We caught up with Flight Centre’s Carolyn Menard, a Group Travel Consultant based out of our flagship Toronto Travel Centre. As one of only three consultants with this travel speciality in the Toronto area, Carolyn comes equipped with expert knowledge in the often-confusing world of group travel. Carolyn is also a top performer, which earned her a coveted spot to Flight Centre’s prestigious annual Global Gathering in Hawaii.
Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with me, Carolyn!
Carolyn, what is the typical size of a group?
It is anywhere between 20 to 35 people. The number of people considered to be a group is based on suppliers, which fall into three categories: air only, packages and cruises.
What are the criteria for each of the three?
Air only is 10 adults.
Package is 5 rooms.
Cruise is 8 rooms.
What kinds of events and occasions do you book? Which are the most popular?
Corporate group travel, schools (for example, arranging out-of-town travel for a debate or soccer team) and the most popular, destination weddings.
Sounds like your client portfolio is diverse.
It is! My clients range from educational institutions, real estate companies and niche weddings.
What is the size of the largest group you’ve booked? The nature of the occasion?
159 people. It was an incentives conference for a real estate company.
That’s a lot! What are some of the challenges of booking a group?
I’d say, circumstances out of my control. These include changes to the original booking, like supplier schedule changes and price fluctuations. If travel dates change, which happens very infrequently, this can greatly affect a group. Weather is a big one. During the recent Caribbean hurricanes, for example, many groups were heavily affected, and coordinating can be tough when power and telecommunication are down. But, I managed to coordinate with my clients and help them, and in many cases, get them out on the next flight.
The value of a travel agent and having a point of contact really surfaces in these situations. Which brings me to, what are some of the advantages of group travel?
During this hectic hurricane tragedy, I immediately got to work re-booking travel dates. As agents, we could book outside of the travel advisory dates, which someone who’s booking on their own could not do. This enabled us to get better prices for our clients— if the public had access to them like we did, the rates would not have been as low.
I rebooked entire groups to keep them travelling together, which is another advantage– seamless booking, say for the entire wedding group if something goes wrong.
I’d like to highlight a big advantage: as a group travel agent, I can lock in rates. We can lock in travel prices a year in advance to guarantee everyone is paying the same. I find this especially important if family members are not technically adept and grandma ends up paying more because she missed website deals.
Another significant advantage is a partial payment plan. The group member’s final payment isn’t due for months, prior to departure. Up until the final payment, you can change rooms, adjust dates and enjoy flexibility. In contrast, with a regular leisure booking, you’d have to put down the full payment, if not a deposit, with none of this flexibility.
Carolyn, is there any destination you like best for group travel?
Mexico is fantastic! I have yet to meet a client who’s gone and not been happy. It’s hard to beat the overall value of a Mexico all-inclusive: a great price for a great property, which you’d be spending heaps more on in a different country. Mexico is also safe in a lot of ways. I book a lot of LGBTQ travel and weddings and Mexico is very LGBTQ-friendly, so my clients feel safe and comfortable.
I’m also a qualified Karisma [Mexico resort property group] agent, which translates to extras for my customers: they’ll throw in room upgrades, a bridal spa package or a cheaper wedding rehearsal dinner.
Have you booked any unique groups? Any that were the most rewarding?
The most unique was a school group; Seneca College offers a travel-for-credit program, and I got to travel with the students. I was lucky to have the unusual opportunity to witness first-hand a group enjoy something I’d helped make happen. It was a humanities course with anthropology aspects, so they could learn about the culture and people, including homestays in Costa Rica, where our hosts were so kind and welcoming. We also participated in ecology projects, like sea turtle conservation.
That sounds amazing! Carolyn, now for a quick and fun Q&A I like to ask at the end of an interview:
Lake or ocean?
What would you name a boat if you had one?
Ha! I love that you keep up with British Antarctic exploration news!
Funny you mention that, I’ve suggested for some time we should change our [travel agent team] area name to Area McAreaFace.
Have you ever made a travel mistake you’d warn others not to repeat?
As an inexperienced university student, I booked a long-awaited trip to Europe online. It was a flight to Berlin via Paris. What I didn’t realize was, my 2-hour stopover was nowhere near enough time to travel between the two Paris airports, Charles de Gaulle and Orly Airport. I missed my flight and it was a costly $500 mistake. That was the first time I wanted to help others avoid this kind of easy mistake.
The second travel mistake (yes, there was more than one when I was a student), I thought I’d save $200 by driving myself to Auckland from Queenstown. Little did I know how treacherous the rugged New Zealand roads on this route were, and—this is embarrassing—I damaged the car for a total of $1,000. So much for saving 200 bucks, which seemed significant at the time on my student budget. Today, I would help a client by giving advice, as well asking, “Have you ever driven on the left side of the road? Along cliffs?” That kind of thing. Coming into this job, wanting to help people avoid errors like these, was and is important to me.
If you had to choose, would you be Captain, Flight Attendant, Navigator or Baggage Handler?
Flight Attendant. I love to interact with people, and I think in that position you could meet a lot of interesting people and enjoy cool experiences.
Well, we hope your role as a Groups travel agent allows you to enjoy these aspects enough that you won’t leave us anytime soon!