What has it been like being a travel advisor during this challenging time?
Helping clients with their travel plans has always been very rewarding. When a client shares what a wonderful time they had on a trip you planned, you become a part of their happiest moments in life.
However, overnight the travel industry was turned upside down by the pandemic bringing its share of frustrations.
One would think with no one travelling our workload would have significantly reduced but on the contrary we are busier than ever. Immediately we had to ensure our clients reached home safely followed by helping them with their cancellations, refunds, future travel credits, insurance, re-booking and keeping up with revised supplier policies as the industry navigates through the pandemic. While we were helping clients get refunds as a goodwill gesture, we had to return the commission earned on these bookings because a travel advisor only gets paid if a client actually travels. It highlighted a need for the industry to introduce professional fees as part of the future business model.
Though all this work generated negative revenue, it still felt good helping clients in need. It helped solidify the relationship and brought the importance of working with a travel professional to the forefront.
As a distraction from constant negative news, I participated in TTAND’s eight week Fitness Challenge and tried several new activities. The daily exercise and having something to look forward to was very beneficial both physically and mentally.
We’ve now reached the 10-month mark of the pandemic. How are things going right now?
It feels like the travel industry has been taking one step forward followed by two back. The Travel Advisory and the quarantine requirements brought the travel business to a grinding halt. We started to receive some booking requests when pandemic insurance became available but then the second wave hit forcing clients to reconsider their travel plans. Rapid testing at some airports and arrival of vaccines brought hope again. This was followed by the introduction of a negative PCR test requirement for all arriving passengers and the stay-at-home order. Lately the travel industry just can’t catch a break.
I am keeping my hopes high that we will see light at the end of this very long tunnel and I believe we are a lot closer now than we were even a couple of months ago. There is a lot of pent-up demand and people were able to put away some savings. As soon as it is safe, there will be a rush to celebrate the milestones that had to be put off.
“Product knowledge is essential to travel advisor’s success, so I am investing a lot of time in supplier training and education programs to keep up to date on their policies, promotions and pandemic response. Similarly, I am working towards my Accredited Cruise Counsellor (ACC) Certification through Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). In the last few months I have taken a lot of courses bringing me closer to earning my designation.”
What do you miss most about travelling?
My wife and I travelled extensively growing up and we love to explore new destinations, cultures and learn the history of the world. When we travel, we get to make new friends and experience new things. Meeting locals and observing their way of life firsthand is one of the best forms of learning. Travelling many parts of the world makes us appreciate what we have and the freedom we enjoy. It is a lot easier to help our clients when we can share our experiences and story with them.
Being away allows me to relax and escape my daily routine. I miss being able to immerse myself in a new culture and taking time to completely relax.
How have you shifted strategies during the pandemic?
I was always busy keeping up with the day-to-day and time didn’t permit me to work on things I really wanted to. Very early on in the pandemic I decided to take action on something that was put on the back burner. In May I switched my host agency to The Travel Agent Next Door and rebranded as Blank Canvas Getaways. The new name reflects what we do for our clients – curate unique customized travel experiences.
Product knowledge is essential to travel advisor’s success, so I am investing a lot of time in supplier training and education programs to keep up to date on their policies, promotions and pandemic response. Similarly, I am working towards my Accredited Cruise Counsellor (ACC) Certification through Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). In the last few months I have taken a lot of courses bringing me closer to earning my designation.
I have also made time to stay in touch with clients through email, newsletters and good old fashion phone calls. Clients really appreciated the gesture and were happy to talk about how things were going and their plans for the future. We have also increased our social media presence on platforms like Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.
We are staying positive and taking necessary steps to position ourselves to be ready when travel resumes.
What are you focusing on right now? Are you doing anything to grow business through domestic travel?
In addition to keeping up with training and maintaining supplier relationships we have increased the number of touch points with clients to keep top of mind. We want them to know when they are ready, we will be here for them.
To increase awareness of our Blank Canvas Getaways brand I am participating in a lot of virtual networking opportunities offered by the Newmarket Chamber of Commerce. They are doing a fantastic job helping small businesses.
