Advocating for independent travel advisors
In the wake of COVID-19, Judith Coates, Nancy Wilson and Brenda Slater banded together to create the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors for Independent Agents. Since forming in mid-June, the group continues to actively stand up for independent advisors and the unique set of challenges they face. Travel Courier caught up with the trio — virtually — to get a sense of how things are going and what obstacles they are facing on the road to recovery.
The last nine months have been challenging for many in the travel industry. Tell us a little bit about why it’s so important to advocate for travel advisors right now?
Judith Coates (JC): For too long, travel advisors, both independent and agency employees, have felt like they were an insignificant part of the travel eco-system. With the popularity of larger host agencies, this has been somewhat alleviated, but we’ve seen a beautiful community develop as we’ve worked together to fight for our industry.
There’s no such thing as “My agency” vs “Your agency.” We’re all working together to find solutions to the problems that we’re facing, instead of sitting back and saying “My agency owner will look after this for me.” Each of us can do our own small part, and that collaboratively becomes a mighty force to be reckoned with.
Nancy Wilson (NW): Suppliers have changed their policies in many ways over the last eight months, due to the ‘unprecedented’ situation brought about by COVID, yet they won’t then address commission recalls in the same way. With WestJet taking the lead, demanding commission back for work that was already completed, in some cases five times over, it was high time that advisors fight back, to ensure that we protect ourselves. The future of our small businesses depends on it.
Brenda Slater (BS): By mid June, it was painfully clear that there was nobody who was going to advocate for us as independent travel advisors. We were quite simply feeling like we were at the bottom of the travel industry barrel. Hosts, suppliers and owners all had their plates full and although advocating for the industry, we felt that their focus was on their businesses first, which is quite fair, but that left us behind. Since then, we have advocated for ourselves in ensuring CERB was extended and then transitioned to the CRB (which we are asking to be extended). Now as we face the issue of refunds and commission recalls, we know that the companies who have gone to the government for bailouts will cause others to follow suit. It is so odd to me, that we represent over half of all travel advisors, with massive buying power in our industry yet are feeling powerless. Really at this point there are only two choices, push or be pushed.
What kind of work have you been doing on behalf of independent advisors and have you seen any progress or change?
JC: ACITA has been facilitating Zoom meetings with travel advisors and their MPs &/or policy advisors. We have between eight and 48 travel advisors on each Zoom call, at which we’ve advocated for the extension of the CERB, the implementation of an EI Benefit (CRB), implementation of rapid testing and now we are strongly pushing for the Government to protect our commissions from recalls by the airlines and tour operators.
NW: We’ve been invited to attend a number of Caucus Advisory Council Meetings, as well as some Tourism Recovery Meetings, most notably hosted by Tony Baldinelli, who was recently appointed as Special Advisor to the Leader on Tourism Recovery. Tony has recognized the value we bring to the table, on moving toward a reopening of the tourism economy, as well as the contribution travel advisors make in our industry.
BS: With every call, every conversation with MPs we see the light go on. Usually it is an expression of disbelief that we are in the situation we are in. With 100+ MP meetings, the biggest win from my point of view is that we are being heard, no matter the subject. They (MPs) hear us, they are talking to each other about us, they are standing up in the House of Commons to fight on our behalf. That is the end goal, to be heard, and to get help.
What’s next for ACITA?
JC: Looking at things positively, we can see that any sort of crisis, such as the pandemic, reveals the weaknesses in our business model. This gives us an opportunity to re-evaluate how we want to do business. Going forward, we see the value in being able to dialogue with suppliers and re-visit the contracts that we hold with them, to ensure that we are protected in future. We want to continue to have a mutually beneficial relationship with our travel suppliers.
NW: We hope to address these other concerns, however we cannot shift our focus, until we receive the assurance that our Government will act with our best interests, and ensure our hard earned commissions are protected.
BS: Our immediate goals include CRB extension past the initial 26 weeks, protection from commission recalls and asking for more testing projects in more centres using a variety of the rapid tests available, as soon as possible. We need to be ready when the world opens for business. Afterwards we will look toward supplier contracts, host contracts and commission splits. But most importantly we hope to build on the relationships we have built. Not only with MPs and their staff, but also with the incredible group of independent advisors that surround us, really we have kept each other smiling and feeling supported.
What are some of the key challenges facing independent advisors?
