Early lessons in business and travel have helped Peter Van Der Heyden thrive and keep the iconic Goliger’s name alive in Ontario.
NAME: Peter Van Der Heyden, president/owner
AGENCY: Goliger’s TravelPlus
LOCATIONS: Waterloo, Ont. and 11 other Ontario locations
AFFILIATION: Transat Distribution Canada. (TDC)

Great service, specialization and a steadfast refusal to discount are the principles that have always guided Peter Van Der Heyden. The accomplished franchise owner – he has 12 locations, mostly in southern Ontario, but also on Toronto’s border (Mississauga) and as far afield as Ottawa and Owen Sound, and 200 staff – opened his first store in 1986 with a friend, and today continues to fly the flag of an iconic brand in Canadian travel – Goliger’s. (Only two other Goliger’s franchises remain in operation – in Windsor and Brockville, Ont.)
Born and raised in Galt, Ont. (now Cambridge), the 54-year-old presides over the empire from his first agency location in nearby Waterloo, an office decorated with a variety of accolades as a top seller for Transat, Scenic, Sandals, Rocky Mountaineer, and an award of which he is “super proud,” the Air Canada Circle of Excellence.
Still clearly enthused about his vocation, Van Der Heyden is also a strong advocate for the travel industry and eager to share best practices. “I really enjoy this kind of thing,” he says of his long, broad-based conversation with CT. “I don’t want to score the goals anymore, I just want to pass the puck. And if somebody can learn – if we can learn from each other – it’s a very bright future for us all…”


I bought a Goliger’s travel franchise… ‘Serving travellers since 1955’ was their slogan; the company was founded by Max Goliger, I believe in Montreal, and then fast forward to the early ‘80s and his son Dan and him got together and decided to start franchising to grow this network. We peaked in the mid to late ‘80s with (about) 130 stores across Canada and then the franchisor was sold not once, not twice, but three times in my tenure, and the current owner is Transat Distribution Canada (TDC). Along the way, we went from Goliger’s to Goliger’s TravelPlus and the only thing that has changed has been the colours in the logo. When I bought (my) latest agency in London, I took down the name and put up Goliger’s, because Goliger’s was in that town for 25 years. The name still resonates; people remember that. We hear that from older customers: ‘Oh, you guys are back.’


In the TDC network, you’ve got Marlin and TravelPlus, and in Quebec, it’s ClubVoyage and the common thread is the blue star in the logo… And for anybody – a plug for TDC! – anybody looking for a real costeffective alternative to become part of the bigger buying concern, TDC is an awesome value proposition.


I learned early on from people like [former Goliger’s colleagues] the Barry and Jane Culverts of the world what service really means. And to be an ethical travel business. They never believed in discounting; they just followed a very, very basic business model and it’s still that model that we use today. Sure, we have lots of technology to make things faster and more accessible. Yeah, the client is more knowledgeable than they ever were. But aligning an agent with a customer and forming that bond and relationship, that will never change [and that’s the root of our business]. What customer doesn’t appreciate great service? What human being doesn’t want to be treated amazingly when they’re buying something? As long as I’m in the seat I’m in, that will always be our basic focus.


No discounting. Ever! Ever! I won’t do it. Our margins are so thin to begin with, why compete on price? If we’re competing on price in the travel industry, to me that’s a great weakness. Surely there’s got to be a more creative strategy than leading with price. ‘Come buy here because I’m the cheapest’ – we’ll never do that.



Every travel professional wants to be the best travel professional they can be. I would like to think that most travel agents do not want to be order-takers. If somebody is surfing the web all night long and the agent says, ‘Hey, that sounds great. Let me get your credit card number’ – that’s not being a travel agent in my opinion. The true travel pro will try to turn that around and say, ‘Thanks for calling. Sure, Cuba for $999
sounds amazing, but what if you upped the budget by $300 per person? What kind of vacation would that look like?’ That to me is a true travel pro. You know, that person came in here wanting to spend a $1,000 but
left spending $1,400 and they’re having a way better experience.



Having a handful of key suppliers is mission critical. You’re doing your business a disservice if you have a hundred bookings in a month and choose a hundred different suppliers. That just doesn’t make any sense; and there are lots of great suppliers out there. To me the key to an amazing supplier is not only aligning us with great product that we can trust in, because we can’t visit every hotel, but, also, what happens when the client has a problem? And what if the agency has a problem? How quickly is that supplier going to step up to the plate and respond to an e-mail, return a phone call? Some suppliers run and hide when there’s a problem.


After a few years of instability, there seems to be some stability in the industry and that makes me feel good. I’d like to believe the airlines are in a good place and making some money. How many times over the years have you seen Air Canada in trouble and that ripples into our world, right? I could just go on and on about all the curveballs we’ve seen…


I truly believe the honeymoon with the Internet for travel is over; I think it has flattened out. What bricks and mortar travel agencies love to see is when there’s a new travel website that pops up – it just gets even more confusing for the consumer; there’s just so much out there. And it’s our job to make it simple for them. My competition is not the next travel agency down the road; it’s not even online travel agencies in my opinion. Our competition is, if I’ve got $5,000 to spend to go on holidays and my wife wants to renovate the basement or get a hot tub. That’s our competition, for those discretionary dollars… We’re interested in forming an amazing relationship with every single client we serve and they won’t even think about looking on the web.


