Entering the Expedia Cruises office in Sidney, you’re immediately drawn to the enormous floor-to-ceiling wall map of the world, which dominates the room. The continents and countries in different shades of blue are enticing, promising exotic locales and adventures.
The map, appropriately, is the main element of a spacious travel agency with six light-coloured wood desks holding computers and guide books and brochures with photos of striking travel destinations.
Seated at one of the desks near the back is a smiling and welcoming Elaine Kirwin. Two other staff are present – more than you’d expect during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been tough,” Kirwin says. “For about 13 months now we haven’t had any income. As you know, travel has been hard hit, especially cruises. It’s been a shock that this pandemic and economic downturn has lasted so long.”
She says two things have kept the business going: “First the government has been very good with support for both rent and salaries. Keeping us in business was smart because once things get back to normal, we’ll be able to work and pay taxes. That’s good, because tourism is huge, forming 10 per cent of the economy. The second is that I love this business. I love travelling and learning about new places. Being in this office is never boring. I have no plans to retire for quite a while.”
Kirwin arrived in Sidney in 1988, having spent her earlier life in Saskatchewan and then Calgary. The travel bug entered her bloodstream early, probably influenced by living among polar bears and beluga whales for four years in the northern town of Churchill, Man. She speaks affectionately of seeing sheets of northern lights sweeping majestically across the sky at night, as well as the unusual-but-lovely sight of swans gliding elegantly among icebergs.
The Expedia Cruises office started in 1992. Kirwin responded to an opening in 1994 and, although not having had any experience in travel, was immediately successful, captured by the magic of exotic places and the pleasure of helping and working with people. In 1997, she purchased the franchise and since then has built a dynamic and successful travel business.
She resides in Sidney, close to the office.
“This is a wonderful place to live with good schools and everything so accessible,” she said. “And it’s a great location for a people-oriented business because I meet a lot of my clients around town.
Kirwin has three daughters, all grown and who have each developed their own lives and careers. One, Heather Wood, followed in her mom’s footsteps and became the manager of the office in 2019.
Pointing to numerous trophies lining one part of the wall below the enormous world map, Kirwin said, “Of the approximately 270 Expedia offices in North America only about 20 have become Diamond Centres, and we are one of them.”
Kirwin points to two traits needed to achieve the distinction: people skills and hard work.
And where are Kirwin’s favourite places to travel?
“Europe is my favourite destination,” she says. “And I especially love Portugal. The people are friendly and the food and wine are delicious. I really enjoy river cruises because you get close to the region and learn so much about a country.”
She also launches into a glowing description of a tour she recently took in Vietnam and Cambodia: “It was beautiful, Vietnam is a wonderful country. Parts of Cambodia, with the sad background of the killing fields, was moving and thought-provoking,” she adds.
When asked when people will be able to start thinking about travel again, Kirwin says they are already starting to see bookings. “There’s an incredible pent-up demand which will explode soon. By spring of 2022 travel should be back to normal and tourism will really take off. It’ll be fast and furious.”
She said Alaskan cruises are already starting and Expedia Cruises recently offered an ultra-long, 47-day cruise in Europe, involving five ships in 18 countries. “Pre-COVID, this package would barely have sold. Now, however, even though the tour isn’t until 2023, it sold out in one day when offered in February. It’s amazing.”
And when the post-pandemic rush arrives, Kirwin will be ready. “We’re staying busy training, learning about all the cruises, tours and destinations – yesterday I was on three Zoom calls so we can handle the furious business when it comes later this year.”
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