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  • Writer's pictureToundrigo

2023: The receptive business and tourism in North America analyzed by the co-founders

Jean-Christophe Viard and Charles Frobisher have just completed the year and are now looking ahead to 2024. This year, once again, the 2 friends and co-presidents of ToundriGo sit down for their annual end of season dissection. On the agenda: decoding trends, assessing the season, analyzing the incoming business and sustainable tourism. Let's get started and hear from them both in this 2 person interview, guaranteed to be a no-holds-barred affair!

Toundrigo co founders

North America is as popular as ever, and adventure travel is still going strong!

Hello to both of you, we're delighted to welcome you back for our traditional september chat. First of all, for ToundriGo, this is the second post-Covid season. At this stage, how is the North American trip going?

Charles – Wonderfully well! (he smiles)

In comparison, the 2022 season was carried out in a kind of general panic, with the idea of getting everyone back in the office and ready. Like many receptives, we found ourselves patching things up, having to do our work with a lack of human resources both in-house and with our commercial partners.

Jean-Christophe – After the borders reopened, the industry was talking a lot about the phenomenon of revenge travel, which referred to people wanting to travel after the confinement linked to the sanitary measures taken during Covid. The wave continued this year, as not everyone was able to do so immediately when the borders reopened. I'd say that this year, we've stabilized. The big takeaway from 2023 is that, overall, the industry is back on track with a new generation of employees. All the players in the sector have finally come back (airlines, coach operators, receptives, hotels...), with a great deal of resilience.

Is this revange travel trend still as relevant as ever, and could it end up having harmful effects such as overtourism?

Charles – The volume of travelers, whether here on the continent or elsewhere in Europe, is really high. From what we're seeing and reading in the trade press, I get the impression that this notion of revange travel is going to last for years to come. As far as I'm concerned, it's not really a term that can be used anymore: people are simply hungry for travel

At ToundriGo, because of our positioning in North America, all our brands offer outdoor nature trips, and travelers love them.

Jean-Christophe – There are far fewer overtourism sites here, like Niagara Falls or Percé Rock in the Gaspé, because of the wide-open spaces. What's more, steps have already been taken towards conservation and flow management.

Charles – For example, since this summer, in Banff National Park, it's no longer possible to access Moraine Lake in your own vehicle; you have to take a reserved shuttle to get up there. Typically, travelling in a small group with Windigo allows travellers to avoid this constraint, which I think will become the norm for certain sites in North America.

Jean-Christophe – The industry's challenge is to be able to continue traveling while protecting the planet. Anything that goes in this direction, such as limiting access to certain sites or promoting eco-responsible hotels, seems logical.The industry's challenge is to be able to continue traveling while protecting the planet.

By the start of the 2022 school year, ToundriGo had reached 75% of pre-pandemic sales levels, i.e. the 2019 season. What about this year?

Jean-Christophe – This varies from brand to brand. For Receptour, group travel, and Think Incentive, business travel, we haven't returned to the same figures, while FIT travel, with Toundra, has recovered. In adventure travel, this year's figures even exceeded those for 2019!

Charles – Windigo's figures are indeed good, thanks in particular to the acquisition of new customers and the trend towards nature and outdoor tourism. We had 134 departures in July, for 13 different customer agencies, and over 500 stays in Canada and the USA.

Jean-Christophe – I think the reality is that we need to forget about the 2019 indicators. Since Covid, we're in a new world of tourism. We need to get this comparison with the world before out of our heads, because there's nothing comparable. For ToundriGo, in business terms, 2023 is the reference year for the future.

Inflation redistributes the cards, but the company sets out to conquer new customers

Toundrigo office room named Algonquin

As you said, on the Think Incentive side, ToundriGo's MICE brand, the post-Covid recovery is more nuanced. Is destination competition tougher in the reward travel market, as opposed to FIT?

Jean-Christophe The Incentive business is unique in that it's long-haul, short-haul travel, and it's stagnating somewhat due to air travel. We have a predominantly European clientele, and over the summer, air tickets rose by between 13 and 28% for destinations in North America...