We’ve actually done the old school of taking out a map of the area and we sample 200 or 300 names from a database with postal codes and put little pins on the streets, and there’s a heavy percentage of clients within a kilometre of our branches that do support the neighbourhood travel agency. We want our customers to feel like they have the banker in town, they have the lawyer, they have a dry cleaner… and the travel agent. They depend on all these services to make their lives easier. That’s what’s helping us keep the lights on, that local loyalty.



One hundred per cent, people have to specialize. The issue with some travel companies is they’re relying on volume. They’re relying on back-end overrides, and that’s a mistake. I think agencies – for their very survival – have to make some big decisions. To be an all-in to all people, you’re just going to slowly see your client base erode if you continue on that path.


When it comes to luxury, what we fail to do as an industry – at least as travel agents – is you don’t actually advertise to your client base that you sell that product. You can’t keep that a secret. If you were to look at the Seabourn client as an example, they probably don’t know that a lot of travel agents can book that product. So, having an agency that segments and focusses on luxury is absolutely critical to [being] a very successful travel agency. When you look at the sort of luxury product where the margins are three, four, five times what they are on a standard mass market beach holiday supplier, why wouldn’t you want to sell that product? But the hurdle is experiencing that product and really understanding that type of customer and how to sell it. Recently I had an industry veteran, a (luxury) guru, Vanessa Lee, train a handful of our agents. She said that when you’re dealing with a customer who goes to Mexico every year, it’s the agent’s responsibility to say, ‘Pete, I want you to take this Windstar brochure home with you because, you know, I can see you and your wife on Windstar next year.’ A true luxury agent, as Vanessa put it, plans the customer’s vacation three to five years in advance. ‘Next year it’s your 20th wedding anniversary, you should really look at this product!’


Somebody once told me ‘marketing is everything and everything is marketing.’ Everything from how your branch looks – a lot of people after so many years forget how run-down their travel agencies look – you have to take a little bit of your profit and invest it back in your storefront. A big part of marketing is just having the agents travel, see the world, and then tell their clients about it. Now, we can do that through social media very, very cost effectively. So that’s huge for us: our social media channels. And just telling the world how great you are and what you can do for them. And another thing to do with marketing is not being afraid to try the most bizarre idea. Our industry, for the most part, lacks imagination and creativity. I think when a travel company is creative, they’re not afraid to invest in bizarre ideas. I think if I knew whether an idea would work or not, I’d get involved in the stock market. We can’t predict!


A lot of traditional agency owner-managers, tend to be very protective over their branch. But my advice to any branch that is looking for ‘the answer,’ you know, ‘what is the magic pill here?’ it’s bringing on somebody new and young. And when I use the word young, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a younger person, but it seems to be in our company, that we talk about millennials. When you have a millennial travel and tourism graduate working on your team, they bring a way different perspective to the business than the people who have possibly working in it for a long time, because millennials will expose them to the benefits of Facebook and Twitter and SnapChat and all kinds of things… Here’s an interesting thing to note: We have younger agents in our company that have built a clientele in less than five years, when it took some agents in traditional channels 20 years to build the same clientele. And I’ll ask these agents what they’re doing and it is social media. As for millennial clients: You could take a 28-year-old making big money but choose to not have a car and have a basement apartment because they want to spend their money on an $80 bottle of wine and a nice dinner. When it comes to travel, they want experiences. They don’t want to wait; a lot of them think, why would I want to have a mortgage and get strapped down to a house and car payments and all that? A lot of them believe that and it’s really cool thinking. We have a marketing manager, Steve, with 30 years in the business, lots of experience, but everyone on his team is a millennial. So, we have two visual artists, social media person and an events coordinator. The social media work they do is capturing the attention of the millennials. It’s mainly over the phone or e-mail. They don’t want brochures, they want stuff over their phones. But I also think they might gravitate to older agents because they know they have the experience.


I see a little more consolidation taking place in the marketplace. There’s a lot of cheap money out there, right? And there are some that want to grow really, really aggressively. For our company, we want to grow, obviously, because you have to grow, but our pace is a slow and steady. After 31 years now, what I feel most proud of is, I want to create jobs. I just love creating new jobs, especially for younger people who didn’t see a future in the travel industry. I’ve been to local colleges and speaking to hospitality and tourism classes. The first question I ask is how many of you think or believe that there are still travel agencies out there, and maybe five raise their hands. The majority of them don’t even know what a travel agency is. So, my mission is to tell these kids that there is a very promising career for them in retail travel… My objective in all of our branches is to have at least two newer people in every single branch. Let’s face it, for most of us the average age of our agents isn’t exactly going down… 
peter vdh

Peter Van Der Heyden

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