23 JUL 2019
By Ted McIntyre
Phil Sproul, his wife Paulette and four friends are rumbling through Kapama Private Game Reserve beneath an expansive star-filled sky as the lights of their safari vehicle pierce the moist darkness of the Greater Kruger, South Africa wilderness.
“It’s the first night and we’re in an open-ended jeep—no guns—with a driver and a tracker sitting at the front,” relates Sproul. “The driver takes us into this area where they’ve spotted lion tracks. It’s pitch black but the tracker has his light on. And then, no more than 25 feet away, there is this adult male lion eating a zebra. You can tell it’s a fresh kill. Then a younger lion comes into the picture and tries to take over. The larger one with the big mane begins to huff these low grunts, and then there’s this loud, deep, terrifying roar, which chases off the new lion. And then the big one goes back to eating. And so I turn to our guide and say, ‘This is the first night! What are you going to do to top this?!’”
An encounter a few days later comes close, when a herd of more than 75 elephants, levelling everything in their path, cruise right past the jeep.
“The cool part was starting the trip in Capetown to get the feel and history for the region—including Apartheid,” Sproul notes. “Then we went into wine country to a place called Franschhoek, a beautiful area in the middle of nature—Richard Branson has a place there. Then came the safari. I’ve since told people a thousand times over, ‘If you’re ever interested in going there, call me and I’ll just give you my itinerary to follow!’”
OK, full disclosure—Sproul is the CEO of Merit Travel. But this sort of unbridled enthusiasm is nevertheless the norm when clients provide post-excursion feedback to the company. “There are no words that can adequately convey our huge appreciation for everything Jeremy Hall did to make this adventure such a success every step of the way. You pulled everything off like clockwork,” observed one recent client, while another offered: “This was our first long cruise and Edward was there from start to finish. He chose a larger than usual veranda. Had we been booking ourselves, we would not have known what to look for. He took extra care to take away any uncertainty.”
While they will be happy to piece together the perfect fly-and-flop beachfront vacay for you, the folks at Merit prefer to leave a more indelible imprint in your memory bank.
“It’s about immersive travel,” explains Sproul, who boasts more than 35 years in the Canadian travel industry, including posts with Canadian and American Airlines, Air Canada Vacations and the high-end Kensington Tours. “The sun and sand is pervasive in our industry because of the weather we have, and there are people who want to do that. But more and more, people want experiences.”
From a planning standpoint, that means nailing every detail along the way for discerning clientele such as Members of ClubLink, with which Merit has had a successful relationship for 12 years.
“You won’t see a booking engine on MeritTravel.com, because we’d rather understand what your needs are, and then customize something that meets those needs,” Sproul notes. “We spend a lot of time up front understanding what the customer wants to do and why they’re going away: Is it a celebration? An adventure? Do they want time alone? We have a huge repeat factor because of that attention to detail.”
But Merit is about much more than vacations, Sproul stresses. “We’re a full-service travel company. That includes corporate travel management. For example, we handle a lot of law firms where the partners are travelling—where, beyond bookings and savings on flights, we can offer them reporting so that they’re in compliance with their policies. If you own your own business or you fly for business, we have multiple services to assist your company.”
But, oh, those vacations! “Everything can be tailored, and we can take you anywhere you want,” Sproul says. “We do millions of dollars in golf and ski travel—we have a customized ski team too. We do group tours, golf pro-ams. And we do hosted tours. For example, we’ll get an expert in a particular area of interest and set up a trip, such as for the 75th anniversary of D-Day, where we had a professor accompany the group.”
And what’s trending travel-wise? “It depends on what stage you’re at in your life,” says Sproul. “Generational travel is big right now—grandparents, parents and children together. Solo travel is actually massive. A lot of people saying, ‘I need to get away on my own,’ whether they’re divorced, single, whatever.’ And the cruise category is massive right now. River cruising is big. And in ocean cruising, whereas ships used to just take you to destinations that you could then explore, they have now become destinations unto themselves—with water slides, ice rinks, ziplines. There’s a whole new generation of kids telling their parents, ‘I want to go on that ship!’
“The thing about the world is that there are so many interesting places to go, though. So many experiences. And some areas are opening up that haven’t been open for a long time, such as Egypt.”
Ensuring that they have experts in every one of those spots around the globe is paramount for Merit. “We have phenomenal partnerships in all the destinations we cover, because at the end of the day, it’s our reputation that’s at stake,” Sproul says. “And we connect you with travel agents who have been there and done that—who know that area and that experience inside out.”
It’s not just about what goes right, after all—it’s being able to seamlessly handle the situation if something goes wrong.
“If the runway in Mumbai is closed today, our people know,” says Sproul. If there’s an earthquake somewhere in the world, Merit knows which of its clients are in the region. “We have a 24-hour service that you call in-destination if you have any problem. And if something happens, we’ll have a plan of attack of how to reach out to our customers—to see if they’re safe, if they want to come home early, if they need to change hotels”.
“A good travel agent is like an insurance policy,” notes Sproul. “You buy it and may never need it. But when you do, you are really happy it’s there. And in today’s world, you do need a good person and company to help you out.”
Where to next? Contact Merit Travel for all your travel needs by visiting www.merittravel.com or call 1-866-341-1777