Collette set to launch travel agent certification platform

For the first time in Collette’s 106-year history, the guided tour operator has a female CEO.

Jaclyn Leibl-Cote, who is only the fourth CEO in the company’s 106-year history, was in Toronto yesterday to meet with travel advisors and trade partners at Hotel X Toronto over a cocktail reception, Q&A panel discussion and lunch event.

“It feels exciting, it feels wonderful that my dad trusted in me to be able to take the next step. He was CEO for 33 years and he grew the business tremendously. I think the goal is to continue to evolve and change. There’s so much happening with technology, with AI,” Leibl-Cote, who has been with the family business since 2005, told PressToday. “I’m really focussed on what does that mean for our business? My vision isn’t really to come in and make massive disruptive change. I come from a lot of data — definitely a data driven approach and I focus on the customer experience. That’s something I truly think makes you relevant or irrelevant — how much you’re focussed on the traveller experience and the advisor experience.”

The evolution of Collette

With humble beginnings in 1918 with a Florida-bound bus jitney that cost $68.50, over the last century Collette has evolved to 148 different itineraries around the world today.

Notably, Canada was the site of its first international office, in 1989, and Collette’s sales strategy is advisor focussed.

“Agents are an extension of the Collette family. They are amazing in how they service their travellers. There was so much fear at one point that agents were going to go extinct, that they’re not going to be relevant but I think it’s the complete opposite,” she said. “I think we’re seeing more people wanting to have that trust and guidance from the advisor community. If advisors aren’t thinking about Collette I hope that they learn about Collette because we really have a great product that is different in the market and adds a lot of value.”

Collette University: coming soon

Although a launch date has yet to be announced, Julie Kelly, sr. director of global B2B strategy and development, told PressToday that the company is in the process of designing Collette University — a new travel advisor certification program.

“We have a lot of initiatives launching this year — Collette University being one of them. It’s an e-learning program where they become a Collette specialist. It’s been a long time coming. We’ve been asked many times for online e-learning for advisors. I’ve been advocating that we need something really cool, fun, educational and informative but engaging. We don’t want it to be that stagnant learning,” she said. “We’re also working on having an advisor-only landing page, with additional resources resources, self-service options, all of that is coming this year.”

Kelly said the average commission agents can earn on a Collette booking is $1,500 and one of Collette’s unique selling features is the private chauffeur service it provides to and from the airport for customers who book air-inclusive packages. 

Meanwhile Diana Ditto, Collette’s director of product design, added that another key differentiator is that the company develops tours in-house and doesn’t rely on local DMCs. Notably, she said the Canadian market represents roughly 25 per cent of Collette’s total sales.

“I am continually impressed year-over-year with the Canadian numbers supporting our small group travel and I think that really speaks to the prowess of the Canadian market, of the Canadian advisors,” she said, adding that 40 per cent of Canadian sales are its small group Explorations product.

While Explorations only represents 47 out of 148 Collette itineraries, she expects it to represent 60 per cent of all sales by 2025.

“Our average age is 66 this year and we’re fine with that because our travellers have the time but most importantly the money to take these tours,” Ditto added. “Particularly in the Canadian market we see extremely popular destinations being our safari product, Southeast Asia and these are longer itineraries. I don’t know many people who are 40-years-old who can take 16 days off of work.”

The event held in partnership with Tourism Ireland, a destination which is home to Collette’s top-selling tour.

Making a comeback

Like most businesses in travel, the company took a hit during the pandemic going from 700 plus people down to a team of 64. However, over the past two years alone, the growth has been so strong that they’ve hired over 200 people both years and 2023 was the best year in the company’s history. 

Even during that challenging time, Kelly said the company refunded all the customers who were set to travel with Collette, which could be seen as a selling point for travel advisors in the event of another unpredictable event.

“Our policy on refunds, that’s something no one can hang their hat on that they gave US$200 million back during the pandemic,” Leibl-Cote added. “Even in 9/11 we gave US$30 million back. “When Gaze and Israel just happened we gave US$25 million back and refunded those people. So that wasn’t a pandemic story, that’s what you get when you work with Collette. That is to me, where we sit in a premium space that no one else does.”