Sunwing endeavours to make travel ‘browsable’

The travel co's head of retail explains why the brand wants Canadians to shop more like Brits.

The internet has, of course, put the world at our fingertips – especially when it comes to travel. With seemingly endless destination options abounding, Toronto-based vacation provider Sunwing is hoping to disrupt the path to holiday purchase.

“We’re envious about what happens in the U.K.,” says Stuart Morris, general manager of retail at Sunwing Travel Group, which currently generates $2 billion in annual revenue.

“A lot of Brits will go browsing for travel on a Saturday the same way they might go browsing for clothing,” he says. As a specific example, he points to Bluewater Shopping Centre in Kent, which is home to a handful of travel locations.

In Canada, though, the format for travel agencies, particularly those in malls, has been stale. So as its test-and-learn innovation, Sunwing has created a new two-month concept in Toronto’s Yorkdale Shopping Centre. Unlike a traditional travel agency, the store is free from the typical walls of brochures and agents behind desks, Morris says. Instead, Sunwing endeavoured to create an “oasis” to make the travel planning experience more browsable.

“We know that nobody’s going to walk into that mall to book a trip that day,” he says. Among the tools used are interactive travel tables, where shoppers can complete short questionnaires about their vacation priorities (think “beach” and “good for families.”)

“We’re trying to find this middle ground of making it something you can do without any pre-planning,” Morris says. “If we want to make it browsable, we need to make it easier than poring over the internet or ripping through a 300-page brochure.”

Getting to this place wasn’t an easy path, though, according to Morris. Sunwing has had meetings with shopping centres in the past but it’s tough to get properties excited about the prospect of a travel agency (a disappearing breed, particularly in higher end locales).

That said, Yorkdale’s temporary concept space – typically reserved for cutting edge or digital-only brands, for example – proved the right opportunity for the test-and-learn concept before it’s potentially brought elsewhere.

In terms of design, the store has a theme somewhat specific to Jamaica, with Sunwing partnering with the Jamaica Tourist Board. Along with comfy chairs and digital screens mimicking windows to make the whole store feel like the lobby of a resort, the store is also serving up jerk chicken samples and is home to a kite-surfing simulator.

“When you’re selling an intangible like travel,” Morris says, “somehow you have to get people to start to create imagery in their head about it.”