By Joe Baker, Tourism HR Canada Board Member
As spring turns to summer and autumn looms on the horizon, many Canadians are looking for a roadmap to reopening. None more so than those who work in the tourism sector. Destination Canada’s recent “Revisiting Tourism” report made three key findings worth highlighting as we edge closer to reopening Canada’s tourism industry:
- Canadians want to travel: while safety is a key consideration in planning travel, data shows high interest in future international travel.
- If Canadians shift two-thirds of their planned spend on international leisure travel towards domestic tourism, it will make up for the estimated $19 billion shortfall currently facing our visitor economy—and help sustain 150,000 jobs.
- Recovery is forecasted to take years, but a significant increase in domestic travel can accelerate recovery by one year.
Part of the recovery of the tourism industry requires reinvention to capitalize on an increased focus on Canadians exploring their own country before travelling abroad. One of the key opportunities presented to Canada’s tourism industry as part of this reemphasis on all things local is to revisit the concept of sustainable Canadian tourism. How can this be realized? By creating a tourism business model that helps other stakeholders within the industry to thrive while leveraging our collective strengths. While much of the dialogue around sustainable tourism may seem environmental, there are also social values and economic impact to consider. So how do you create a business model that benefits others? There is an emerging “new world” of entrepreneurs, reminiscent of “old world” entrepreneurs, who bring a new consciousness to help communities and economies build and grow together through tourism. I was fortunate to recently encounter a tourism reinventionist and am excited to share the story of Landsby with you—a story that embodies this sentiment. A story of transformation; the result of reinvention through revisitation. A story of common tourism goals, driven by passion for the industry, centred around communities working towards shared success.
Landsby is a new Canadian tourism company founded by Jason Sarracini. It centres around providing unique tourism experiences within Canada. Landsby offers custom packages and itineraries based on the interests of the consumer combined with the local business and surrounding environment. The driving concept? To make Canada the destination. There are so many places to discover and experience in Canada, and Landsby strives to uncover that. The word “Landsby” is Nordic for the word village, and the concept of Landsby is rooted in the phrase “it takes a village” —supporting each other to grow and thrive and telling our stories in the hope of inspiring others. And as Sarracini reminded me, the origin of the word “Canada” is in fact derived from the Huron-Iroquois word “kanata” which means village or settlement. For Sarracini, the synchronicity is not only obvious, but also pivotal. He says humbly, “I wanted to create something centred on connection, and village, and stories, and opportunities.” And even though “Lands By” is not the formal pronunciation of the name, there is an intention behind the play on words; it packages tourism experiences “by” the locals.
So how did Sarracini arrive here? Let’s start at the beginning. For many of us, including myself, our grandparents offer our first introduction to the hospitality and tourism industry. They epitomized tourism—coming to Canada, travelling throughout the country, finding a place within Canada to call their home. Sarracini’s grandfather immigrated from Italy in the 1940s, after the Second World War, and arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He became a leading figure in the Italian community, including getting into media and co-founding CHIN radio. His grandfather observed that as people immigrated to Canada and got settled, they were also longing to go back to their home country, which gave him an idea—he decided to start a travel agency, Ontario Sarracini Travel. Sarracini’s father and aunt shared in this passion and so got involved in the business, a business they continue to run today, with that same underlying and unwavering passion.
Sarracini had been travelling from a very young age, and the experiences he had helped him realize his passion for travel. Unsure of what he wanted to choose as a career, he leaned into that passion—and went to Florence, Italy, to attend a language school. Sarracini notes it was the most transformative experience of his life. He met so many different people, including his wife, and after nine months there, he returned home. But on his return, he brought something back with him—his uncertainty about what he wanted to choose as a career. He joined his father in their family travel agency and started in accounting in the back office. It wasn’t strategic, but in retrospect he says this was the best move he could have made because from the back office he could see how the whole operations of the company worked. They were coming into the year 2000 during his tenure and something else was simultaneously happening in the world: technology and communication was undergoing a revolutionary disruption. Travel and tourism companies started launching websites and offering online packages, ultimately giving consumers a whole new experience that required existing companies to quickly climb on board and adapt to be considered in a competitive market.