Charles – You have to put yourself in the shoes of a company with a fixed budget, and be told that North America has seen an average of 25 to 30% inflation since the Covid. Unfortunately, this reshuffles the deck. The enthusiasm for the destination is there for sure, but budgets often direct MICE customers elsewhere, such as Mexico or Asia.

What's the strategy for dealing with this?

Jean-Christophe – The future lies in selling North America to North American customers! From the outset, we've been a North American receptive, with a lot of European customers. We want to reach out to American customers, particularly for event travel, but this is also true for the rest of our brands.

There's a big enough market for us to have other commercial outlets on the continent, and the enthusiasm of travelers is real. In the first quarter of 2023, domestic travel in Canada rose by almost 8% compared with the same quarter of 2019. This is encouraging.

A season marked by the return of the teams and the restarting of the entire supply chain

Canadian coastal landscape

At the current level of ToundriGo and its panel of brands and support services, that's around +30% more employees needed this season. Is 2023 above all the year of HR rebalancing?

Jean-Christophe – Absolutely! For ToundriGo, the year 2023 is synonymous with a lot of HR news, with a strong emphasis on this area. We announced 10 major measures at the end of November 2022, to take effect in January 2023 (travel kitty, more annual leave, 5 to 7 monthly...) and the fallout has been really good. We've repositioned ourselves as an employer and as an employee offering. This was essential, and the +30% corresponds to the return of a normal payroll for ToundriGo.

Thanks to this investment in HR, we were able to recruit the staff we needed, and have a great 2023 season thanks to our stable, experienced teams. We put a lot of effort into training, quality and our hotline services, with dedicated pairs on weekends. I'm really delighted with this quality season, we've delivered as they say, and that was the objective after the lean years that 2022 represents... (he smiles)

Charles – The whole supply chain, on the part of our providers, was understaffed last season, and this put a lot of pressure on our mission as a receptive. We're really pleased that everyone in the industry is getting back on track and that quality, in line with ToundriGo standards, is back to 100%.

Is this also true for the guide pool and seasonal recruitment?

Charles – This year, there was much greater interest in returning to the adventure guiding profession, and much less of a challenge in recruiting at Windigo.

Alongside this, our operations teams have had more time to organize and prepare for the effective recruitment of our seasonal guides. Thanks to the marketing and visibility of our job offers on the one hand, and the focus on training on the other, it's been a great season with the necessary resources.

The importance of legitimizing a sustainable and responsible tourism approach

Travelife initiative

In the spring, the company embarked on the process of obtaining Travelife sustainable tourism certification. There are a multitude of green labels available. How do you make the right choice?

Charles – We had considered applying for B Corp, which is a better-known label, to be sure, but also more restrictive and more difficult to access. Obtaining it requires more commitment, both in terms of human resources and financial resources, and the timing wasn't right for 2023. What definitely tipped the balance in favor of Travelife is that B Corp is cross-industry, and not specialized in the travel sector.

Jean-Christophe – Travelife is a certification applied to the incoming business. There's an internal part which concerns the management of the life office, the RSE and RH, and an external part which concerns the job practices. As an incoming operator, ToundriGo plays the role of a travel assembler, and it's one of our missions to raise awareness among our customers and partners (transport, accommodation, guides, etc.) to move towards an increasingly carbon-neutral global offer. We have an important role to play, internally, but also within our network,, to contribute to the tourism of tomorrow.

Charles – In the end, Travelife fits in extremely well with our mission to be more responsible in what we do. So we set up a green committee of a dozen cross-functional staff who work hard and steer the project, with the support of Passion Terre, a consultancy specializing in sustainable tourism.

It's true that since the health crisis, travelers have shown a stronger desire to consume sustainable and responsible tourism. How can ToundriGo help them do just that?

