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Mike Sanderson has been in the travel industry since 1996 in various roles from working for Manulife to running his own travel agency. He feels it’s a privilege to be able to plan special vacation experiences for clients that they will remember for the rest of their lives. During the pandemic Mike joined ACITA’s efforts to lobby for the needs of independent travel advisors.
Mike has been advocating for advisors over the last two years with a group of advisors and ACITA. He always thinks of his clients first and has a great relationship with so many advisors. A true leader in the industry.
Tell us a little about yourself and how long you’ve been in the industry?
Since 1996, I have worked in various roles in the travel industry. From owning my own insurance and investment brokerage to working for Manulife for close to 10 years to now owning my own agency, I have seen many different sides of the business which has helped me to get where I am today. I took a break from the industry from 2004 – 2007 where I fulfilled a lifelong passion of mine to run year-round kids camps. I spent two years in Manitoba and two years in PEI doing this before returning home in April of 2007. I have four amazing kids who are now 19,18,17 and 15 and they are my world. My kids are my everything and to be able to show them the world as they grow up is something that excites me very much. For me, being able to do something I love as my daily career is not something I take for granted. I am excited about my job as much as my clients are excited about their travel plans.
Why and how did you decide to become a travel advisor?
After needing a career change in 2016, I took some time off to really decide what I wanted to do next. I am a planner and I love helping people which made the decision to start my own travel business not as difficult as some might think. It was definitely scary starting with no clients and a business that is 100% commission, but I believed in myself, and I had the support of some incredible people who helped make my dream a reality. It took a lot of hard work, dedication, and sacrifice and not a day goes by that I don’t think about the days in the beginning and will always be grateful to those people who believed in me and gave me a chance to start something that I am very proud of today.
I started by creating a Facebook Business Page and slowly started to learn the power of social media. I researched community groups in my area that allowed businesses to advertise and started to consistently market myself to anyone and everyone I could. I found approx. 32 local community groups that to this day, I continue to advertise in to grow my business. With my Facebook Business Page my goal has always been to accumulate followers that will support me and through giveaways in the beginning of gift cards which led to travel vouchers and now in the last three years has allowed me to give back to the community for the support they have shown me by giving away three free trips, my page has grown to close 3,600 followers The business has gotten so busy in the last few years that I have brought four other agents into my agency to help with the amount of inquiries and I expect more to join this year. My love for travel and playing a small part in someone’s personal travel experiences is what ultimately led me to give this adventure a shot.
What’s your favourite part of being a travel agent?
There are so many things I love about being a travel agent that I am not sure I can pinpoint just one. From hearing the excitement in the client’s voice when I am having a consultation with them and hearing what they are looking for, to sharing the exciting news that they are booked, or receiving an email or text while they are there that they are having an amazing time, makes everything I do behind the scenes that people don’t see worth it. I love booking trips where kids aren’t going to find out until the night before or when a surprise visit is the purpose of the trip or better yet, when it is someone’s first time travelling. I truly feel it a privilege that people would trust me and allow me to play a small role in such an important event in their lives.
What got you through the pandemic?
I think the pandemic is something I will look back on years down the road and really have a better appreciation for what got me through it. As we are hopefully coming out of it now, I think that it is all so still fresh that the level of appreciation along with the gratitude I feel that my business made it through, will pale in comparison to how I feel now. It breaks my heart that so many people were permanently forced out of this industry because of COVID. When March 2020 hit and the realization that this was not just going to be something that will create a short few months pause in travel, but that it would be lasting an unknown duration, I was certainly concerned. I had close to 300 people affected by the pandemic and many people I had to try and get home before they were stuck. Every trip that did not happen because of the pandemic was sad, however, my wedding group affected me the most. My bride and groom along with their friends and family who had been planning this very special destination wedding for over a year was now not going to happen. Once I had all the cancellations looked after, which took many many months I was filled with anxiety and depression. There were some dark days that I remember, days where I could not get out of bed or days where I started to work and 30 mins later I could not continue. My personality is a fighter. I can be stubborn at times which comes from my Irish roots I suppose but I am also a very passionate person who wear their emotions on their sleeves for everyone to see. I would post on my Facebook Page my honest raw emotions and feelings and I would do my very best to encourage, motivate and try and keep positive, those who have been loyal to me over the years.
