s safe to say that most travel industry stories don’t involve eating lunch before heading into the heart of the former Soviet Union; then again, it’s been anything but an ordinary travel career for Trafalgar Canada President Wolf Paunic.
“I was travelling by train to Ostend via Brussels, where my best friend lived at the time,” recalls Paunic, reflecting on his travel industry beginnings. “The train stopped for 10 minutes so I called him from Switzerland and I asked him to buy a book on each of the seven countries I was going to be working in – and a sandwich as well. He runs next to the train with a big bag full of guidebooks and a huge baguette sandwich!"
What was to just be a summer job selling coach tours throughout Central Europe soon blossomed into a career as a tour guide, Paunic tells PAX, after joining Cosmos as a travel director, leading what he jokingly dubbed “vodka tours” through parts of Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe and Scandinavia in the waning days of the U.S.S.R., when Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of perestroika slowly began opening the country to the West after decades of isolation.
Landing in Canada in October 1993 – “the day after the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series that year,” Paunic notes – he quickly found work with Globus’ Canadian branch. There he led tours of Ontario and Quebec, eventually taking on the role of national sales and marketing director in 1995 and staying with the company until 2008, during which he was among the early proponents of the then-nascent river cruise industry. Paunic then struck out on his own for a few years as a travel industry consultant under the name Wolfe Inc., a role which, through his consulting work, eventually led to two separate job offers from brands under The Travel Corporation. For Paunic, it was an easy decision.
“I opted for Trafalgar because when I was doing consulting, I realized that guided vacations were my true passion.”
In much the same way that the map of Europe was being redrawn at the outset of his travel career, so too does the travel industry, Paunic notes.
Of these changes, one of the biggest is the way in which travel is both purchased and promoted in North America. While Paunic says that in the 1990s, Canadians differed from their European counterparts in terms of when and why they travelled, over the last few decades those differences have shrunk, with North Americans travelling earlier in life and seeing travel as a lifestyle choice.
Much of that rich content is generated in the form of storytelling, a process which Paunic has employed since his early days in travel and which can be seen across Trafalgar as an overall brand, from the pages of its brochures to its guides on the ground.
“When taking Anglophones to former Eastern Europe, storytelling was a very important tool,” Paunic recalls. “What they saw may have been below their expectations – very rarely above – because they were coming to a world where the landscapes, infrastructure and cities looked very different. In order to bring it closer to them, so they had no hesitation or fear, you had to tell a story rather than be factual.
“You can treat it as history and give them dates, such as when the Battle of Kulikovo was fought, but a story gives them the ‘why’. People want to know ‘why’; you can give them ‘what’ and ‘when’ but if it’s not correlated with an answer, it’s lacking. The best answer is to give them a story.”
With the customer at heart
Also evolving in travel is the approach to customer service, moving increasingly away from product to personalization.
For Paunic and Trafalgar, while technology has provided numerous ways of connecting with travellers, there’s no substitute for face-to-face interaction, such as through the tour operator’s Love To Talk Travel events for agents and their clients. It’s here that Paunic is truly in his element, sharing that joy of travel which has been a constant through his career, from leading tour groups behind the Iron Curtain to leading a top tour operator’s Canadian division.
“I love these as much as when we started them. I have a chance to speak with someone, provide inspiration and respond to their questions. They then make a decision and travel,” he says. “They then come back and I often receive a note describing the time they had. I then do the travel talks again and speak with those same travellers and they give me their feedback.”
“They need to know they’re making a good purchase decision and to do that, you need to surpass their expectations and you need to continue nurturing that relationship.”
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