Remembering “The Good Old Days” in the Canadian Travel Industry
If you’ve been in the industry for a long time, the name SkyLark is sure to bring back memories. The exciting product! The innovative glitz! The racy FAMs! (But more about that later.)
To bring back memories, I spoke with 2 well-known individuals in the industry who got their start in the business with SkyLark: Lawrence Elliott, Sunwing’s recently-retired Group Vice President, Business & Corporate Afffairs and Susan Webb, who is now President of VoX International.
“When I was hired as a sales rep I had to buy a map because I wasn’t 100% sure where Jamaica was,” recalls Elliott who worked for the operator from 1975 until its demise in 1982. “Within days I was on an aircraft full of travel agents going to Acapulco on a FAM. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.”
The product was solid sun destination ITC stuff: Florida, Jamaica, Mexico, Nassau, Hawaii, Barbados, etc. Plus a few European products such as coach tours and long-stays in Portugal. “We moved about 50,000 passengers a year – compared to 2 million a year now with Sunwing,” recalls Elliott. “That included a tiny sun program in the summer such as to the Emerald Beach Hotel in Nassau, which I remember sold for $249 – air included. Taxes were a pittance, $17 maybe.”
SkyLark had just 2 gateways: YYZ, which used Wardair for lift and YUL, which used Quebecair.
And in an era where the concept of branding was unheard of, SkyLark developed a great brand, partly through ensuring every passenger got a plastic beach bag with the logo prominently displayed.
FAMs were very common, Elliott recalls, often taking up an entire aircraft and everyone running around the hotels with their instamatic cameras. “Did we charge for FAMs? If we did it was 20 bucks. We worked hard and we partied hard. Oh my lord. I remember going to [Mexico’s annual trade show] Tianguis and coming back from the disco at 6.30 to shave and shower and start the work day. Everyone smoked. Everyone drank. And no one went to the gym back then.”
Susan Webb has tons of memories of SkyLark too. “Such an amazing group – we were all so young. I started as corporate sales manager when I was 22 at $11,500 annual salary and thought I was the richest person in the world!” By 24 she was national sales manager.
Her job, she remembers, was to take their biggest retail clients - Sears, The Bay Travel, Eaton’s, Marlin - and, as she puts it, “service them to death.”
One definite no-no was socializing with the competition, which at the time was primarily Sunflight. (To appreciate how competitive the 2 were, think Coke and Pepsi.) “Once at a trade show we were at a dinner with competitors and I mentioned something about one of our key retail partners and Lawrence Elliott kicked me so hard under the table I may still have the bruise.”
But as quaint and straightforward their business model seems today, there were tremendous innovations, such as an ITC product for what we’d now call Millennials. Called Shazam, it was cheap (from $298 for a week including air) offered no single supplement match-ups and included a lot of parties and, um, mingling. “We’re not a swinging singles club, but when you bring together a crowd under 30 for a week-long action-packed party in the sun, something is bound to happen to someone!” the brochure said with a wink. After all, Shazam stood for “Sun! Happiness! Action! Zest! Amour! More!”
“It was a great time in the industry,” says Webb. “We worked together, we partied together – most of us were young and single – and everyone who worked there would say the same thing. People trusted their travel agents who trusted their tour operators. No discounting. Great product. Great memories!”