I recently spent a week in Switzerland participating in the 2021 Air Canada Race.
The Air Canada Race is a competition hosted every few years for travel industry professionals. It has participants scurrying around a city taking part in various challenges, which may sound akin to a popular reality show.
Most people outside of the travel industry probably have never heard of the Air Canada Race before, so this post will give an overview of what it is and why it was such a good time.
In another post, I’ll go over my (incredible) experience travelling around Switzerland for a week, with all the details about the hotels, dining, and experiences.
What Is the Air Canada Race?
The Air Canada Race is a competition usually held every year or so. It is open to travel agents in Canada and the United States.
Earlier this spring, Air Canada sent out an email inviting agents to register for the 2021 Air Canada Race, which was to be held in Switzerland. For eight weeks, agents went through learning modules that were followed by a quiz.
Each module focused on a different theme. As this year’s destination was Switzerland, many of the modules were made by Switzerland Tourism, a key sponsor of the event. Parts of other modules were geared towards knowledge of Air Canada products.
Aside from completing the modules, agents could qualify by selling revenue tickets to Switzerland or by being active on social media during the training process.
Eligible travel agencies were put into a draw, and winning agencies were able to nominate someone to participate in the Air Canada Race and represent the agency.
Previous iterations of the AC Race were held in British Columbia, England/Scotland, France, Seattle, and Florida, amongst other destinations.
This was my first experience at the AC Race, and I was very delighted to be nominated as a participant by the travel agency where I work.
What Is Included in the Air Canada Race?
In short, pretty much everything, which is one of the reasons why so many travel agents vied for a spot.
Generously, our flights, accommodation, meals, transfers, transit, and almost everything else (aside from incidentals) were included in this week-long trip. After spending so much time planning trips during my adult life, having someone else look after every last detail was indeed very relieving.
A representative from Air Canada emailed nominees to ensure they met the necessary criteria in early August.
Fully vaccinated Canadians are eligible to enter Switzerland without quarantining, so one of the requirements was that each participant was fully vaccinated. I got my second jab in mid-June, so I met that (and all other) requirements.
Shortly thereafter, we received our flight confirmations and an itinerary for the week.
The Air Canada Race Competition
As the name suggests, the main focus of this trip was to participate in the AC Race.
Travel agents from across Canada and the United States met in Toronto on a Friday evening to board AC880 from Toronto to Zurich. We were treated to complimentary lounge access at the recently reopened Air Canada Maple Leaf Lounge in the international departures section of Toronto Pearson.
Upon arrival in Switzerland, we were met by AC Race representatives and hopped on a train from the airport to Basel, where the race would be held.
We spent Saturday getting to know each other and liaising with sponsoring partners from Switzerland Tourism and representatives from Basel, the host city. Excitement filled the air as we drifted off into a much-needed slumber after dinner at the Markthalle before the race began on Sunday morning.
The Race consisted of six challenges. Each challenge highlighted a unique part of the city of Basel’s culture.
There were a total of six teams, each named after one of the stops along the race (which happened to be their starting point). The goal of the race was to earn as many points as possible across all of the challenges.
Each stop lasted around 45 minutes to one hour. This included travel time to your next stop.
I was part of Team Leckerly, named after a treat made in Basel since 1753. Naturally, our first stop was at Jakob’s Basler Leckerly, a store that makes and sells these scrumptious treats.
After being greeted by the owner and learning about the product’s lengthy history, our first task was to pack six packages of leckerly as quickly as possible. Importantly, we had to adhere to strict quality control protocols. If (and when) we failed to meet a requirement, we were docked points.
This stop was fun (and delicious). Packing the cookies was more difficult than I thought, but our team managed to complete it without losing too many points.
Our next stop was to take a ferry taxi down the Rhine River to a point near to the border between Switzerland, Germany, and France for the “One City, Three Countries” stop.
While the actual border lies in the middle of the river, it is possible to go for a walk/run/swim from Basel and enter France and Germany before returning to Switzerland shortly thereafter.
(Incidentally, there is is an annual local race that accomplishes this feat known as the 3länderlauf (three-country run), which I also unofficially completed on my morning run prior to the beginning of the AC Race.)
After identifying specialities from each of the three countries, figuring out how many people it takes to wrap arms around the monument, and affixing signs pointing to the direction of each country, we headed back to the ferry taxi for the next stop: “Old Town Hotspots”, split between two separate locations.
