Travel agent gripes

Nine months later…

The struggles and triumphs of being a travel agent during the pandemic

By: Ann Ruppenstein
Photos: Jan Padilla & Caroline Selfors

From commission recalls to cancelled bookings to endless hours on hold, the last nine months have certainly taken a toll on travel agents. But despite the setbacks and challenges, many in the travel industry are weathering the storm in anticipation of a brighter tomorrow.

Travel Courier chats with three travel professionals to get a sense of how business is going, what’s getting them through this difficult time and why they’re remaining optimistic about the future. 

As an independent travel agent, Rosie Darosa of TravelOnly With Rosie Darosa in Thunder Bay, Ont., says the lack of direction from the government has made it incredibly difficult to run a successful business during the pandemic.

“There has been no guidance on when they expect things to open. Basically, we have just been left hanging and trying to figure out: should we book? Should we wait?” Darosa tells Travel Courier when asked what she wants to vent about. “It’s the lack of direction from the Government, and their seeming unwillingness to investigate any option at all for reopening travel, i.e. rapid testing, etc. until just recently.”

Darosa says one of the most challenging parts of being a travel advisor right now is dealing with ongoing uncertainty and not being able to guarantee clients a smooth, hassle-free experience.

“And, of course, the 14-day quarantine as it is next to impossible to book anything for anyone if they have to take 21 days off to have a seven-day vacation,” she says.

While the solution is for clients to stay at home and experience Canada, domestic bookings come with another set of challenges.

“With the frequent schedule changes, the open and closing of things, the new rules that come and go, the climbing numbers, that is almost impossible as well and I have had several clients with numerous schedule changes before they leave, which is frustrating as you are repeating the same work over again, and often, they have to change their travel dates by a day or two,” she says.

Darosa says the birth of her first granddaughter has helped her focus on something positive besides “the mess that the industry is in.” Professionally, she began to focus on selling Canada and added a Stay In Canada, Eh! section on her website, which currently features over 50 trips.

“I feel that when people come back to travel they will want to stay close to home first and I wanted to be ready for them. I have connected with some great suppliers who offer great products and I have been testing them out over the last few months – which really, was just an excuse for me to travel,” she says. “I am hopeful, and optimistic, that Canada will be a big destination when travel comes back, and that it will continue to be as people become aware of how many amazing things we have to do right here in our own country.”

Meanwhile, for fellow residents of Thunder Bay, she is also launching an Adventures In Your Own Back Yard section on her website to promote travel that’s even more local.

“Feeling safe will be a big part of any client’s destination choice, and until a vaccine is found, I think that ‘safe’ for a lot of people will be in Canada,” she says.

Darosa counts herself fortunate to not have had too many commission recalls to date, however, she anticipates that situation is likely to change with WestJet’s newly announced refunds policy, as well as the refund condition on the Government bailout.

"I am hopeful, and optimistic, that Canada will be a big destination when travel comes back, and that it will continue to be as people become aware of how many amazing things we have to do right here in our own country."

“For me, as my commissions came in from the cancelled trips, I actually put them aside and did not touch it as I suspected something like this would happen down the road — mainly due to WestJet’s comments in the beginning that said ‘we are not addressing refunds at this time.’ she says. “The ‘at this time’ made me think that somewhere down the road, they would be, and now they are.”

As for suppliers who stand out for supporting agents during the pandemic, she points to Air Canada and Air Canada Vacations.

“It is more about their policies regarding the travel credits – no expiry, transferable, residual held on file, etc. plus they seemed to have the least amount of hold times over anyone else,” she says. “I know, a small petty thing, but when I was spending 10 to 12 hours a day on the phone, this was important.”

Although it’s been a challenge, Darosa says she started this career four years ago because she loves to travel and help people travel, and this is what keeps her going even on days when things seem hopeless.

“I keep in touch with my clients via email and text, and am very active on my Facebook Business Page as I feel it is important to stay in touch, even if no one is going anywhere right now. I not only post destination suggestions, I also posts jokes, recipes, stories, etc.,” she says. “I know it seems hopeless right now, but I also know that we will travel again and I plan to be right here, waiting, for when that happens and I want my clients to know that I am still here.”

Similarly, Sherri Coleman believes the most challenging thing about being a travel agent in the days of the pandemic is trying to console frustrated clients about refunds versus travel credits.