The biggest thing that got me through the pandemic was the belief I had that everything was eventually going to be okay. I did not know how or when but I held on to hope that I did not start the business only to lose it a few years later. I had clients calling me and texting me to check in on me to see how I was doing and promising me that when travel came back they would be the first to book again, I joined an incredible group of people who formed ACITA (Association of Canadian Independent Travel Agents) and they were instrumental in keeping moral positive as we lobbied the government to not let us fall through the cracks of financial help. Just being able to see those faces on hundreds of zoom calls knowing we were in this together was something I will never forget and appreciate so much. Then in the beginning of 2021 I decided to start posting about travel again and encouraging those people who felt comfortable and hopeful that travel was going to make a come back to start booking. As suppliers came out with very flexible cancelation and change terms and conditions, my clients started listening to me and realizing that some great deals were to be had by booking now for travel down the road. As I shared that others were starting to book, many other people realized that maybe it was a smart idea to get something locked in and the bookings started coming and coming. To the point that in June 2021 I had my biggest month my business has ever seen and on the last day I sold the most trips in one day ever (13). I would never have made it through the pandemic if it was not for all of these things combined.
Can you share a special travel memory and what travel means to you?
I have been so fortunate to be able to see many parts of the world being in the travel industry, however, nothing will ever come close to the feeling of taking my two daughters on their first trip which was also their first time on an airplane. I do have one client travel memory that will stick with me forever which constantly reminds me of how much travel means to me.
One of my most memorable bookings that reminded me of why I love to do what I do started with a phone call in the early evening April 2019. The person on the other end of the line mentioned that they have been following my Facebook business page for awhile now and had seen my posts in a local community group and wanted my help to do something special for her parents. Without hesitation I said I was all ears. She began by telling me that she, along with her siblings wanted to surprise their parents with a trip back home to Germany. She went on to tell me that her mom and dad are the hardest working people she knows and that they have never been back to Germany since leaving over 40 years ago. They never take a day off work and they never travel and it was time they were shown the appreciation they deserve by taking this trip. Not knowing if any family remained back in Germany still did not deter them from making this decision as it had always been a dream for her parents to go back and visit. The plan was to book the flights and present them to her mom and dad on Mother’s Day. After that they would put me in touch directly with them and we would plan the rest of the trip. After hanging up the phone with that first call I couldn’t have been more proud to help play a small role in making this dream come true.
Mother’s Day came and they opened the gift to find documentation of their confirmed flights to Germany that in October. There were lots of tears and hugs all around along with shock and disbelief that this was actually going to happen. The next day I received an email from the very happy parents excited to start planning this amazing dream adventure. Her email subject to me that day was “My first question” and do you know what that question was? “Can you change the return date so we can stay longer?” And that is exactly what we did and the trip turned into a 16 day unforgettable experience for both mom and dad. Throughout the entire planning process they were so appreciative of my efforts and together we planned an incredible itinerary for them making sure they got to visit places from their childhood along with historic venues that are must sees when you travel to Germany. We made sure that the accommodations were first to be secured and then we planned tours and activities around them. Taking many forms of transportation was a must for them as they wanted to see the beautiful scenery their homeland had to offer. They really did planes, trains and automobiles as they made their way around the country. I thoroughly enjoyed and looked forward to every email I received throughout the process of putting this trip together and was so happy that the suggestions and recommendations I made for them were received with excitement and approval.
A few days before the trip I sent my customary “Have a great trip” email and wished them an amazing time and made sure they had my contact information in case anything unexpected were to happen and they were off. I thought of them every day while they were away and wondered how things were going and if they were able to see and do all the things we had planned together. No phone calls or emails came during those 16 days so I felt that was a good sign. I couldn’t wait to hear how the trip went and to send my “Welcome home” email to this amazing couple. A few days passed and I did not hear anything and I began to wonder if things did not go so well but I patiently waited. I received a response letting me know that my email was received and not to worry and that she would tell me all about the trip in a few days once things got back to normal. I was happy to hear that and sure enough a few days later I heard from them. They gave me a review of every hotel they stayed in a long with everything we had put on the itinerary. So detailed and filled with passion.
