By: Ann Ruppenstein
Six months into the pandemic, Travel Courier chats with TPI, TravelOnly, Flight Centre Travel Group and Nexion Canada to get an update on the state of the industry for travel agencies and what recovery looks like.
Travel Professionals International is seeing bookings pick up for travel in late 2021 and 2022.
“Our year-over-year sales are up are by 17% and our advanced bookings for travel in 2021 and 2022 are up by 43% versus the same time last year, which is quite interesting given 2019 was our best year at TPI so far,” Zeina Gedeon, the CEO of TPI, tells Travel Courier. “For 2020 we are seeing booking for within Canada in the last couple of months.”
Since early March, the independent host agency has had over 75 advisors come on board, which Gedeon points out is, “a record number for new advisors joining us and we continue to see steady enquiries come in every week.”
Although a complete rebound for the travel industry is difficult to predict given the unknown and uncontrollable factors, she says bookings are improving.
“With many of our supplier partners offering COVID-19 insurance, we have seen a spike in bookings to the Caribbean,” Gedeon says. “For within Canada, these bookings have been coming in steadily.”
As a means forward, Gedeon says TPI continues to work with ACTA on their lobbying efforts with the Government to ease travel restrictions, extend the CERB, as well as other issues that relate to independent travel advisors.
“A lot of work is going into this and we have seen positive results,” Gedeon says. “At TPI we are re-igniting and revitalizing our efforts to bring back travel and get this industry moving.”
Since the onset of COVID-19 in Canada, TPI has been hosting frequent calls to stay connected with advisors and update them on policy changes as well as supplier updates.
“TPI will be launching a fall campaign with the purpose of re-igniting our advisors’ interest and enthusiasm in travel, summer is over and now is the time for all of us to start fresh and renewed to sell, promote and talk travel with our customers,” Gedeon says. “We are also working with our advisors to help them learn new tools. One of the successful efforts has been a social media takeover on the TPI accounts featuring their staycation experiences which has been very well received.”
Similarly, Gregory Luciani, President and CEO of TravelOnly, also notes an uptick in bookings for 2021 with a strong cruise focus in Q3 and Q4 of 2021.
“Like most of our colleagues, our business has suffered greatly due to COVID-19, concerns from our clients over safety and overall restrictions on travel to the countries and destinations we promote,” Luciani tells Travel Courier. “What is interesting is that we have significant demand from our clients to travel in the next few months, however the Government of Canada’s 14-day quarantine is preventing them from making a commitment to travel in 2020 and the early part of 2021.”
As soon as those regulations are lifted or reduced, TravelOnly predicts significant demand in the southern, all-inclusive sector.
“We are hoping this will occur in October or November at the latest,” Luciani adds. “We do not anticipate cruising to significantly increase until the end of Q2 2021. Full return to the new ‘normal’ may not happen until end of 2021.”
The host agency is recording an increase in domestic travel, but the most significant business is for international trips heading into 2021 and 2022, especially in groups, destination weddings and cruising.
During this time, he says it’s been key to stay connected with travel advisors.
“At TravelOnly we have been working on a multi-faceted approach to ensure we support and engage our advisors including weekly webinars and supplier updates on COVID-19, business training seminars and marketing and social media bootcamps,” Luciani says. “Social media is a critical communications channel for our advisors and we realized many of them were still uncomfortable with posting on a regular basis or creating engaging content. We decided to do it for them and each week our advisors get ready-made social media packages that are as simple as copy and paste.”
Notably, TravelOnly is also launching a new program for the travel industry which will provide 100% commission on every booking.
When asked how business is going, Marc Casto, President Leisure Americas for the Flight Centre Travel Group, doesn’t shy away from the truth.
“Let’s be honest: business isn’t great,” Casto tells Travel Courier. “While the domestic travel market is always beneficial, and there are innumerable and extraordinary destinations within Canada to choose from, our industry thrives upon international travel. The patchwork of solutions, restrictions, and regulations hasn’t exactly helped with the restoration of travel.”
That said, Flight Centre is seeing some rays of hope for recovery.
“Group travel — in particular destination weddings to the Caribbean and Mexico — has proven extraordinarily resilient: Love will always find a way,” Casto says. “Our Student Universe brand, which specializes in travel for a largely younger audience, has been quick to rebound; while we are certainly not at pre-COVID levels the rate of growth is extremely promising.”
Noting their crystal ball is as murky as the next, he says there are certain signs for a resurgence of travel in the first part of 2021.
“One leading indicator is a strong uptick in our search traffic, both on our website as well as direct to agent,” Casto says. “Inquiry has been heavily focused upon both Europe as well as warm weather destinations, notably during the holidays. In different times and different circumstances, it brings to mind the famous quote from Winston Churchill: ‘Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’”
In conversations with clients, he says one of the most important concerns expressed, if not the most important, is the fear of contracting COVID while travelling.
To address this, Flight Centre recently launched a program in conjunction with Allianz to provide coverage for COVID-19 related expenses for travellers, including medical, at no additional fee to the traveller.
“The response from our clients has been overwhelmingly positive and it absolutely has driven demand,” he says.
Casto also says that communicating with their advisors remains pivotal during this time.
“In addition to virtual conferencing, we’ve also been conducting live video chats and even virtual fam tours of key suppliers,” he adds. “The feedback from this series in particular has been incredible; everyone is deeply interested in the post-COVID travel environment. To that end, we’ve actually concluded an in-person fam trip within Mexico as nothing beats in person experiences.”
Mike Foster, President of Nexion Travel Group Canada, says bookings are coming in, but mainly for domestic travel or travel for 2021.
“Most travel that actually took place over the summer was domestic. However, we are seeing more and more interest in travel outside Canada being booked for 2021,” Foster tells Travel Courier. “What has been most surprising are the statistics from our lead-generation program, which dropped, of course, but not nearly as much as you would expect at this time. That indicates to me a strong interest in travel and a pent-up demand that will see travel pick up as soon as we are able to safely and comfortably do so. I had assumed that there was interest, but the numbers were surprisingly strong.”
While some people would travel today if permitted, he predicts that there will be a large part of the population that will not feel comfortable in travelling until they are confident that they can do so safely.
“If we are speaking of levels prior to March 2020, I feel that will take a couple of years or more. So much depends on the pandemic itself,” he says. “There will be other issues too such as the speed of borders opening and the cruise industry’s ability to rebound. Also, much depends on the damage that the pandemic does to the economy and on people’s ability to afford travel — what will the effect be to travel suppliers and the availability of inexpensive travel options? We won’t know the full extent for some time still.”
However, he remains very optimistic that travel advisors will also find a marketplace that values their services more than ever before.
“I feel that this is one of the best opportunities that travel advisors have ever had to consider and plan for their future. Business has been very good and advisors have been so busy selling that they rarely take the time to work on their business. This is the best opportunity in my long career that there has ever been to work on your business, and those who do will be able to hit the ground running as things open up more and more.”
The pandemic has also given many agency owners time to consider the transition from a storefront location to a home-based solution, he says.
“More and more advisors are considering the option of building their own business and taking more control of their career by becoming an Independent Contractor,” he adds.
This year, the company’s annual CoNexion conference, which was to be held in California, is being held virtually next month. Throughout the last six months and counting, he says the agency has also been hosting a number of calls, virtual events and supplier webinars to stay in touch with advisors.
“I have been so impressed by the adaptability and resilience of so many in our industry, and I predict that the future of our industry will be great, but we do need to ride out this very challenging bridge to it,” he says. “Stay focussed on doing what you can today to emerge strong and ready to serve a marketplace that will value travel more than ever before.”