The “October Surprise” is feared by every politician facing an early November election. For Hilary Clinton last years, it was the announcement by then-FBI Director James Comey that he was reopening the investigation into a new batch of Clinton’s Emails.
My October surprise came in the late 1980s, on Hallowe’en.
The Canadian travel industry has always been competitive, but in the late 80s, it operated in a reasonably structured manner. Tour operators, like my company, Regent Holidays, were the “manufacturers” of “packaged holidays” that were featured in the holiday brochures that you would find at your travel agent’s shop.
We chartered the aircraft, the ground transfers, hotels and – in some cases – the meal packages that were included in your holiday. Travel agents were paid a commission ranging from 10% to 17%, depending upon the volume of business that they provided to individual tour operators. The big retail chains of the day, such as Sears Travel, Eaton’s Travel, P. Lawson Travel and others usually earned the highest commissions.
One spring day, the retail travel industry was shocked by the arrival of a brash new competitor from Britain. “Stop getting ripped off by your travel agent!” read the advertisements in the Toronto Star travel section placed by a company we’ll call “Super-Saver Travel.”
Super Saver promised to return the travel agents’ commission to the traveller in the form of lower prices. Their advertising described the average travel agent as someone padding their own pockets with the travelling public’s hard-earned dollars.
Needless to say, the retail travel industry was soon in an uproar over Super Saver Travel’s advertising messages. Meetings were held bringing retail travel agencies together in protest.
Super Saver’s strategy was to gain a greater share of the retail market, thereby raising its commissions to the highest level from tour operators needing their support. At that point, Super Saver could begin reducing the share of commission that they were passing on to their retail clients.
But Super Saver Travel was too small to be able to charter its own aircraft. They would need to purchase air seats from tour operators who held the airline seat contracts.
As time would prove, this was their Achilles Heel.
Letters quickly went out from travel agencies to all of the major tour operators threatening to stop booking with any operator who supplied Super Saver Travel with air seats. The retailers had decided to starve Super Saver before they could get off the ground.
Needless to say, no tour operator in Toronto was prepared to incur the combined wrath of the retail industry by selling air seats to Super Saver Travel. It simply wasn’t worth the aggravation of defying a united retail travel industry.
This led to my October Surprise.
On Hallowe’en day, months after the first Super Saver ads had first appeared, I walked into my company’s offices on Airport Road. My receptionist gave me a strange look as two burly men in suits got to their feet.
“Are you Mr. Egan or Mr. Linnett?” one of them asked.
“I’m Phil Egan,” I said. “How can I help you?”
One of them displayed a federal warrant while the other removed my briefcase from my hands. I was required to lead them to my office, which they promptly sealed. I was relegated to our boardroom for the next three days while they searched through my mail, files, and records. They did the same thing to my partner.
It turned out that they were federal cops from the Competition Bureau. Super Saver Travel had lodged a complaint, stating that the Canadian retail travel industry was trying to put them out of business for trying to offer lower holiday prices to Canadians. The feds had responded by flying 32 Competition Bureau officers into Toronto the previous evening. That morning, they had fanned out in pairs to the offices of 16 major tour operators and retail travel companies looking for evidence that the industry had conspired against Super Saver Travel.
Needless to say, they found plenty of evidence. Had Super Saver Travel not given up a few months later and fled back to Scotland, several retailers would likely have received big fines.
The day was not, however, without its humour. Led into the office of a major tour operator (whose name would be familiar to everyone), the federal cops were led into the president’s office to find a man sitting behind his desk dressed in a chicken suit.
At this particular company, they took Hallowe’en seriously.
The feds thought they must be in the wrong office. This couldn’t be the president.
“Who are you?” they asked the man behind the desk.
“I’m the Chicken Man,” the executive replied. “Who the (bleep) are you?”