Agents are ‘like my children’: Vicki Borenstein, founder of the Last Minute Travel Club, inducted into the Canadian Travel Hall of Fame

It was the early 1990s and The Last Minute Travel Club was at the peak of its creative game. They aired a series of glossy radio commercials with a guy who looked a lot like TV actor Robin Leach, who was the host of the hugely popular “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” show.

The Leach-sounding actor would come on air and talk about great trips people could take, much like Leach would point out castles in the sky and sparkling pools of Beverly Hills on his show. People loved the ads, which ran for about a year.

THE ADVERTISEMENT

One day, some time after the last ad aired, the phone rang at the offices of the Last Minute Travel Club. At the other end of the wire ? Robin Lech. Not the same sound. The real guy. With a Canadian lawyer.

“The legal ramifications were running through my head,” said Last Minute Travel Club founder Vicki Borenstein, who will be inducted into the Canadian Travel Hall of Fame on May 17 at the TravelPulse Canada Readers’ Choice Awards in Toronto. “I was like, ‘Oh, we’re in trouble now.’

It turned out that Leach was a big fan of the radio commercials and wanted to know why Borenstein and the club had stopped airing them. He also suggested that he record some commercials himself, which he did.

“Robin was fantastic,” Borenstein said. “He would do anything we asked him to do. We had parties where the tour operators came to hang out with Robin and have their picture taken with him. We were a cut above in a sense having all this celebrity excitement around us. I used to give him the birthday list of tour operators and he would call them and wish them happy birthday and have dinner with them. He even attended our travel shows, worked on the booth and brought in clients.

Leach was a huge hit. But he wouldn’t have taken the time to call if he hadn’t believed in Borenstein’s vision for The Last Minute Travel Club, which she took over from CP Air, where she started working in the 1960s. 1970.

“My role with CP Air was to develop a travel club,” she told TravelPulse Canada in an interview last week. “Their main goal was to bypass the travel agent and try to sell direct. Which is kind of funny because that only really happened in the 2000s,” when the internet and online agencies took off.

The club, which was a popular feature of CP Air, offered members discounts on hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions at CP Air destinations. But Borenstein said members made it clear they didn’t care about getting free desserts or discounted rental cars. What they wanted was to travel cheaper.

This, however, became a problem.

“They were getting criticism from their network of travel agents that the travel agents weren’t going to sell them if they continued to operate with this club. At that time, you had to get a license plate from the airline to print your tickets. Officers returned their plates. So the airline decided to get out of this thing. But they had thousands of members with one-year memberships who were their loyal customers.

“The public relations aspect of shutting it down would have been a nightmare. So they wanted out. Being the main marketing team working with the club, we were in the right place at the right time and became the driving force behind the last minute concept.

As a group now independent from the airline, Borenstein and his team needed new suppliers and ticket sources.

“We began to entice Canadian tour operators, large and small, to rely on us to sell their unsold inventory. And they got along fine with that. Last Minute Travel Club was positioned to sell high volumes of unsold capacity and we did the lion’s share of the business, so we became the specialists.

“Some of the agents felt they didn’t have the deals we had, but that’s actually a misconception as most smart tour operators would offer the same price to everyone. It was more about knowing who could sell it than what the real prices were. And the Last Minute Travel Club was really last minute. We got seats sometimes 24 hours before departure and we could resell them. Your traditional travel agent really couldn’t touch to that.”

“We had calling machines and things like that to call our members’ lists and give them recorded messages that we had inventory available. Members would call us to update a tape with all the promotions whenever we had something exciting.

The Last Minute Travel Club has also innovated with opening hours from 9 am to 9 pm, hours on Sundays and that sort of thing.

Borenstein, who also ran a popular business known as The Wholesale Travel Group, left the company at age 50 and spends much of his time in Florida these days. She also has a business that helps people downsize to smaller homes.

“I am honored to have been chosen as the first inductee into the Canadian Travel Hall of Fame,” she said.

“I don’t want to start thanking people for fear of forgetting someone. But if I had to thank anyone, I would thank the many travel advisors who made Last Minute Travel Club what it was, because their loyalty and loyalty is what really made the club. Many people will say that their travel consultants were really the bottom rung of their business. Well, with us they were the top of the food chain, not the bottom.

“The real hard core were the travel advisors; not the direction, not the who’s who of the industry. They were the backbone of the business and I love them. All are like my children today.

Willie R. Golden