JC: Credibility has been a challenge during COVID. Since the border closures, travel advisories and flight/tour cancellations in March, travel advisors have worked long hours to rebook their clients, get answers, assist with insurance claims, and facilitate travel vouchers and refunds. In most cases, we’ve had to re-work a file three or four times, and often we were on hold with travel suppliers for three or more hours. As suppliers’ policies have changed (FTCs or refunds, expiring in 12 months, 24 months, no expiry, etc), in many cases, our clients heard about the policy changes from the media before we heard it from the suppliers, making it look like we’re holding out on our clients, or worse, that we aren’t informed. With the reality of commission recalls, and the Transport Minister’s announcement that consumer refunds will be a condition of any bailout packages, we haven’t received any assurances from suppliers that they will protect our commissions, in fact some airlines and suppliers have already started the process of clawing commissions back. There needs to be a rebuilding of trust between travel suppliers and the travel advisor community.
NW: Not only the most notable, being that we are at a risk of bankruptcy, but our key challenge is the lack of consumer confidence. The confidence needs to be restored in many ways. Rapid testing needs to be expanded, and proof of the results need to be shown. Travellers need to be assured that if they purchase travel arrangements, and that if a supplier must cancel, that they will receive a refund, and not a future travel voucher.
BS: Being an independent advisor also means we are pretty well isolated from the rest of the industry. We work solo, from our homes, with not a ton of contact with other advisors. If this pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that we NEED our people around us, especially ones that walk in the same shoes everyday. ACITA has given many of us a gathering place for support, to figure out a way to move forward together, regardless of the banner we work under. We also need to start talking MORE to each other to compare notes and issues, to ask for help and come up with solutions.
Are you optimistic independent advisors will come out on the other side of COVID-19?
JC: The Independent Advisors who have the luxury of time and patience will see tremendous growth in their businesses once travel begins to open up again. We believe there is a lot of pent up demand right now, and once rapid testing is being done at more gateways across the country, people begin to get the vaccine, and borders open up in other countries, consumers will be eager to travel once again.
BS: I honestly believe that independent advisors have the best chance of surviving this. We have many friends who are brick and mortar owners and employees, and are extremely worried for them. Thankfully our overhead is nowhere near what theirs would be. We are seeing entire agencies move over to a host/independent advisor model while retaining their identity, its a good option for some.
What can other independent advisors do right now to help support the industry?
NW: We need to all be on the same page, supporting each other through the most trying time in our industry’s history. In the short term, we need to reach our government officials, to ensure our commissions are protected with airline bailout programs. In the long term, we will all need to demand a change in the manner in which we are compensated. I think we all feel that the model currently utilized is not recognizing the important role advisors play in driving the tourism economy. We think it is time all travel suppliers recognize that once we have provided the services, we should never be faced with having to return that income.
JC: IC’s should join our Facebook group, “Canadian Independent Travel Advisors”, where they’ll be able to find out about upcoming MP meetings that they can join in on. They’ll also be able to be involved in discussions about upcoming advocacy efforts that need to be made. (They must be able to answer all four questions before being admitted to the group.)
BS: Join us, get in contact and get onboard. There is strength in numbers, and moving forward we are going to need to present a united front.
How have you each adapted and shifted strategies during this challenging time?
JC: I’ve used this time to stay in touch with my clients, not to “sell” travel, but to ask them how they’re doing, let them know I’m thinking about them, and that when they’re ready, I’ll be here for them. I’ve also focused my marketing strategies on future travel ideas.
NW: I have chosen to focus on the future. Doing the most I can, with honesty and integrity, when my clients are deciding how to spend their future vacation dollars. I have taken the time to streamline my processes, and build my travel brand to be stronger, while maintaining the strong service my clients have been loyal to me for.
BS: I’m learning to strike a balance, and ensure I’m OK too. I’ve also learned the value in my long term, die hard clients. They really have been wonderful, and I couldn’t be more grateful for their support and understanding.
Do you have anything to add?
BS: The best thing that has come out of all of this, is the camaraderie that we have with the three of us, and also our ACITA community. We are from across the country, but it feels like we are all next door to each other. Finding this group of women (and men!), who share so much in common has been a godsend for me, kept me engaged, out of my own head, and smiling. The three of us have yet to meet in person, but we will. Most likely on a beach somewhere, with our posse of strong, funny, tough, brilliant Independent advisors with adult beverages in hand. Celebrations are in order. Soon my peeps, soon!