In times of economic uncertainty, people are looking for consistency. Not only in their day-to-day lives, but also in their future vacations.
At least that’s how Andrew Dawson, president of tour operations at Sunwing Vacations, sees it.
“There’s a lot of desire for that all-inclusive product,” Dawson said Tuesday (July 18) in a telephone interview with PAX. “People can lock in prices, there are no shocks. And even though we’re in a potentially rougher economy, people still need that holiday, and we can give them that level of certainty.”
Dawson’s words came just hours after Sunwing Vacations released its 2023-24 winter schedule, which features flights from 23 airports to 26 sun destinations in the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and the U.S.
The company says its overall capacity is growing by 15 per cent over last winter, with flights to sun-kissed Cuba, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Orlando, Florida, and with packages linked to more than 700 hotels.
New this winter are vacations to the Cuban destinations of Cienfuegos and Manzanillo de Cuba from Toronto and Montreal. (Sunwing and Cuba, as PAX has reported, have a long-standing relationship).
Travellers can also expect more options in Pacific Mexico – in Los Cabos, Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta – and in Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic.
It may be summertime in Canada, but customers are already planning their great escape from Old Man Winter, Dawson shared.
“The early booking periods have exceeded our expectations,” Dawson told PAX. “We’re seeing very strong [demand] from all regions of the country.”
Part of the strategy this winter, Sunwing’s bread and butter, is to grow capacity in Atlantic Canada, Western Canada and the Prairies.
The company’s winter line-up will see a 26 per cent growth in overall capacity in Atlantic Canada, with significant lift boosts (more than 30 per cent) in Fredericton, Halifax and Gander.
There will also be 24 per cent growth out west, with more flights out of Regina, Saskatoon and Winnipeg, Sunwing says.
Some of this growth, Dawson said, is “adding back what wasn’t there last year.”
Which only brings Sunwing a few sunbeams closer to restoring the capacity it had pre-pandemic (Dawson says the brand is roughly three to four per cent shy of hitting that mark).
As for the market’s desire to travel: “It’s back to the level it once was,” Dawson said.
When inventory is tight
It’s always an exciting time when tour operators begin releasing their winter schedules.
It gives travellers, and travel advisors, a glimpse at what travel dreams are possible once temperatures drop.
“It’s a process that starts a good six months earlier when the product team goes out and looks at hotel properties,” Dawson said of Sunwing’s winter program. “Finding the right products, at the right price, with right inventory is key.”
Inventory is a word that surfaced repeatedly last winter as vacationers, globally, scooped up rooms at a rapid pace in a post-pandemic frenzy.
Dawson says Sunwing has adjusted its upcoming winter schedule to reflect cases where it thinks inventory will be tight, such as in Los Cabos, which is typically dominated by the U.S. market, as well as in Cancun.
“There have been struggles recently,” he said, “but not consistently through winter.”
Business as usual
There’s also a lot of activity happening behind the scenes rights now.
As previously reported, Sunwing Airlines, over the next few years, will integrate into the mainline at WestJet, which finalized its acquisition of Sunwing earlier this year.
Shortly after PAX broke the news in June, Dawson was quick to clarify that the airline integration would have no impact on Sunwing Vacations, the tour operator, and that things, right now, are “business as usual.”
That still seems to be the case.
This winter, “It will be the same [Sunwing Vacations] travel advisors have always known,” Dawson said.
The same goes for the type of aircraft customers can expect. Though Sunwing is now owned by WestJet, it will be “Sunwing planes on a Sunwing Airlines program” this season, Dawson explained.
Consistency & certainty
But it all comes back to consistency and certainty, which are two concepts Sunwing, last winter, grappled with after its operations – including those of its competitors – collapsed during the holiday rush after a snowstorm slammed into select regions in Canada.
While many Sunwing customers enjoyed their holidays, others did not as flight delays and cancellations crippled the network, leaving travellers in limbo at airports in Canada and abroad.
Christmas vacations were crushed, weddings fell apart and, after Sunwing had no choice but to pull out of select cities, at the last minute, so it could access much-needed aircraft, travel agent commissions were recalled.
It’s a painful period in time that many travellers, travel advisors, (and Sunwing, for that matter), would likely rather forget.
But with another winter coming up, it begs the question: will it happen again?
Of course, nothing in travel is absolute, especially during the winter months when airlines rely on cooperative weather to complete their flights.
Dawson recognizes that last season was “stressful for a lot of people.”
However: “I think one thing we should point out is that we brought everyone home,” he said. “No one was left behind. Everyone that was in destination was accommodated.”
Still: “It was a series of events that couldn’t have come at a worse time.”
In times of crisis, one advantage Sunwing has is a link to Nexus Tours, its sister company, which operates on the ground and offers help in destinations, when it’s needed.
As for preventing future operational problems, Sunwing has inserted “more breathing room” into its schedule this winter, Dawson said, “which is one thing we did right away last year.”
Indeed: last season, as Sunwing picked up the pieces of its tattered holiday schedule, a scaled-down network capped off winter to ensure a smooth, stable service – even if it meant pulling out of some cities for a few weeks, or completely.
It appears that same approach is being applied this year.
“We’ve tried to take some of the complexity out of the schedule,” Dawson explained.
Was last year’s fallout a lesson learned?
“It was,” Dawson said, pausing. “However, it was a new reality setting. Last year was no different from what we had successfully achieved, year after year, over the last decade. It wasn’t that we pushed the limit. We just found that post-COVID, things were not as cohesive as they once were.”
“It only takes one small thing for things to fall apart.”
Some cities that Sunwing previously served seasonally won’t be on the schedule this winter, such as Sudbury and North Bay in Ontario – two light routes that were pulled in January.
The tour operator, meanwhile, will return to communities it may have let down last winter when it pulled aircraft out of Atlantic Canada, and in the west – in Winnipeg, Regina and Saskatoon – to complete schedules and fly customers home.
Dawson said he is “reasonably confident” that those impacted communities will fly with Sunwing again.
“We went back to some of those markets – albeit with a reduced program – and winter progressed,” he said. “Both travel advisors and customers started to trust Sunwing again. We performed very well in those markets – almost flawlessly, thankfully – and I think that has helped to get that trust back.”
Dawson added that Sunwing has since made a “multi-million-dollar investment” in its communication systems, which was heavily criticized last winter during the holiday chaos.
That investment also extends to enhanced retail communication tools. “We’re working on that as we speak,” Dawson said.
"A lot of reasons to trust us”
So, does this mean Sunwing has patched things up with travel advisors – especially the ones who were deeply impacted by last winter’s problems?
“I would like to think that, as time has gone by, everyone can understand more about what happened, and that we’ve made our best efforts to repair things,” Dawson said. “I’d be remiss to think that there are people who will not book Sunwing again, but hopefully that’s a minority.”
“There’s a willingness to try, which we’re grateful for, and we’re offering as much support and service as possible. There are a lot of reasons to trust us.”
As always, Dawson is encouraging the trade to book their clients early for winter as “the best products and dates sell out.”
And his pledge to travel advisors, as winter approaches, is that Sunwing will be a better communicator this season – especially when things go wrong.
“We’ll never be without incidents, as we know,” he said. “But our promise is that we will react much quicker, and sooner, to any potential issues we see.”