In 2004, Sarracini got a group together and cofounded an online travel agency called Target Vacations. He was aware of his big player competitors—itravel2000, Expedia, and Travelocity, to name a few—but he also thought he could do it a little differently and conceived their tagline “we take vacations personally”. While having an understanding of known competitors and offering unique marketing, what he had not foreseen were the unknown competitors. Redtag.ca launched a month before them, and while Sarracini carried on with his company for nearly a decade, he decided he needed to reinvent. Driven by his passion, equipped with vulnerability, and embracing reinvention as a mantra for success, Sarracini epitomized resilience. He used the expertise of his company and explored various partnerships, and when those ran their course and his partners underwent their own transformations, he even explored media. But there was a constant reminder always tugging at his heart—his passion for travel. He wasn’t ready to forsake his destination, he just needed to reroute to get there. He went back to the vast network he met along the way. He understood he was in an industry centered around people, but also one that relied on and encouraged people to support each other. He engaged his networks and was offered opportunities that blended all of his experience and expertise, opportunities that ranged from media and commerce to luxury cruise lines and luxury villas.
Sarracini then decided to do something courageous. He confronted his experiences, his passions, and his beginnings. And he decided to think again. Sarracini states, “I decided I had been disappointed by too many people and I should just be doing this on my own, for myself, how I want to do it. And if I fail, I fail myself.” In January of 2020 he went back to the family business and found a business plan from 2017 with an element of the business on Canada, and had a thought: “We need to do Canada better.” As Sarracini assembled his thoughts and ideas, he was once again facing a revolutionary disruption—COVID-19 had been declared a pandemic. Sarracini notes, “Our family business that had been operating for over 50 years was now not bringing in anything. Like many businesses, you summon every aspect of business you’ve gone through. You read, you try to be open, and you act. The act was I couldn’t control the revenue side, but I could control the expense side. The government had been very supportive with the subsidies and we used that, pushing through with the spirit of this will all come back at some stage, even if not right away.” Sarracini started thinking about what he could do. He had always been interested in the tech side and acted as product manager but never really had the fundamentals, so he decided to go back to school, taking a product management course. He recognized that on the other side of learning is transformation.
For many business leaders, this has been a time of learning a new skill or learning the new norms of operating a business. We are fortunate to have an organization such as Tourism HR Canada actively creating learning tools for our industry—especially those of us who are navigating the path of entrepreneurship during this era of disruption. In fact, just this spring, Tourism HR Canada launched the Business Builders eLearning course. Business Builders is a powerful “how-to” resource to help you start, grow, and manage a tourism enterprise in Canada. The course contains practical tools and guidance on business fundamentals.
Now in build mode, working with his family company, Sarracini decided to go backwards. He revisited a meeting he had with members of Destination Canada in a previous role and recalled being introduced to their Canadian Signature Experiences Program. He states, “I’d always thought it was an interesting angle in Canada, but it needs to be brought to life. I printed off the list of 200 designated partners, went through the list, pulled their contacts, and reached out to every single one of them. I told them this is what we do, I want to create a business that is anchored in this program and I needed to make it really easy for them.” They secured 50 partners and while it did not drive a lot of revenue, it kept them relevant. Sarracini continued to push his idea, next coming to the Canadian Travel Show, understanding the importance of community engagement. He began travelling within Ontario, staying in different parts. While staying at one of the cabins, Sarracini had a revelation: “If this exists here, an hour and a half out of Toronto, this exists everywhere. I’ve travelled so much, but I really don’t know what’s around here.” And it was in this moment that Landsby was born.