Charles – We haven't waited for this trend to become as responsible as possible. Whether it's in our itineraries, with their emphasis on local cultures, in not trampling the ground and walking just anywhere, in filling our buses as full as possible, or in the adoption of an eco-responsible charter for our guides, we've always strived for good practice.

I don't want to be vulgar, but shit, sometimes, with all the greenbashing out there, it feels like we've just been sitting here, doing nothing, when ToundriGo has had a sustainable and responsible vision of the business for years!

ToundriGo celebrates its 15th anniversary and reaffirms its ironclad corporate culture

Corporate culture at Toundrigo

This year, we're celebrating 25 years of Toundra Voyages, 28 years of Windigo and 15 years of ToundriGo. That's no mean feat! What drives this longevity, professionally and personally?

Charles – As for me, I started out in the industry when I was 6! (laughs)

No, really, it's fun - there are worse jobs than creating beautiful journeys, aren't there?

Jean-Christophe – It's to develop a business in a profession that we love, which is travel. It's as basic as that! (laughs)

Charles – All joking aside, if someone had asked me this question last year, I wouldn't have given the same answer. This season, it's all about healing after the cataclysm. A return to being able to do the job you love again, under the right conditions, with passion. Last season took its toll on many of us...

Jean-Christophe – This year, the good vibe is back at ToundriGo, and that's exactly what keeps things moving. If you put in the HR resources and your team pays you back by coming to work with a high energy level and the desire to move the company forward, you've won everything as an employer. It's the driving force!

If you had to sum up the Toundrigo values and paint a picture of the teams, what would you say?

Jean-Christophe – Cross-functionality! Again and again. This notion of sister brands is important to us. As for the teams, it's a clever combination of old hands who are our experts, and our young talents who bring a lot to the table.

What makes it work is the duration, training, quality and supervision of the young people. We're well aware that people don't make careers in companies, but it's our mission to ensure that know-how and a state of mind are passed on as widely as possible.

Charles – I'd add that it's essential to have a solid corporate culture, an office life, strong points so that people want to come and work here and stay. We're lucky to have Mélissa, our Office Captain, who for almost 1 year has been working hard to provide an extraordinary welcome, brainstorming on how to make office life more pleasant, and thanks to her, we've rebuilt a great working environment for our 80 employees.

It's always difficult to make predictions, but could you share with us your vision for 2024? What are the challenges and goals for ToundriGo ?

Jean-Christophe – There aren't any major innovations, it's above all a continuation of what we've been doing, with a few adjustments, such as the strengthening of the FIT teams with expertise in the USA. The idea for next season is to focus on the United States, because we're still too much perceived as a Canadian and not a North American destination. We want to accentuate our offer.

The strategy is still the same: a multi-brand operation, by travel specialty, with dedicated B2B teams. We were talking about longevity earlier, and if ToundriGo has longevity, it's because our strategy is the right one, and we need to keep it that way.

If I had to pick out the major challenges for 2024, I'd say: systems connectivity, since what characterizes us is the technology/service duo; sustainability, with the pursuit of our Travelife certification and carbon-neutral travel; and lastly, consistency in HR.

Charles – It's the same base, but it's no longer the same reality. Our aim is to deliver top-quality trips, and to always be ready to adapt to the new reality of our business.

Gentlemen, it's time to conclude this interview. I'll leave you with the last word...

Charles – I'd like to end with a big THANK YOU. The recovery was complex, but the teams were able to understand it, to know that it wasn't just our fault. To those who stayed, to those who felt like coming back, to those who swelled the ranks, thank you for that. ToundriGo's strength, what makes us different, is our team spirit and our corporate life. We wanted to return to that this year, after a period Covid proving. It's done, and it's a source of great pride and satisfaction.

Jean-Christophe – I'll round it off by saying something very cliché, but sincere: put your trust in an agency that listens to you. Whether it's our customers, our partners or our staff, it's as simple as that! (he smiles).

Thank you both for this discussion on the subject of travel. See you in September 2024!

In the meantime, don't hesitate to follow the group's news on LinkedIn

US western natural landscape

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