GIRL POWER

“Who We Were 20 Years Ago Isn’t Who We Are Today,” Collette CEO, Jaclyn Leibl-Cote

L to R: Jaclyn Leibl-Cote, President & CEO, Collette; Alison Metcalfe, Executive Vice President USA and Canada, Tourism Ireland; Diana Ditto, Senior Director of Product Marketing, Collette; and Julie Kelly, Senior Director of Global B2B Strategy and Development, Collette.

Jaclyn Leibl-Cote worked as a Collette tour guide in her university days, helping her family’s company by leading motorcoach tours through New England, Pennsylvania and Quebec.

But, as Collette required, she spent three years working for another company after graduating from university so she could learn how other businesses operate. It was an electronics company that made battery backups, surge protectors and similar devices.

“I learned a lot,” Leibl-Cote said. “And I couldn’t wait to get out. I was like, ‘I think product design travel sounds better than battery backup and data centres.’”

When you grow up in a family business that sells trips to exotic destinations around the world it has a way of getting into your blood, and Leibl-Cote couldn’t resist the pull.

Ron Lonsdale, Vice President, Collette Canada

Collette was founded in 1918 by Jack Collette. He sold the business to Dan Sullivan Sr. in 1962, who later turned the business over to Dan Sullivan Jr., Leibl-Cote’s father. He left his CEO position last year, and Leibl-Cote moved into the corner office.

She’s only the fourth CEO in the company’s 106-year history, which is remarkable, and is the first woman to hold the title.

It’s a company the Rhode Island native knows well. As a young girl she would go into the office on Saturdays with her dad, playing with the photocopier and dropping coins into the company gumball machine. She also served as a tour guide and client car agent, was head of marketing, and later president and chief customer experience officer.

Leibl-Cote told Open Jaw that Collette is probably a medium-sized player in Canada, but they put on a major show on 15MAY, staging a morning reception, panel discussion and then putting on a terrific lunch for advisors under a glittering glass dome at Hotel X on the Toronto waterfront.

“We have the largest sales force and BDM’s in the industry; throughout Canada, the U.S., as well as in Australia. The agents have support through the BDM’s, and the relationship there. I think we’re very strong at being able to service. I know there are a lot of advisors that do group travel, and we’re very strong in groups from our past.” Diana Ditto, Senior Director of Product Marketing for Collette, told advisors to look into the company’s booming explorations product portfolio.

Una O'Leary, Virtuoso (L) and Sonia Mckeon, Uniglobe Travel

As a bonus, the exploration tours are at a higher price point than other tours, so advisors make more commission.

“You can call us book a great trip in 20 minutes and make a $1,500 commission,” said Julie Kelly, Senior Director of Global B2B Strategy and Development. “We try to make it as easy as possible.”

Kelly said Collette “has really honed in” on the travel agent experience, and that new initiatives are on the way, including a Collette University.

“We hold advisory meetings with our partners,” Leibl-Cote said in a one-on-one chat with Open Jaw. “We just had one with Virtuoso. We listen to the feedback and we drive the change from what they’re telling us we need to do better.

L to R: Penny Martin, The Travel Agent Next Door, Meredith Burbidge, Direct Travel and Christine Ufniak, The Travel Agent Next Door.

“We don’t want to be cookie cutter, which is what you get when you’re being serviced through a ground operator and they get kickbacks right, on how much volume they bring to their partners.”

Leibl-Cote said another thing that stands out about Collette is their policy on refunds.

“We gave back $200 million during the pandemic and $30 million after 9-11. We’ve given back $25 million” during the current Middle East crisis.

Kelly said she was in the office with then CEO Dan Sullivan Jr. during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that calls were pouring in.

L to R: Sandra Wesson, Transat; Ian Elliott, Ensemble and Shannon Smith, Travel Only.

“Dan said ‘If they haven’t experienced our product, we’re not keeping their money. Refund everyone.’”

Leibl-Cote said there are operators out there that have had more traction, or more visibility, than Collette.

“Like any company, who we were 20 years isn’t who we are today. Strategies evolve, companies evolve. I think there are companies out there that compete with us that try to pretend that we are who we were 20 years ago, and try to create this idea of threat, that we’re going to take things direct. And that’s not the case at all. We work very closely with agents.”

Leibl-Cote said preferred partners include not only Virtuoso but also Ensemble and the Canadian Automobile Association.

Europe is a huge market for Collette, she said, and Japan is big right now.

“For those who are more savvy travellers, we’re seeing them embrace the Thailand trips we’ve launched, the Patagonia’s we’ve rolled out. We’ve been in Africa for decades, which some advisors don’t know. It’s some of the highest scoring excellence we have in the portfolio from travellers. The person who designs those products is from South Africa, so he knows it well.”

Ireland is Collette’s biggest seller in Canada, officials said.

Alison Metcalfe, Executive Vice President USA and Canada for Tourism Ireland, said she encourages people to explore lesser-known areas of the country outside of Dublin, Galway and Belfast.

In addition to standing out as a family-run company, Collette is different because it only handles guided trips.

“One hundred per cent of our investment, our research, our focus, is on improving guided travel,” Leibl-Cote said. “I don’t have cruise ships. I don’ t have hotels. I don’ t have those things to worry about. I think that’s a huge differentiator.”

Small group explorations are selling well all around the world, with business quadrupling since the pandemic, said Leibl-Cote. Canada is a particularly strong market for those types of trips, which make up 40% of Canadian sales now and could soon reach 60%.

“We’re super focused on customer experience, listening to travellers,” she said “It could be destinations they want to go to, or it could what they see on tour. We’ve heard for years that people don’t want to be on a motorcoach doing a city tour. So, we now have more curated tours. It could be a a food tour or a walking tour or a tour within a certain part of a city. But, in most cases, you’re not sitting on a coach, jumping off to take a picture, and getting back on.

“If you want food you can do that. If you want museums you can do that.”

“We’ve always designed our own tours,” Leibl-Cote continued. “We don’t outsource it to a third party. We have people who live all over the globe who are doing the research, searching for those truly unique experiences.

Leibl-Cote’s personal favourite places include a safari trip she took to Kenya and a visit to Peru.

“Peru was really special. I went in with low expectations and it blew me away. The food there is amazing. That’s where I think I started eating ceviche, and it changed my world. I also love the south Island of New Zealand and Queenstown.”

Canada also has a special place in her heart. Her husband, Christian Leibl-Cote, EVP of Global Sales at Collette, was born in Quebec City and raised in Montreal. They have a family property in Magog, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, and often come for ski trips or summer holidays.

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