It was a remarkable case of togetherness in an industry that has shown remarkable resilience.

Baxter Media hosted its annual Agents’ Choice Awards Gala Thursday night, with a large cross-section of people on hand to pay tribute to the best this country’s travel industry has to offer.

And the fact that this year’s version of the glittering gala had people on hand from far and wide to see their colleagues honoured was welcome indeed after the pandemic had earlier prompted virtual versions of the hugely popular event.

“It’s great to see you all here,” emcee Tim Law told those who gathered at Toronto’s Eglinton Grand.

“It has been three years since the last time we were able to gather together like this and celebrate the favourites of Canadian travel advisors,” said Bob Mowat, executive editor of Canadian Travel Press and Baxter Media.

“That’s a long time and I’m certainly glad to see that we all got through it … So, I’ll say it again, welcome to all of you.”

Mowat continued: “Tonight, we’re here to celebrate … to celebrate the suppliers who Canadian travel advisors have recognized for the support that they have provided to them during the global pandemic.”

“And by all accounts, travel advisors across this country more than appreciated that support … it got them through the really tough times … and kept them focussed on the job that they do … the job that they do so well,” he said.

“And whether you’re a supplier or a travel advisor, I salute each and every one of you and wish you all the best,” Mowat concluded.

The Best Advocates

Baxter Media’s executive vice-president Wendy McClung used the Gala to praise travel agents for the contributions they’ve made to the travel industry over the last half-century.

“The one sure thing is that travel agents have always played a pivotal role and continue to be vital to the survival of this industry,” she said. “The front-line sellers, the liaison between your company and their clients, the ones who helped bring stranded people home, clients or not. There are no better advocates for the professionalism of this industry. It’s been a rough couple of years for all of us. But we have come through it and today, acknowledging our achievements is more important than ever.”

McClung observed: “This year we celebrate 22 years of the Agents’ Choice Readership Survey. No one speaks to more travel professionals than we do and no one listens to them more than we do. This year 4,116 voted in the Agents’ Choice Survey, an incredible turnout considering the decline in travel agent numbers.”

This year’s survey saw some of the categories changed or put aside for this year to make room for more appropriate ones.

“We asked these travel advisors to give us their favourite choices in 35 of these categories covering the timeframe from the last Agents’ Choice Survey in October 2020 to April of this year, a time when some borders were closed to travel, most tour operations had shut down and air travel was limited, to say the least,” McClung said.

She continued: “So why did we ask you to vote when your clients weren’t yet travelling again? Our suppliers were still working, working harder perhaps than ever before to keep the lines of communication open, to deliver product updates when nothing was yet available and be ready for service when they could fling their doors wide open again, supporting the agent community through any way they could. Service, Support, Innovation and Resilience.”

Pushing Through

“People like you in this room had the drive to push through, and the passion to stick together and support each other with relentless loyalty. Your vision, hopeful in spite of the uncertainty and your relationships, strong. We are still in this together. We’re here now, on the other side of the most devastating crisis in the industry’s history, a little bruised, definitely scarred, somewhat older and for sure, humbled. We at Baxter’s will continue to champion those of you who make it happen every day and we will endeavour to lead the way through initiatives such as the Baxter Student Ambassador Program, entering into its 9th year where mentors connect with hundreds of students in Travel and Tourism and Hospitality Programs at colleges and universities across the country, introducing them to the older and wiser industry veterans like many of you here tonight. They are the future of the industry.”

“So, let’s look to the future and the successes still to come and help each other accomplish that. We’re in this together. And we’re on a roll. Next year, we will be celebrating 75 years as a company and 55 years of continuous publishing of Canadian Travel Press. It’s been an honour to be part of that legacy for a good part of it (not all of it, but enough to feel a passionate responsibility to carry on.)

“On behalf of Baxter Media — Congratulations to all of you and to many more years of hearing your voice!”

Recognizing Innovation

The night also saw three people share this year’s William H. Baxter Lifetime Achievement Award, which recognizes people who have improved professional standards in the industry; demonstrated successful innovation and entrepreneurial initiative; and enhanced the industry’s standing with the general public.

Philippe Sureau, Lina DeCesare and Jean-Marc Eustache guided Transat to becoming a nationwide travel industry powerhouse, which Denise Heffron — who had a long Transat career before her current position as managing director of Uplift Canada Inc. — noted.

Heffron praised DeCesare as “a skilled negotiator, an operations expert, a tough, and brave leader. Honest, calm, steady, and always straightforward.

“As well, I believe that all of the women in our industry owe Lina a tremendous debt. A trailblazer at the helm of a major travel corporation in a time when that was almost unheard of. Transat is an organization (then and now) that values talented women and a well-balanced team.”

Heffron labelled Eustache a “visionary, entrepreneur, business person, passionate orator, generous, driven, loyal, and at times eccentric. For Jean-Marc, Transat was and is more than a business – for him, Transat is family, a home and in his own words, his life. He had a vision and worked tirelessly throughout his career to bring that vision to life. He led the charge for vertical integration in Canada and is responsible for transforming and advancing the travel business both here and abroad.

“Jean-Marc is a man of many strengths but perhaps his greatest strength is his ability to lead and motivate. He not only built a truly special and successful organization, he built an extremely loyal and dedicated team and he was more than happy to share his home, Transat, with them.”

Heffron described Sureau as one of those “people that are good at everything… an adept business person; … a deeply creative person and the force responsible for the brand we all know so well.

“Philippe held many roles over the years and moved from one to the next with grace and ease – company spokesperson, head of marketing, president of Air Transat, president of Transat Distribution.

“He also led the company into the digital world and has always acted as chief ambassador of the organization. A progressive thinker, champion of travel advisors, mentor to staff, partner of media, a friend of the industry. He is a true Renaissance man and to know Philippe is to adore Phillipe.

“Today all 3 are happily enjoying retirement but each continues to give back to our industry and other industries,” Heffron continued. “All 3 support a number of organizations and sit on various boards. Philippe remains on the board of Transat to this day. These very unique and special people share an incredible story and legacy.”

The pandemic has taken a huge toll on the travel industry, but Sureau told gala attendees that his own travel industry tenure taught him that “to each crisis there is an end.”

Sureau said the current lengthy lineups at passport offices demonstrate that people are eager to see the world.

“This is living proof that travel is part of our DNA,” he said.

And to check out the results from the 2022 Agents’ Choice Readership Survey, just click here.



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