“It was a fantastic trip. Everything we could have hoped for. I still knew enough German that I managed to get us through meals, subway, trains, etc. It was incredible, the weather was perfect, very warm most days. We did a lot of walking and did Hop on Hop off tours in Berlin, Munich and Salzburg. We rented a car the last full day and drove to southern Germany, near the Zugspitz, to see mountains. They were breathtaking. Thank you for helping me and my kids for this once in a lifetime trip.”
She followed up that email with an amazing review of me and my services on my Facebook business page which I appreciated so much.
“Mike organized an incredible 16 day vacation to Germany for my husband and myself. We stayed in hotels in five cities and used the trains to get to each point. It all went so smooth from our flights there, to the hotels that he booked for us, to the trains, Mike also booked for us, that we travelled on to get from city to city and the flight home again. I can’t say enough about Mike’s knowledge, customer service and efficiency. Please consider using him, we could never have planned this online by ourselves. And I forgot to mention how friendly he is, it was so easy chatting with him as well. Thank you again Mike.”
Since returning home she has been my biggest fan and supporter of my page that has over 2,000 followers. She shares every one of my posts and her son booked a family vacation to Mexico with me last winter. The amount of gratitude and appreciation I have for her can never be put into words and to have been able to play a small role in their journey was something I will never forget.
What trends are you noticing from the bookings you have?
I have certainly noticed that people who were regular travellers before the pandemic are booking the “why not” trips. Longer stays, higher quality room categories, nicer resorts, bucket list destinations where price is not playing as much of a factor than it did before. I am noticing multi-generational families all going away together to create some amazing travel memories or big groups of friends or even neighbourhood families booking together. I think many people do not understand the importance travel plays for many people’s mental health and the impact the pandemic has had on that is something that is very real and needs to never be minimized. People are also realizing that they need to book very early if they want to go away this year or into the early months of 2023 or else there will not be anything left. The biggest trend I would say though is how many people are saying now that they understand the value an experienced travel agent brings to the table and that makes me so happy. We have been undervalued as a sector for so long despite the billions of dollars we help bring into the tourism sector and to continually hear how much we are appreciated and wanted now because of the pandemic is a trend I can get used to.
What’s your biggest piece of advice for travel advisors right now?
My biggest advice for travel advisors right now would be to not forget how important you are to someone’s travel journey’s and to always remember that clients are looking to you for direction, support, and permission to travel again. I would encourage all travel advisors who have made it through this pandemic to not lose hope and to remind themselves why they got into the business when they started. I would also encourage travel advisors to institute a professional booking fee for their services and to realize that what you do for your clients and the business you give suppliers are two different things and you should be compensated for doing both. I introduced a booking fee into my business a year ago. It was not a lot as I wanted my clients to get used to a fee but I also shared with each and every client during the quoting process what they received for that fee. Not one client has ever questioned it and this year I slowly increased that fee and will continue to do so until it is where I want it to be.
What’s still on your travel must do list?
I think that those who are passionate about travel will always have a never ending “must do” list but right now for me the two biggest would be Ireland and Greece. Ireland because of my roots there and Greece because of the pure beauty that the Greek islands posses. And if I had to add a close third it would be South Africa to experience a safari!
Do you have anything to add?
The only thing I think I would like to add is to sincerely recognize all those people who have successfully navigated their way through this pandemic in the travel industry. We were the hardest hit and affected and will also be the last to fully recover. If you had to leave the travel industry due to COVID and are passionate about travel, I would tell you to come back and let your light shine the way it was intended to. There is no shortage of people that want to get away and there is a desire from the public to put their trust in the hands of someone who knows travel and is genuinely wanting to give them an amazing travel experience. Travel is back for good.
|Travel Agents, this May It's all about you!|
|Smaller corporate agencies and independents with corporate clients – listen up!|
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