The first location was at the Basel City Hall, founded over 500 years ago. We had to search for a plaque that showed the year in which Basel joined the Basel-Stadt Canton. We also had to locate a statue of a knight and identify the colour of his underpants. (They were red and gold, in case you’re really interested.)
The second location on this stop was the stunning Basel Minster Cathedral. We had learned about it on a walking tour the night before, and it was spectacular to walk through the church and crypts in search of Erasmus’s tomb.
After answering a few questions about the cathedral and Erasmus’s tomb, we had a chance to have a quick lunch on a veranda overlooking the Rhine behind the cathedral. It was nice to have a bit of a break amidst the hustle and bustle of the race.
For the next stop, titled “40 Museums in 37 km²”, we headed to the Kunstmuseum, a fine arts museum with over 4,000 works of art and completed some interesting tasks. Basel is home to Europe’s highest density of museums.
First, we posed to recreate a statue in one of the courtyards with as much detail as possible, including facial expressions, standing on one leg, and holding the poses while a picture was taken.
From there, we headed into the museum in search of works of art by Picasso, Van Gogh, and some local artists. I really enjoyed this stop, as it led us through a maze of beautiful art.
Our second-last stop was at a quiet courtyard at the Teufelhof Hotel for the “Arts and Culture” stop. Basel is known for having art to suit any taste, which you can see either at museums or around the city.
Our task was for one member to attempt to draw something unique to Switzerland or Basel (e.g., fondue, leckerly, Hotel Les Trois Rois, etc) while the other team members guessed what they drew. Our team struggled with this one, due to a combination of lacklustre drawing skills and difficult words.
After around five hours on the run, we made it to our last stop at the Löwenzorn Restaurant, which celebrated the history of the Basel Carnival. The carnival, the largest in Switzerland, has recently been added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
The carnival begins sharply at 4am on the Monday after Ash Wednesday each year and continues until 4am on the following Thursday morning. The city is alive for three days with hand-painted lanterns, a number of parades, and costumed musicians serenading the town.
Our final tasks were to dress three mannequins with carnival costumes, find seven paintings/stickers of one of the costumed figures on a wall painting, and correctly assign three characteristics to five different carnival characters.
Maybe it was because this was our last stop and we wanted to finish on a high note, but our team rose to the challenge and got full points for all tasks. It was also fun to work together to dress up the mannequins.
Once the AC Race was completed, we had a few hours to rest up while the officials tallied up the points each team received at each stop. The team with the most points would be announced at the gala dinner later on that evening.
The Air Canada Race award dinner was held at Safran Zunft, a gorgeous building in the heart of the city. Now a restaurant and venue, it used to house the guilds of local spice dealers, confectioners, pharmacists, wig makers, silk merchants, and other trades.
We were treated to an outstanding meal and had the opportunity to sit with representatives from tourism boards from all over Switzerland. We would spend the next day meeting with them at a workshop, so it was nice to meet in a less formal setting the night before.
During the dinner, representatives from Air Canada announced the winning team after a long drum-roll echoed through the venue.
The winning team this year was Team “Waggis”, named after one of the Basel Carnival characters. It was a close race between the top three teams, and the winners shrieked with joy as they gathered at the front of the venue to pose for pictures and claim their prizes.
Each member of the winning team was awarded with two round-trip tickets from Canada to Switzerland and two Swiss Travel Passes.
I’ll be writing more about the Swiss Travel Pass in a future post, but briefly, it is an all-in-one pass that affords holders travel on Switzerland’s excellent network of trains, boats, and buses, as well as a number of other discounts and inclusions.
At the end of the banquet, we were serenaded by a carnival band before heading back to the hotel to rest up for our day of meetings the next day.
While I would have loved to have won, participating in the race was a great experience in itself, and I hope to be lucky enough to participate in future iterations of the Air Canada Race too.
I had a great time participating in the Air Canada Race in Basel, Switzerland. While I had been to Basel in 2005 on a backpacking tour of Europe, I appreciated getting to experience and know more about all that the beautiful city has to offer.
Tourism Switzerland, Air Canada, and Basel Tourism were excellent hosts, and I am grateful for all of the warm hospitality I received.
This was also my (and most others’) first international trip since the beginning of the pandemic. It was reassuring to see that with a number of protocols in place, international travel and experiences like these are indeed as rewarding as ever.