So what is it that makes this a unique travel company and how do we motivate people to take advantage of this when so often we think travel and tourism means leaving our country? Landsby is determined to expose the wonderful experiences in our own country, the obvious and not so obvious ones, and making it unique to us, while boasting access to many authentic visitor experiences. Sarracini’s driving thoughts were: “How are we going to get people to stay here? In their minds, they are waiting to go somewhere else. We have to convert those people to spending their money here and convince them to stay here. Even though we can’t tell people to move around, we have to be telling that story now. If you’re going to stay in a cottage, how much are you actually contributing to the hospitality sector? How do we tell the story that we want to spend time in the different layers of the hospitality sector and support multiple people and businesses?” Part of the challenge of the business model is how is Landsby going convey an experience that is not just reselling what’s already being done. And Landsby’s response to this is through immersive experiences and packaging, built around the guiding principle that it’s not just going away to sleep somewhere else, but experiencing the region through the lens of local tourism communities. Sarracini states, “These are distinct from exotic destinations, not meant to be compared. There are amazing experiences that can be wrapped together and presented to Canadians, but that are incredibly difficult to find right now. I think there’s an opportunity to resurface these experiences that people are really looking for that have always relied on international travellers, but that our local travellers could really help and experience and benefit from.”
If we follow Destination Canada’s recommendation to boost Canadian tourism by promoting Canadians travelling in Canada, then we will need all of our tourism businesses focusing on attracting Canadians to Canada. Landsby is contributing to exactly that, being both intentional and thoughtful. Sarracini states “In Canada, I have been disappointed with travel advisors and their lack of ability to turn and look inward. Canadian travel agents should focus their attention on Canada and they’re not. Agents have power. It’s hard to convince someone to stay here, especially when it gets colder. Travel advisors here have not been focused on learning about Canada; they haven’t focused their energy on trying to learn the province they are an agent of. Instead, ask how can I provide value to my customers by showing them what can you do here which is two hours away, a short flight away, a ferry ride away, and make them feel good about contributing to their own. We’re not saying don’t go on your cruise.” It’s hard to argue against this point. There is an apparent undertraining as it relates to the travel industry and advisors, not necessarily related to the technical skills, but rather a deficit in training ‘pride of place’ and training the skill of passion and persuasion. The vision of Landsby and Sarracini’s own desire to give back and contribute is inspiring and something we as Canadians can all learn from and strive for as a community motivated to lift each other through our collective response to adversity.
It’s becoming harder to find these stories of the multigenerational families of Canadian tourism—people who started in the industry, worked their way up, stuck with it because they believed in it, and trained the next generation. We have become a transient business. When we lose our workforce to other industries, we run the risk of losing our collective wisdom, experience, and—mostly—passion. There is no one better to sell a Canadian tourism experience to a fellow traveller than someone who has, themselves, travelled this vast country. Someone who has had the opportunity to absorb and reflect on their experience. One of the core competencies of selling anything is storytelling—a natural skill developed when sharing experiences between generations.
As we work towards recovery, we mustn’t forget to take care of the workforce. If we take care of the workforce, the workforce takes care of our business. The people of tourism are a big part of the circular, sustainable business model—as they grow, we grow. They can exemplify passion and persuasion. If people in the industry are focused on international destinations, then the people in Canada are focused on getting people to have experiences outside of Canada. It requires a concentrated effort to bring the focus to sell experiences within Canada.
The pandemic has led many of us to individually look deep inside ourselves. Remembering who we are, why we do what we do, what we love about what we do, and how we can do it differently and, ultimately, better. Resilience measures our ability to respond to adversity and we develop resilience by facing adversity and learning from it. Not everybody tries to transform or is in a position to pivot, yet there is a richness in the reflective process. The pandemic has certainly allowed for us to explore our immediate surroundings. One thing that resonates about Sarracini’s story was he said, “My grandfather was an incredible people person and a terrible businessperson. He always did what was best for the people but not for the business.” This is relatable personally and across the industry—not only is this is a people-focused industry, but people really are at the core of our businesses. We need to blend business growth with human capital development. Next time you find yourself on a personal or professional road map that says “you are here”, stop and explore where here is. Canada can be the starting point but it can also be the destination. We can go back to the start and discover, and rediscover, where we are. And while we know it takes a village, let’s remember to stop and tour that village along the way. They need our support too.
 Revisiting Tourism: Canada’s Visitor Economy One Year into the Global Pandemic, March 2021
Joe Baker is President and CEO of Joe Baker & Co., a human capital consultancy focused on strengthening organizations and people at the core of a future-forward hospitality and tourism industry. Joe is a board member of Tourism HR Canada. You can find Joe everywhere @thejoebaker.