Lessons For Travel Managers From the Canada Games

This summer, thousands of young athletes gathered in Winnipeg, Manitoba, for the 50th anniversary of the Canada Games, a high-level multisport competition that takes place every two years. It’s where Canada’s up-and-coming athletes come to give it all they’ve got and hopefully earn a spot to compete in future Olympic events.

They spent months and even years preparing for this big moment to compete — which is why it was critical to have a reliable travel management provider that would get those athletes to the Games and back swiftly and safely. American Express Global Business Travel (GBT) was honored to provide those services.

As any travel or event manager knows, physically getting thousands of athletes, coaches and officials to and from Winnipeg in a country as large as Canada is a massive logistical undertaking. Jean-Paul Varnaitis, a meetings manager with American Express Meetings & Events (M&E) who was tasked with the responsibility, shares his tips on how he did it.

1. See the big picture first

When you begin the planning process, it’s important to look at it from a larger scale. “You have to grasp the big picture,” Varnaitis says, “and see how everything fits together.”

For the Canada Games, Varnaitis had to take into account that approximately 5,000 athletes, coaches and officials needed to travel from all 10 Canadian provinces and three territories to Winnipeg for the two-week event.

He also knew the actual travel itself would take place in three stages. On July 28, about 2,000 athletes would arrive for the Games’ opening ceremony. Halfway into the event, the second wave of participants would arrive on the same day the first group was leaving. Then, on Aug. 13, after the Canada Games’ closing ceremony, the second half would fly back home.

Varnaitis also knew he would have to accommodate the special travel needs of the para-athletes participating in the Games.

Once he had a clear view of the larger picture, he then could dive into the zillions of details.

2. Start way early

To avoid finding yourself in a jam at any point, Varnaitis advises to give yourself plenty of time. For the Canada Games, he began 18 months beforehand.

Because he had to arrange for dozens of chartered flights through six different airline companies (the number of carriers actually needed to supply such travel), he had to conduct the negotiations way in advance.

To accommodate the thousands of Games participants coming and going through Winnipeg’s airport — which on average only serves about 11,000 travelers daily — Varnaitis also needed to get special security clearances from the airport, a process that took months. Had he not given himself enough time, he might have found himself in a serious bind.

3. Double check everything

Because of all the moving parts involved, it’s essential to carefully review the details and make sure they all work together.

“There are so many pieces,” Varnaitis says. “If you miss something, it will affect the rest.”

When just one detail doesn’t line up right or one number is off, it can have a domino effect that will end in a logistical disaster.

Ultimately for the Canada Games, a total of 66 planes were chartered and about 10,000 airline tickets issued for participants’ travel back and forth.

About 378,000 pounds of sporting equipment also had to be transported safely from the athletes’ hometowns. Because of the various dimensions of the sporting equipment, pieces simply could not be loaded into the belly of the same planes transporting the athletes. Varnaitis had to hire separate cargo planes and take into careful calculation the weight and size of each piece of equipment as well as the aircrafts’ capacities. Some of the trickier apparatuses to handle were the poles for pole vaulting, which are up to 19 feet long, javelins, mountain bicycles and racing wheelchairs.

“It’s a tedious job,” he says of all the required calculations.

4. Be able to act fast

This tip actually comes from the story of how American Express GBT was named the Canada Games’ exclusive travel management provider. It happened in 2013 after the event company that had been responsible for logistics went out of business only 60 days before the Games was set to take place in Sherbrooke, Quebec.

With little time to spare, the M&E division, under Varnaitis’ leadership, took the reins and immediately started working overtime to review and renegotiate the previous travel contracts and coordinate the travel for each athlete.

“This ordinarily takes months of finding the right aircrafts, negotiating and contracting to move thousands of athletes and equipment,” said Debbie Grossi, manager of business development of M&E.

So while you do want to prepare for any foreseeable issues that may arise, some things will be out of your control. During those occasions, it’s time to move fast and furiously.

5. Go the extra kilometer

Once the Canada Games started, Varnaitis worked around the clock to ensure flawless execution and 24/7 support before, during and after the Games in case of any surprises — usually as a result of Mother Nature.

This time around, he had to scramble to find flights for two athletes who had deaths in the family and needed to depart the Games suddenly.

Now with the Canada Games all wrapped up, here’s a bonus tip for you: Take a moment to breathe once you have crossed the finish line of your big event.