Business travel booming in Canada

Despite rise of travel websites, travel agents are still needed, particularly on the corporate and luxury side, says industry veteran

brian robertson


Brian Robertson, chief operating officer and co-founder of Vision Travel,which specializes in travel arrangements for business people. Colin McConnell/Toronto Star

By: Lisa Wright Business Reporter, Published on Wed Nov 26 2014

Brian Robertson is not the Trivago guy.

For starters, he dresses a lot better and doesn’t want to sell you on discount hotel bookings online, as does the much-maligned, unshaven actor in those ubiquitous commercials for the travel website.

The chief operating officer of Toronto-based Vision Travel is more like George Clooney’s character in Up In the Air, logging at least 150 days of the year either parked in a plane seat or stuck in an airport somewhere in the world (his fave is the ultra-modern Incheon in Seoul).

And the industry veteran is happy to say that travel agencies have not gone the way of the dodo, despite the rapid rise and wild success of web-based travel booking sites like Travelocity and Expedia, which owns the now household name Trivago meta-search engine.

In fact with the growing presence of the Internet and new technology on travel since he co-founded Vision Travel 14 years ago, Robertson says there’s more need for experts to guide travelers through the sea of information out there to ensure trips go exactly as planned, particularly on the corporate and luxury end.

Despite the increasing challenges of air travel from tight airport security to labour and safety issues, he notes corporate travel by Canadian businesses is expanding, both domestically and internationally.

“People are still travelling, and business travel has made a real comeback, even more than where it was before the 2008 downturn. It’s a growing, growing business,” he says.

He estimates the corporate travel business has grown by about 8 per cent in the last year in Canada, and most of that can be attributed to the expanding global economy and the increased need for business travel activity in far-flung places around the world.

Vision Travel – which finally just dropped 2000 from its name in keeping with the times – is Canada’s largest independent travel management company. Two-thirds of its business is the corporate traveler, with the rest being luxury leisure and conventions.

Robertson and his crack team of 600 travel experts put together all kinds of itineraries for Canadian companies, such as setting up travel arrangements for hundreds of oilsands workers to get to Fort MacMurray within an hour of each other from all parts of the country, then organizing all the ground logistics and lodging.

They have also helped major mining companies send geologists and engineers to remote mine sites in South America and Indonesia and co-ordinate everything from necessary documents to health information and safety precautions.

“Our motto is: ‘the more complex, the better’,” says Robertson with a smile, but he really means it.

Robertson started as a travel agent in Toronto in 1978, and since then he’s seen it all, from the days when you could still smoke in the cabin and free meals in economy class, to the ultra-tight security measures imposed at airports that annoy everyone, including him.

And he has a ton of stories from the front lines of the industry, including many surrounding airline strikes, brutal weather, disease scares and numerous other mishaps that his team thrives on solving for fearful clients.

“One of our travellers returning home from Sao Paolo, Brazil on a business trip was robbed in the taxi en route to the airport. They even took away his passport and credit cards.

“As soon as he managed to access a telephone, the first person he called was our travel advisor. He was obviously shaken with this experience. She reserved a hotel immediately, prepaid it, settled our traveller down in a safe environment, and went about notifying the concerned authorities of the incident,” he recalls.

She also rebooked him and co-ordinated his travel documents in order to bring him back to Canada as quickly as possible, he says.

While bricks and mortar agencies are shrinking nationally, Vision Travel has been acquiring competing travel companies and hiring more agents to cater to its high-end corporate clientele, which includes some of Canada’s largest companies. They have offices in all major centres in Canada, and agents who work from home to cater to smaller communities.

His vision for Vision Travel has taken it from revenues of $125 million in 2000 when they started, to $620 million in business this year, and he expects to get to $750 million in 2015.

“Our business is not only surviving, it’s flourishing,” says Robertson.

Industry studies show travellers’ perception of a cancelled flight has more of a negative impact than a medical emergency, with some travellers reporting that their most negative mishap took more than 12 hours to resolve.

Of the 87 per cent of problems that were related to air travel, 52 per cent of those surveyed said those problems were due to cancelled flights. And with cancelled flights often comes missed connection flights, missed business meetings, lost luggage, and major travel stress.

He said many people surfing for deals on the web discover that their knowledge in making travel arrangements is pretty limited and the process is very time consuming. He finds many people will do their own cursory research online then turn to a travel agent to complete the actual booking.

The number of travel advisors fell by about 14 per cent from 2006 to 2011, according to Statistics Canada.

Agencies are reacting to the pressures on the industry by focusing on customer service, pricing variety, new destinations and all kinds of adventure travel, whether its waterfall rappelling or booking a seat on Sir Richard Branson’s space shuttle Virgin Galactic. (They’ve sold 12 seats so far at $250,000 a pop.)

According to the Global Business Travel Association, business travel is expected to grow 2 per cent in 2014 and by another 1.9 per cent in 2015. Total spending on business travel is also expected to grow 7.1 per cent in 2014 and by 6.6 per cent next year.

Unexpected delays to air travel plans can costs businesses up to $1,475 per employee, per year, with an average of 2.3 lost work days, due to errors that occur on the road, says a GBTA study, which found 75 per cent of business travelers experience at least one mishap a year when travelling for their employer.

Travel management can also be a critical part of a company’s crisis management plan through extensive traveler tracking and assistance in emergencies, says Robertson. And they’re available 24/7, including holidays.

“I remember an example of one advisor who spent her Christmas day in between cooking dinner with getting a client to the next port on a Caribbean cruise. The weather was bad, and the ship had departed from a Florida port before the client could board, and she had to find a small plane to get to a small island on Boxing Day to catch the ship,” he recalls.

“On another note, we once had a corporate client phone from a Victoria airport on her way to Newark via Toronto to say that she had her passport but no money or credit cards. We had a colleague in Toronto meet her plane and give her enough American cash to hold her until her secretary couriered her wallet.”

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