Travel Life got together with Jeff Element, president of The Travel Corporation, to discuss what makes the company unique and to get a glimpse of the man behind the Canadian operation of one of the world’s premiere travel companies.
On the brands
The Travel Corporation is comprised of more than 25 travel brands and their multi award-winning portfolio ranges from luxury hotels and boutique river cruises, to independent package holiday companies and a variety of guided travel experiences. The four most well-known Canadian brands include Contiki, Trafalgar, Insight Vacations (all guided vacation experiences) and Uniworld, the world’s only authentic boutique cruise line.
What would you say to a traveller looking to choose a brand that best suits them?
I would say that everyone has a different style of travelling and with our brands, there is something that will suit just about everyone. A lot really depends on your stage in life. If you are a young traveller (18 to 35), Contiki is a great experience. It’s one that everyone wishes they could go back and repeat and it stays with you for life.
If you are travelling with children, Trafalgar’s Family Experience is the best thing going. Singles or couples would probably choose Trafalgar or Insight Vacations depending on the pace and the level of amenities they are looking for. If you are a discerning traveller looking for premium or luxury trips, you may want to consider Insight Vacations. Uniworld is a boutique style of river cruising for those that maybe have cruised before, but who are looking for something different, such as a more personalized experience and easy access to ports.
On family travel: For many years, guided/escorted tours were really targeted to seniors. This seems to have changed over the years. Can you explain what Trafalgar’s family experience is all about?
These trips are designed to include just the right amount of education and entertainment to ensure that multi-generational families have a great time together. They appeal to every generation. Because the trips are designed this way and have specific family departures, it is a great way for your children to meet other children from different parts of the world. We have done a few of these trips with my girls and they loved the experience with their new found friends. We offer some fun activities like pizza making in Rome or visiting the Harry Potter films sites in the U.K.
Jeff loves to travel and when given the choice for his own personal vacations, even after 18 years of working with the company, he still prefers a to choose from one of the many experiences that are available under The Travel Corporation’s umbrella of brands.
What is your favourite destination so far?
Well, each member of my family has their own favourite spot in Europe. I’d have to say mine is Venice. There is just something about San Marco Square at around 10 p.m., with the musicians playing and the lively ambiance. My wife and I have taken our girls (ages 10 and 15) to Europe for the last four or five years and each time has been an incredible experience. My youngest daughter has a magical connection to Paris. The first time we were there, we were on a Trafalgar Family Experience. The night before we left, she looked back at the Eiffel Tower all sparkly at night and cried. She just didn’t want to leave. We returned the following year for a week.
Do you travel a lot with the girls?
Yes, whenever we can, usually once or twice per year. Travel creates great life experiences. Even when the girls were younger and we tried vacationing at all-inclusive resorts, we still made a point of taking them outside of the resort to see what life was like and how other people live. I think it has made them more tolerant, better people. They are very appreciative of what they have as they know life is not the same in all parts of the world. They are very conscious of how differently women are treated in other countries and this has spawned some very interesting conversation.
It seems that The Travel Corporation has a great share of the market in Canada. What is it that differentiates you from your competition?
It stems from our wonderful and positive company culture. It is a family-run business—probably the largest fourth-generation, family-run travel business. Stanley Tollman’s father bought his first hotel in the 1920s and now even some of the grandkids are involved in the business. It is a great place to work and many of my staff have been with the company for a very long time. We have a great relationship with travel agents as they have a comfort level with the quality of product we offer, the time we put into the type of experiences we offer and how we treat our guests. We don’t really publicize it, but I am a big fan of how the [travel] groups are formed as they bring people together from all over the world. Being able to make friends with fellow travellers from around the world and see the sites from their perspective enriches the experience and adds a whole different dynamic to the trip.
I’ve heard so much about Trafalgar’s Be My Guest Experiences. Is this something that’s exclusive to Trafalgar?
Yes, and this is by far one of the most memorable parts of the trip for our guests. We have spent the last four years developing these authentic experiences that allow our guests to interact with the locals and learn more about their culture. These insider experiences tend to be to local farms or family homes or vineyards that are not open to the public. One that I experienced was a lemon grove in Sorrento, Italy, that was not even accessible by motorcoach — we had to take everyone by taxi. It was run by four women who opened up their homes to welcome our groups. We spent a couple of hours there walking through the lemon grove and spent the evening with the family having dinner. You couldn’t really do something like that on your own. We are now doing it in all of the programs. In Turkey, we pulled into a little town and the mayor came out to greet us. There was a communal oven with six or seven women from the town baking bread. The group split up to go to different homes for lunch. We were able to ask questions about life in the village. It was a very moving experience for our group. We could never have found this little town on our own. In order to ensure the authenticity of these experiences, we put certain restrictions in place when developing these programs. There can’t just be a crew hired to host our guests, it has to be the actual owner(s) of the venue.
What goes into being a Travel Director who guides your trips?
It is there immense passion. Our people are diverse and they love what they do. It is more than just a job to them, travel is in their DNA. They are our honourary Insider Ambassadors. We invest a lot in training and delivering the experience. The feedback that we get from our directors is that none of our competition has that level of program. We are lucky as most of our tour directors with Trafalgar and Insight have come to us from within as they started with Contiki when they were younger. With Contiki, we have a very stringent training program.The ones that make it through are the best of the best.
Are there any new programs that you would like to tell readers about?
We have an exciting new program to India through Insight Vacations and the Exotics and Gold Collection. We have named Lisa Ray, the Canadian-born, Bollywood star, actress and former Top Chef Canada host as our first global brand ambassador for Insight Vacations. She is a world traveller and has taken two trips with us so she is the ideal ambassador for us. She speaks passionately about her experience travelling with Insight Vacations. I think that India is the type of place that continually surprises you and even a world traveller like Lisa Ray experienced things in her own country travelling with us that she had never experienced before.
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