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.
Cindy Girard was born and raised next to the ocean – in Normandy, France – so when she first learned that she could work a job that involved being aboard vessels, she was stoked.
She had just graduated from high school, with no clue about what to do with her life, when she discovered a dream gig: working on board ferries that, at the time, were sailing from Normandy to the U.K and Spain.
The offer was to work two weeks on, two weeks off – at minimum wages.
“When you’re 18, this is a jackpot!” Girard says.
Her family, however, was not thrilled about Girard charting a course without any education. So, they made a pact: she would first get a bachelor’s degree in travel and then she could pursue it, if she wanted to.
To complete her degree, Girard moved to Paris, where she lived for many years, before moving to the U.K. in 2012.
“At that time, I had still never set foot on any kind of ocean vessel,” she says. “I had moved onto different projects.”
Her first job was working as a virtual travel advisor at Expedia’s call centre in Paris when the company was brand new. She was just 20-years-old at the time.
Girard worked various roles over the years, in both corporate and leisure travel, mostly for OTAs and hotel chains. When she moved to London in the U.K., she was a sales manager for Expedia TAAP (the brand's travel agent affiliate program).
“It was my first position building direct relationships with travel advisors, and I absolutely adored it,” Girard says.
In 2016, she moved to Toronto, Canada, still working for Expedia TAAP, but covering the U.S. market. It was during this time that she noticed how amazing home-based travel advisors were, and how different they were from the “traditional” sector as they had their own set of challenges, level of experiences, backgrounds and schedules.
“Each of them is battling for their own business to grow and succeed,” says Girard.
But the girl from Normandy never forgot the ocean.
A couple of years later, Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) announced a new role that combined two of Girard’s passions: assisting home-based travel pros and life on the water!
It was an opportunity Girard couldn’t pass up. She applied, and successfully became the first business development manager hired in Canada, by a supplier, to be fully dedicated to the home-based/independent contractors’ community.
Girard is now a little more than four years into her position at NCL, and loving every minute.
As a sales manager, she helps Canadian travel advisors grow their NCL business through trainings, marketing plans and promotional campaigns. She also represents NCL at conferences.
“This is my every day and I love it!” Girard tells PAX. “The main difference compared to traditional regional BDMs is that I am not on the road. Most of my meetings happen virtually, as my agents usually do not work in a brick-and-mortar agency. You are more likely to find me on a plane, off to attend regional trade events, instead of in a car!”
What does she love about the travel industry?
“Travel is the most important thing is my life,” she says. “For me, it is the only real way to access and experience the ‘difference.’ Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve loved seeing and learning about anything that is not part of my own everyday life. We are all selling one unique thing: an impalpable dream, until we manage to make it come true. It’s way beyond simple materialistic possessions. It’s about souvenirs, moments in life, and things we think and smile about, randomly, at any moment. Which other industry can say they achieve that?”
Here, PAX Checks In with Girard to talk about the movie Love Actually, the time she lost her shoe under a train in Paris, and the “big” change NCL has made in the travel industry.
PAX: What are three essential items you always travel with?
Cindy Girard (CG): You really want to limit me to three only? Oh boy. I am a serial packer! OK, so I would say my phone charger, my perfume (French of course!) and a roll of tape. I am very clumsy and I tend to break things frequently!
PAX: What’s your favourite airport and why?
CG: Gatwick in London. The first time I watched the movie Love Actually, I got very emotional about the opening and closing scenes that show how passengers travel, and finally, after long journeys and sometimes longer separations, meet again with their friends/family at arrivals in Gatwick and how nothing else but love is expressed during these moments. Being separated from my own family and many friends, I completely relate! Every time I’m at Gatwick, I make it a little game of mine to watch people at arrivals and just cheer in secret with them as they hug their loved ones. I am actually heading there in a couple of months before embarking on my next NCL cruise around British Isles. I cannot wait!
PAX: What was the first trip you ever took?
CG: I was 16 and went on a summer field trip to Italy with 50 classmates. Two whole weeks of freedom: a 36-hour bus journey, sleeping on floors in sleeping bags, walking around for long hours in 40+ degrees and no hot water in the shower. I could not have cared less about this. We were heading there for an international gathering with no less than four million teenagers from all over the world. It was the best time of my life, sharing it with my closest friends, far from home. It was the most amazing thing ever.
PAX: What’s the biggest splurge you’ve ever made on a trip?
CG: I am a huge art lover but usually do not spend that much. I once spotted a painting in a window one day and fell in love with it immediately. I could not stop staring at it. I had no idea who painted it or how much it was. I just knew I loved it. So, I asked to see the price tag and…ouch. It was certainly not a Monet painting, but it was really over my average typical shopping basket! I knew that if I didn’t get it, I would regret it for a long time. So, even if it was a huge extravagance, (and technically I was able to afford it), I just bought it. Never regretted it.
PAX: What’s the most memorable meal you ever ate while travelling?
CG: It was during a business trip to Barcelona. I had to host a couple of good clients for the evening and my then boss picked the place. I had no idea what to expect, especially as, from the outside, it did not look very engaging. However, once inside, we were escorted into an authentic wine cave with few tables. This place was very exclusive, with high gastronomy, usually only known by locals, and I had no idea (at this time, Google and Reddit were not a thing!). They served the best Spanish tapas I ever had and items that I would never usually touch at home, like squids. It was absolutely heaven-like.
