You can say this about Top of the World Travel: It is aptly named. Ensemble Travel Group’s northernmost member agency is headquartered in Yellowknife. That’s in Canada’s Northwest Territories, about 300 miles south of the Arctic Circle.
“We are in Canada’s north, which is fairly remote,” president and managing partner Susan Mercredi, CTC, told Travel Market Report.
Remoter still is the agency’s branch office in Iqaluit, located 1,400 miles to the east in the Territory of Nunavut. There are no roads, ferries or rail service into Iqaluit, whose Arctic location (latitude: 63° 44' 0" N) endows it with more than 20 hours of daylight in summer and wicked cold temperatures for a good half of the year.
None of which leads one to expect a travel agency in those two communities to be grossing a cool $32 million in yearly sales. But that’s how the numbers are adding up this year at Top of the World Travel - and that’s down from pre-recession levels of $38 million to $40 million, according to Mercredi. Eighty percent of the agency’s volume is business travel.
What drives all that volume? Diamonds - gem-quality diamonds in the rough. Two other key factors: government travel and location.
Diamonds. Diamonds were discovered in the Yellowknife region in 1991. Since then, international firms have developed four large diamond mines, and diamond-related activity now accounts for 25% of the province’s GDP, according to the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment.
As a result, business travel is strong both into and out of Yellowknife, the self-proclaimed Diamond Capital of North America. Exploration and development of the region’s minerals, natural gas and oil reserves also fuel business travel, Mercredi said.
Government. Because Yellowknife and Iqaluit (roughly pronounced ee-CAH-loo-eet) are each the capital of their respective territories, there’s a lot of travel back and forth to Ottawa, Mercredi noted. (Mercredi, a Toronto native, first traveled to Yellowknife in 1980, in search of post-college adventure, and promptly met and fell in love with the local man who is now her husband.)
Location. Edmonton, Alberta, the air transportation hub for Yellowknife, is an hour and a half flight to the south. And Iqaluit, which serves as the hub of Nunavut, is accessible by air only. The same is true of nearly every other of Nunavut’s far-flung communities. “The uniqueness of our travel up here is that to go anywhere further south than Edmonton, which is our main hub, requires a minimum of two flights. It’s not a lot of A to B, it’s A to B to C,” Mercredi said.
Other Favorable Factors
Ownership Structure. In 1991 when Mercredi and two other travel veterans co-founded Top of the World Travel, they partnered with an aboriginal corporation. Today, 70% of the agency’s ownership is in the hands of two Inuit-owned corporations. Under terms of the aboriginal land claim settlement that led to the creation of Nunavut Territory in 1999, those corporations apportion their share of the agency’s profits to every individual Inuit person in Nunavut.
Mercredi said this is a selling point for the agency, which is a prominent supporter of youth programs in Yellowknife. “We encourage other Inuit organizations to book with us because of our ownership. We get a lot of support from the communities. The ownership structure helps us in a positive way.”
Buy Local. When pitching firms located outside of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, the agency emphasizes its northern roots; this too is a plus, she said. “They’re doing business in the north, and we really encourage them to spend their dollars in the north, rather than taking them out to the south. We’re a 100% northern company.”
One of Top of the World Travel’s biggest challenge is staffing the 20-person agency, Mercredi said. “When someone retires or moves on, there aren’t a lot of certified travel consultants walking around in our population of 19,000.”
The agency also must go up against the mining and government sectors, where pay is high. “At the end of the day, we’re still a small business. Sometimes it is hard to compete when we’re trying to bring in younger, newer staff.”
Staffing is even more of a challenge in Iqaluit, so the firm has implemented a training program there and is currently training a young Inuit woman with no prior experience. “She’s doing a fantastic job,” said Mercredi. She added that it’s important to have native-speaking staff in Iqaluit, where the agency has begun printing its materials in both English and the Inuktitut syllabary.
Despite its remoteness, Top of the World Travel is not without competition. In addition to the airlines, which encourage customers to book direct, there are two other agencies in Yellowknife. Although Top of the World is the largest of the three, Mercredi termed the competition “healthy.” (In Iqaluit, Top of the World is the only game in town.)
Mercredi said she sees a positive future for Top of the World Travel. She noted the agency’s experienced long-term staff, and she anticipated adding home-based agents in the north as the region develops.
“We certainly went through what everybody else went through at the end of 2008 and in 2009, but I would say definitely our economy is in a comfortable area,” she told Travel Market Report. “In Nunavut, they’ve got lots happening as far as exploration. I think in the years to come that economy will be a boomer.”