“Travel is back with a vengeance and so is the race,” decrees Virgilio Russi, Air Canada’s vice president of international sales.
Air Canada first held the “the race” (which is modelled on TV’s The Amazing Race) in 2006, bringing a group of travel agents together to a destination, then putting them in teams and sending them around to experience local culture and hotspots by accomplishing a series of trials.
The race was last held two years ago in Basel, Switzerland, and this week, it returned with a new partner, United Airlines.
“Tourism to Portugal has been booming since the pandemic,” Russi told PAX, which covered the race on location. “The number of Canadians has grown incredibly.”
That’s no surprise given that the weather is amazing, Portugal has affordable price points, Air Canada has direct flights from Toronto and Montreal to Lisbon, and unlike neighbouring Spain, most people in the destination speak either English and/or French.
All of these factors made the destination an easy choice for the 2023 race.
To help share all that Portugal has to offer, Air Canada and United Airlines teamed up with Tourismo de Portugal to showcase the beautiful area of Alentejo.
“It’s important to promote regions that are lesser known,” said Russi.
About 300 agencies applied to take part in the race; 15 Canadians and 15 U.S.-based agents were chosen.
On race day, they were divided into six colour-coded teams, including the self-named “Pinkoes,” comprised of five agents and this PAX journalist.
What was at stake? The winning agents received air tickets for two to Portugal from the U.S. or Canada as well as a one-week hotel and breakfast package in Alentejo.
Incentivized, the competitors were ready to dominate the six challenges while also creating a written article, a promo video, and snapping pics for numerous photo tasks ranging from the team at a “spa” to a fish market. Creative interpretations were encouraged.
It’s all designed to give agents an immersive experience. “Travel agents play such an important role in advising their clients by sharing their own travel experiences,” said Filipe Silva, board member of Turismo de Portugal.
Our arena was the small medieval city of Évora, a UNESCO World Heritage city.
Its narrow, winding, cobblestone streets were wonderfully charming and quick to baffle Google Maps.
With a little (a lot) of help from extremely friendly (and English fluent) locals, we briskly walked (and sometimes ran) to meet our strict timelines for each challenge.
Amanda Carter, a Halifax-based agent from Trevello, navigated the pink team. “I have to earn my map confidence,” she said.
Stumbling and gasping into local businesses and artisan studios, we struggled to identify herbs, create our own wine label (with a toughly judged branding pitch), sleuth the flavour profiles of four gelatos as well as various olive oils, and failed spectacularly at a wine-identifying challenge.
This was Carter’s favourite, though hardest challenge. “I don’t want to voice my opinion against my teammates,” she admitted.
Between these grueling gastro-gauntlets, we squeezed in hastily art-directed photo assignments, popping our best poses at the Roman Temple, and avoided becoming part of the decor at the Chapel of Bones.
Special thanks (and curses) to local tour operator Turaventur and their amazing handpicked team for putting together and overseeing such a fun, detailed, and tough experience.
Our final challenge? Clean up and look gorgeous for the gala—at a local castle, of course.
After a winding bus ride, we dined at Pousada de Estromos, where Russi holded court, as we loyal serfs await judgement.
He pulled forth a scarf in the colour of the winning team. The Pinkoes are triumphant!
See more pics from the Air Canada Race here !
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