We are also keeping up with destination entry requirements and steps they are taking for the safety of our clients.
Since the pandemic hit, it seems that more people have seen the value of using a travel agent firsthand. How can advisors take advantage of this?
As soon as the travel advisory was implemented travel advisors got busy making arrangements to bring their clients home safely. Our focus then shifted to cancellations, re-booking and insurance claims. Countless hours were spent holding on the phone to help clients. The cycle continues as more cancellations take place due to ongoing travel restrictions.
One good thing that has come out of the pandemic is that people have come to realize the importance of working with a travel professional. Many people loved playing the “agent” but the pandemic made them see the downside. Most people who booked directly or through online agencies were unable to get hold of suppliers and were overwhelmed trying to keep up with the continuous change in supplier policies regarding cancellation and future travel credits. A lot of them didn’t realize what was the best option and made decisions that were not to their advantage. Some only received future travel credits for their cancelled bookings. Through our supplier relationships we were able to secure full refunds for our clients and transfer insurance policies to a future trip. Our clients really appreciated our efforts as they were hearing horror stories in the media or from friends. We demonstrated the value of the important contacts a travel advisor has within the industry and having an advocate by their side from start to finish.
Going forward, travel will be very different. People will have to sort out each country’s ever-changing entry requirements for international travel and when returning home; the latest being the negative PCR test. They will also have to know supplier and destination health and safety protocols. Experienced travel advisors can help their clients navigate through all this.
Advisors should take advantage of this momentum and share their client stories to showcase the value we bring to the table.
One of the testimonials on our website notes: “This year with COVID-19 our travel plans had to be canceled; once again Naqi helped us purchase travel cancellation insurance and that helped us get all our money back. Naqi personally took the time to follow up with the travel insurance company on our behalf and that made a huge difference for the result to get 100% return of our travel cost.”
How long have you been in the industry and what are some of your secrets to success?
I have been a travel advisor for 16 years and love our industry and the opportunities it has provided. I have visited some amazing places and made lifetime friends. During my time in the travel industry, we have gone through some very difficult times (2008 financial crisis, SARS, Zika, Covid-19 to name a few). The travel industry has shown its resiliency over and over and this time will be no different.
There is no secret formula to success except hard work, perseverance, forming strong supplier relationships, providing exceptional service to your clients and expressing gratitude for their loyalty. Going the extra mile and curating best travel experiences for your clients goes a long way. In my case that has helped build strong relationships with my clients leading to a lot of repeat and referral business.
What do you think is standing in the way of recovery?
One of the biggest hurdles in the way of recovery is the blanket Travel Advisory. Many countries have lower infection rates than Canada. We should return to country specific advisories. Even if people feel safe to travel, they have to consider travel insurance implications and limitations on consular services. If this wasn’t enough, recently there is also a growing trend of travel-shaming people who choose to travel. This makes promoting our services challenging for fear of appearing to be insensitive.
The 14-day mandatory quarantine upon return is another major factor. Not everyone is working from home and can afford to take another two weeks off. Let’s hope the success of COVID-19 testing pilot projects for international travellers arriving at airports will lead to a shorter quarantine period.
The additional requirement to provide proof of a negative PCR COVID-19 test within 72 hours of the client’s return flight home is another blow to the recovery. Not only is it an additional cost to the client, some destinations do not have the facilities or the capacity to meet the additional demand. I am hoping the government will reconsider its position to help the industry that is barely hanging by a thread.
There is some anticipation that the rollout of the vaccine around the world will bring about some relief in the form of reduced travel restrictions.
Do you have anything to add?
Research shows dreaming and planning is a big part of the travel experience. Until it is safe to travel again, let’s keep dreaming about our next destination, new experiences and something brighter on the horizon. For some travel may be a distant thought right now but others can’t wait to start exploring the world again. Whenever it is the right time for you, Blank Canvas Getaways will be here to help bring your dreams to life.