“Trying to reassure them that they won’t lose money and then dealing with companies starting to refund, so they are confused,” she says. “It’s also extremely hard to keep up with the trending constant changes and the key answer is always, we don’t know.”

Although she doesn’t like to vent, the Travel Consultant/Manager at Robert Q Travel in Goderich, Ont., would also like more support from the Government for the industry.

“I just wish that the Canadian Government would help out these agents and agencies to keep the industry moving,” she tells Travel Courier. “They have doled out enough money to lesser things.”

Another challenge across the industry has been dealing with commission recalls.

“It’s very frustrating that the protection for this is not being dealt with at all or quick enough,” she says. “It is very upsetting to know that we certainly were hit the hardest in this pandemic and we worked the hardest to do everything in our power to protect and help our clients. Some of these poor bricks and mortar places are closed due to the work they put in. Seems very unfair.”

Although it was challenging for suppliers in the beginning to manage such an unexpected high volume of cancellations and booking changes, she says people in the industry are being very helpful now that things have slowed down.

“I don’t think one supplier has not reached out to us yet to see if we can band together and get people travelling,” she adds.

Overall, Coleman has also tried to remain positive throughout the pandemic.

“My mother, who is elderly and took quarantine very serious for the first bit, asked me one day ‘How can you remain so happy and positive?’ I said ‘mom, there is no other way to get through any of this! Outlook on life. Everyday you get up and think to yourself. This is a new day and it can only be better than yesterday!’ Keep your eye on the sky and let’s travel!”

With travel being his retirement career and a pension already in place, Roy Suthons says he’s not anywhere near the dire straits that colleagues are in who rely on the travel industry as their sole source of income.

However, business isn’t all smooth sailing for Suthons, a travel consultant with Cruise Holidays based in Winnipeg.

“I think the most challenging thing about being an agent right now is rebuilding trust. My focus is cruising and I find people not trusting their safety in the context of COVID transmission,” he tells Travel Courier. “Also, I’ve had a few people say they don’t want their money sitting with a cruise line because they don’t trust that all of the cruise lines will survive. I’m even having a hard time stirring interest late in 2021. I think that distrust will abate when they see cruise lines resume operations without problems.”

Because cruise lines have protected commission, he’s also not been impacted by commission recalls.

“I have lost some commissions, but those were because the clients got nervous and wanted to cancel before the cruise lines extended their pause,” he says. “I think all of the cruise lines have bent over backwards to support and stand by travel agents. Regular information (sometimes an overwhelming amount) comes to us constantly. If we don’t feel up to date, it’s our own fault. The commission protection goes a very long way to mitigate the immediate damage.”

If recent news of vaccine developments continue to unfold, he’s optimistic people will start booking cruises again.

“While I personally trust cruising, I don’t trust travelling into hot spots,” he says. “Even with the cruise lines looking for volunteers for their shakedown cruises, I wouldn’t want to go to Florida until I trust that the local authorities have things under control — and I now live in Canada’s hot spot — Winnipeg.”

“I think all of the cruise lines have bent over backwards to support and stand by travel agents. Regular information comes to us constantly. If we don’t feel up to date, it’s our own fault. The commission protection goes a very long way to mitigate the immediate damage.”

With a background in paramedic services in Toronto and having worked through SARS, Suthons has a different perspective than those who have never worked in healthcare.

“COVID-19 brings with it a horrible price. Our governments are doing their best to minimize the impacts of that cost, but it has to be paid — either by illness and death, or by economic nightmares, or a combination of both,” he says. “I have no control over the pandemic other than doing my very best not to get… or give the disease.”

Although he knows he’s lucky to not have to worry about paying rent or putting food on the table, Suthons says sadly many in the industry will struggle financially to survive.

“What is getting me through this is the knowledge that one day, not nearly soon enough, we will look back on this horrible ordeal and know that we’ve survived,” he says. “Looking forward to getting back to sea in the second half of 2021 gives me hope.”

Suthons currently has several trips lined up, including hosting a Distinctive Voyages group to Iceland from Southampton in July, 2021; and a Distinctive Voyages sailing from Venice to Athens lined up for September, 2021. 

“We’re considering a Rome to Tampa sailing in October 2021 preceding a business conference at sea that I have in November,” he adds. “We have a family cruise lined up for February 2022 and will be joining clients on an Alaska group in May. We’re planning to do our best to make up for lost time! The hope of all of that cruising is a bright light in this darkness.”

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