At The Travel Agent Next Door’s 2nd Annual Conference

with Bruce Parkinson

Travel Agent Next Door founder Flemming Friisdahl.

TTAND agents (l to r) Judi Oracheski & Brenda Merrick with TTAND V.P. Talent Development Rhonda Stanley.

ACV's Krista Cardona & Christine Faulkner were the gracious hosts of 2 evenings at the TTAND conference.

Transat's Brian Joseph, Transat local reps & Ocean Vista Azul Sales Director Yunior Perez welcome TTAND to the shiny new resort.

TTAND suppliers get in the swing of ACV's 1940s Havana themed party at Iberostar Laguna Azul.

Are travel agent conferences supposed to be this much fun? Or perhaps better stated: are conferences supposed to be this much fun and be productive for agents and suppliers too?

The 2nd annual gathering of young host agency The Travel Agent Next Door was held last week at the Iberostar Laguna Azul in Varadero. 65 agents, an impressive 19 supplier representatives, 8 TTAND staff members and a small media contingent made up the group.

Open Jaw has certainly attended larger agent gatherings, but few that matched the spirit, engagement and energy demonstrated by the TTAND group. The last time was, well, come to think of it, at last year’s inaugural TTAND gathering at Moon Palace on the Riviera Maya.

The company founded by Flemming Friisdahl has only been in existence for 2 years and taking bookings for about 18 months. TTAND now has 200 Primary Agents and 80 Associate Agents across Canada, assisted by a head office staff of 17.

TTAND agents did about $20 million in sales in 2015, but in the first 3 months of this year put $11 million on the books – the vast majority (71%) aimed straight at a concentrated group of preferred and approved suppliers. The numbers aren’t earth-shattering as yet, but they’re definitely tracking in the right direction – and suppliers have taken notice.

Air Canada Vacations was the lead supplier partner for the conference, sponsoring 2 nights of fun, including the closing dinner of the week-long affair. Air Canada Leisure Group V.P. Commercial Vijay Bathija was on hand to talk about all the developments at rouge, while Christine Faulkner, National Accounts Support and Area Sales Manager Krista Cardona brought TTAND agents up to date on ACV’s ever-expanding offerings.

Under the ‘less is more’ philosophy, TTAND has limited its preferred and approved suppliers to a small group, and they came out in force, with representatives from companies including Kensington Tours, Princess Cruises, Transat, TravelBrands, WestJet Vacations, Trafalgar, Collette, Goway, G Adventures, Manulife, Norwegian Cruise Line, Oceania, Travelsavers, Auto Europe, Globus and Viking Cruises. Clearly, they see promise in the young host agency.

“The numbers just keep getting bigger,” said Brian Joseph, BDM, Key Accounts for Transat, which hosted an evening at the beautiful new Ocean Vista Azul. “In 5 to 10 years this group is going to be a force to be reckoned with.” Princess BDM Karen McColl agreed: “TTAND members are among the most engaged consultants I deal with.”

In Open Jaw’s conversations with suppliers, TTAND staff and agents, one word came up repeatedly when asked what makes TTAND stand out. The word: ‘family.’

“I love my TTAND family, so blessed,” said Stouffville, Ontario TTAND agent Coreen Doucette. “They are like family to me, they help me with everything,” said Toronto’s Irina Andrienko.

Friisdahl, who was a senior V.P. with Thomas Cook before founding The Travel Agent Next Door, says that while building a profitable business is his primary focus, he can’t help but feel proud of the culture the company is creating. “Our agents have been big advocates for us. The words I’ve heard the most are that it feels like a family. There’s no bigger compliment. What we try to be is fair. We treat people with respect and people allow us to help them have the business they want. The travel agents are both our partners because they have skin in the game, and they’re our customers, because they’re the ones we need to please.”

There is a family element to TTAND’s leadership. Friisdahl’s partner Rhonda Stanley – a 36 yr. industry veteran, is TTAND’s Vice President, Talent Development, responsible for helping to select and train new TTAND members. Last year alone, Stanley was responsible for training 50 agents who were completely new to the business. “I feel like they’re my children. If they’re not calling us we’re calling them. And when they graduate, it’s like cutting the umbilical cord.”

Vice President, Travel Agent Experience Penny Martin is another industry veteran with both bricks-and-mortar and home-based agency experience. “We’ve had a really large increase in agents over the past year, mainly because of the happiness of the agents with what TTAND offers,” Martin says. “The culture of our team is all about the agents – to listen and to act. There is a singular focus on their success. I’ve never experienced such a feeling of closeness and happiness in an organization like this.”

Despite his calm demeanour and easy approachability, there’s no doubt Friisdahl has felt some fear over the past couple of years of building The Travel Agent Next Door. No one who starts a business does it without large doses of anxiety. He talks about keeping his head down and focusing, but Martin says he definitely leads by example. “Flemming is the hardest worker. He’s right down with us. That really gets noticed by the staff, the agents and the suppliers too.”

The conference theme was 2020 Vision – referencing a vision for the 5 years ahead. Friisdahl says TTAND has 3 key goals: to be the best company an outside sales representative can work with: to be a great place for employees; and to make the company profitable and be in a position to do profit-sharing with agents and give bonuses to employees.

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