On November 27, Christine James, TL Network’s Vice President-Canada, celebrated 20 years with the organization. Ahead of that milestone, Key Notes on Travel sat down with James to talk about her journey through the travel industry, discussing some of the twists and turns she’s navigated along the way.
THE FIRST TIME I MET Christine James was on board Oasis of the Seas at then Vacation.com’s annual conference. James struck me because she was equally as personable while hosting a small media dinner as she was on stage, speaking to 1,000-plus attendees. But it was during a press conference that she truly impressed. Sitting among the executive team, she was the authoritative voice on all things Canada. She was also the only woman with a seat at the table.
Travel, from the start
At the age of 11, James’ family of 10 immigrated from Guyana to Montreal, squeezing into a three-bedroom apartment with her aunt – and her four-person family. By age 15, James’ family had moved to Toronto where she graduated from high school two years early.
When James took a job in customer service, she discovered how much she enjoyed interacting with the public. Thumbing through a Centennial College magazine one year later, the travel and tourism program caught her eye.
“I’d always wanted to travel and I loved working with people,” she explains, “so it seemed like a perfect fit.
How do you spell bold? J-A-M-E-S
After completing the program, James worked as a travel advisor at Thomas Cook before moving to Eaton’s Travel as a senior advisor. One year later, Eaton’s offered her the inaugural spot in a brand-new management trainee program, and then gave her the choice of managing a retail location in London, Ontario or Regina, Saskatchewan. James chose the latter.
“Why did I choose Regina?” she queries. “Because I decided which suppliers we worked with. It was my voice on the radio ads; I got to give away trips to Hawaii during halftime at the football game. At 24 years old, I basically ran that business.”
Returning to Toronto two years later, James took a role in corporate travel and then accepted an offer from Uniglobe where she wound up managing the new leisure division. A role in industry relations at American Express followed, before she was recruited by Travel Trust International to develop a Canadian network.
James then opened her own consulting business where she represented several international tour operators in Canada. After six-and-a-half years she was recruited to Gem Canada (later acquired by Vacation.com) as a business development manager for eastern Canada. Before taking the role, James made one condition.
“I said I’d only join them as their new BDM, and bring all of my connections and existing relationships, if I’d be promoted to director of sales within two years.”
It was a bold move that paid dividends. Within the organization, James went on to hold roles as senior director of supplier relations and country manager of Canada.
A startling blow doesn't paralyze
2007 dealt a difficult personal blow when James was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer just six weeks after losing her mother.
“I was still grieving my mother and had no idea [my cancer] was so advanced,” she says. “When I was diagnosed, Vacation.com was extremely supportive. I was able to take the days I needed for surgery, chemo and radiation appointments. I preferred that to committing to a set amount of time off. I’d take a week off when I had chemo, work the two weeks in between and then take another week off for chemo. I wasn’t trying to be some kind of Wonder Woman by working through the treatment, but sitting idle when I was used to such an active work life wasn’t going to work for me.”
A preoccupation with work gave that period of her life a sense of normalcy.
James’ treatment consisted of two surgeries – a mastectomy and a second one to remove additional lymph nodes – six rounds of chemotherapy and then radiation was recommended.
“That was a blow,” James confesses, “but adding 25 sessions of radiation would reduce the odds of reoccurrence from 25 per cent to 12.5 per cent. I was ready to take everything they threw at me. I didn’t care how hard it was going to be to recover; I refused to find myself in a ‘what if?’ position down the road."
The entire treatment journey lasted nine months. Once well, James made a request of Vacation.com.
“I went to headquarters and said, ‘Okay, I survived this battle. Now I’m ready to officially run the Canadian operation as vice president.” The company offered her the role and she hasn’t looked back since.
A seat at the table
Shifting the conversation to women in travel, James says, “Overall, women have made significant strides, but to quote a lyric from I Am Woman, we are ‘still an embryo with a long, long way to go until I make my brother understand.’ I think that sums it up perfectly. When Helen Reddy sang those words back in the 70s, I truly believed that we would be further along than we are today. Many women in this industry are the breadwinners in their families, but the wage gap shows they are still making less than our male counterparts, and that’s just wrong.”
In her case, however, James says she’s fortunate to have been so supported by Travel Leaders Network and recognized for her contribution throughout her employment with the organization.
When I ask her for advice for advisors just starting out, James’ enthusiasm for the programming that Travel Leaders Network offers is obvious.
“Globally, travel and tourism is the fastest-growing industry. Every facet is growing. Cruise lines are building bigger and bigger ships, new hotels are being built every single day and river cruise fleets are expanding. There’s just so much product to take advantage of.” In fact, in James’ opinion, there’s never been a better time to be a travel advisor.
“Mass market options are going to continue to move online, which paves the way for advisors to find what really excites them and to specialize in it. The creativity we see in advisors who are running their own businesses, finding their special niches and doing extremely well in them is inspiring.”
And while James draws inspiration from the creative and enterprising advisors in her network, she, in turn, inspires others with the strides she has made, both at TL Network and as a strong female leader in the travel industry. So long as James is the woman at the top of TL Network’s Canadian division, I look forward to following her successes which are so often achieved in a style that is uniquely her own.
In praise of Christine James
“Christine is an extremely devoted and valuable part of the Travel Leaders Network team and we are so proud to have her as part of our work family, spearheading the Canadian market. Congratulations on achieving your 20 year anniversary with us! We know that you’ve worked hard for this accomplishment and we truly appreciate your dedication. Thank-you from the Executive team for all the contributions you have made in making our company successful!"
Roger E. Block, CTC, President of Travel Leaders Network