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MORE THAN A FAM: A new face for the Air Canada Race

When is a FAM more than a FAM? When it’s the first one in a year and a half and a chance to travel again and experience a normal that is both new and nothing like we’ve seen before.

Indeed, the enthusiasm from hosts Air Canada and Switzerland Tourism – and more than three dozen Canadian travel agents (and two Americans) – for last week’s Air Canada Race 2021 last week was palpable.

The event, said Air Canada VP of Canada and USA Sales Lisa Pierce, expressed “courage, optimism for the future, and the opportunity to start a new path.”

Participants clearly agreed, giving Pierce’s colleague, key race organizer Edna Ray, a standing ovation by agents on the trip’s final night in Engelberg. Similarly, Switzerland Tourism’s Ursula Beamish-Mader.

Initiated in 2006, the Race has grown from a domestic event to an extravaganza that has featured several US cities, and more recently, international venues such as London, Edinburgh and France. The most recent edition took place in Kissimmee, Fla., in 2018, after which plans for Switzerland began.

“We’ve come a long way, baby (from the first Richmond-Whistler, BC, race),” Ray laughed.

But after Kissimmee, a little thing called the pandemic intervened and, ultimately, the Race flags finally dropped in Basel, Switzerland on Aug. 27 after the group convened in Toronto to fly together to Zurich, courtesy of Air Canada, carrying on to the host city by train.

Participants assembled the following morning, split into groups, and were sent off to discover the host city through a series of interactive tasks patterned after The Amazing Race TV show. Agents wrapped cookies, played Pictionary, dressed mannequins, and scurried through a museum to find quiz answers, amongst other activities, which included travelling by foot, tram, and water taxi along the way in pretty Basel, Switzerland’s third largest city.

A workshop with dozens of eager Swiss suppliers followed on Monday and the formal portion of the Race ended in a good old-fashioned travel industry gala at the posh Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois. Such was the import of the evening that it was attended by Canadian ambassador to Switzerland Susan Bincoletto.

Another indication of the significance of the first international trade delegation to visit Switzerland since the pandemic: Basel’s brand new Movenpick hotel opened ahead of schedule to house Race participants, who were the only guests.

“Basel bent over backwards to welcome us,” Rays enthused, adding the purpose of the Air Canada FAM is to help agents make business connections for the future, but also to give them “a little sample that inspires you to come back and send clients – that’s the idea!”

For Switzerland Tourism’s Canadian director Pascal Prinz, the Race was an opportunity for the country “to show that if you are smart and use science, you can travel again,” adding, “We can only do so many seminars. At some point you need to be on a plane again, you need to be on a train again. We can tell you many things, but you need to see it yourselves: you are the ones people call.”

Edmonton travel agent Tara Sparshu said she’s eager to share her insights from the trip. “I told clients I’m going to do it (first-hand). I’m going to do the COVID test!”

She added that the Race was also something to look forward to during challenging times, which is a sentiment shared by Ray, who noted that the Race’s raison d’être – keeping agents engaged and motivated – is even more important during a pandemic.

Travel agents at the top of Titlis Mountain, near Engelberg, Switzerland

Switzerland Tourism CEO Martin Nydegger said that hosting the race – and post-trip excursions for participants to Gstaad or Lucerne-Engelberg – was a way to show that “the trade is incredibly important to us,” especially at a time when consumers need “expertise and guidance” from travel counsellors.

Moreover, carrying through with the Race was another way for Switzerland to demonstrate its commitment to the “really important” Canadian market, where its office has remained open and active throughout the pandemic with the goal of ensuring the country remained top of mind when travel was able to resume.

Canadians and Swiss are culturally very similar and, better still, friends, Nydegger observed, adding, “We made a point to never disappear (during the pandemic).

“Friends don’t disappear!”

First published at Travel Industry Today

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