PAX: What’s your biggest travel pet peeve?
CG: When I am in line at the airport and someone is bumping into my ankles with their bag because they are too impatient and move forward too fast!
PAX: What is your funniest travel anecdote?
CG: I have billions of stories! Primarily because I am very clumsy. I think the funniest story was this one time in Paris when I had to board a train and climb a few stairs to get into the car. I was wearing high heels, and for some reason, I missed a step and one of my shoes decided to get back its freedom and fall…right into the gap between the platform and the train, under the train. It was so miserable, it almost felt like the whole moment was happening in slow motion! We were less than five minutes from departure, I had no other pairs of shoes and I had to be on that train – it was the last one for the day. I was already picturing myself walking on one foot upon arrival. An employee with the station showed up but refused to help – which was understandable. But then, out of the blue, a gentleman (who will remain forever in my heart as the “mystery knight with the red jacket”) jumped under the train, gave me back my shoe and just left! He saved my day!
PAX: Would you travel for a month in luxury, or travel for a year on a budget?
CG: This question is hard! I am a strong believer that money cannot buy happiness. However, in our world nowadays, I think it’s just a fact that some experiences are accessible only to higher budgets.
Technically, I love my comfort (denying it would be a massive lie) but I can absolutely also live without it. I grew up in a very modest environment and I still follow the principle that if I have a roof over my head, food on my table every day, no debts and people to rely on, I am happy. So quite frankly, I think I would just ask myself: what is luxury, for me? I think that anything that enhances my everyday life, makes me or my loved ones feel good, is luxury. However much it costs: one cent or one million dollars.
I would start by drafting a list of the top 25 things I would like to do/experience in my life – no matter how much it cost. If most would be accessible only with a high budget, then I would spend a month experiencing things once and remember them for the rest of my life. If I don't need a lot of money, then I would happily go for a year on a budget.
PAX: What do you consider your greatest achievement in recent years?
CG: Going through COVID in our industry was of course quite the challenge. To think we all had these days in the industry, asking ourselves: should I give up? Find something else? Well, I did not, and I am the happiest to this day! It required a lot of work and perseverance at a personal level to remain afloat (pardon the pun!) Eventually it all paid off: we are back full steam as a company, and I was awarded North America Sales Manager of the year last September at NCL’s annual conference in Florida. Which is a success that I share with my whole team. I could have never achieved this without their unconditional support.
PAX: What is your motto?
CG: Clock is ticking. Do not postpone to tomorrow what you can do today, especially when it comes to travel. This is why I also tend to be quite an impulsive traveller and go without an actual plan. Exploring is the best.
PAX: What is your idea of perfect happiness?
CG: A perpetual state of worry-free mind.
PAX: What is your biggest fear?
CG: Time going by too fast. I am afraid that I will not have the time to do everything I want in my lifetime!
PAX: Who is your favourite singer or band?
CG: I would say Queen, as I have loved them since childhood (Freddie, we miss you!). But, for the past 10 years, I’ve had a real passion for the music of composer Hans Zimmer (and his student, the now-famous Ramin Djawadi, who is known for composing the music for Game of Thrones). Gladiator, Inception, Lion King, Pirates of Caribbean, The Da Vinci Code, The Prince of Egypt…you probably already know Hans Zimmer! I once booked an air ticket from Toronto to Belgium, on an impulse, as he was performing on my birthday in Brussels. It was one of the best concerts I have ever attended in my life!
Music is my absolute favourite passion in life, under all of its forms: singers, musicals, orchestras, movie soundtracks. I wake up with music and go to bed listening to music.
PAX: What are your hidden talents?
CG: If you lose your scarf, I can knit a new one for you! I also churn my own butter (eh…Normandy, born and raised!)
PAX: How has the pandemic changed your outlook on life?
CG: I think it taught me a lot about patience. When there is something that is 100 per cent out of your control, you just need to pace yourself.
PAX: What is the biggest challenge facing the travel industry right now?
CG: The world is still recovering from all the disruptions – direct or indirect – related to COVID. So many people had their lives changed forever because of it. However, sometimes it seems like so many have already forgotten and just want to get back now to how things were before. The reality is that this will take time.
PAX: What is this year’s top travel trend?
CG: Bucket list destinations! We saw this coming many months ago, but I think it will remain a thing for a while. When you are sad for a long time that you cannot do something, this is precisely the moment it starts trickling into your mind! People want to focus on places they’ve dreamed about without never acting on it or because they had to postpone again and again. Two years might not seem like a lot on paper, but eventually it feels like time you will never be able to recover. Some of us lost people we loved during COVID, maybe before we even had a chance to see them one last time. Imagine the regrets!
It’s time to start from the top of the list of things you want to see/do in the spirit of one of my favourite cinema quotes: “Carpe Diem!”
PAX: What should travel advisors know right now about Norwegian Cruise Line?
CG: We are back and cruising is still the fastest-growing travel sector in our industry. If I could do my job from a ship, I totally would! We support the travel advisor community more than ever. By launching our new program that pays commission on non-commissionable cruise fares last November, we really changed something big in our industry!
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