Ready for a comeback
From exploring our own backyard to regaining consumer confidence in travelling, agency owners and agents discuss business challenges, what it will take to get their clients travelling again and what changes need to be made to ensure they are better positioned to handle future struggles.
President, The Travel Group
Even after borders reopen and the 14-day self-quarantine rules are dropped, David Elmy, president of Vancouver-based The Travel Group, points out that there will be one more key obstacle to getting travellers to fly abroad again — confidence.
“Tourists and business travellers need to feel confident that they won’t be stranded due to another outbreak, either at their destination or home country,” Elmy tells Travel Courier. “Governments could help by promising to keep travel advisories accurate and predictive. Suppliers can help by continuing to offer extremely flexible re-booking and cancellation policies.”
Staycations and travelling close to home will be the first step towards recovery, he predicts, starting within each province first before expanding across the country. As it stands right now, he says the 14-day quarantine rule is a deal-breaker for all but friends and family travellers.
“This kind of travel will be first off the mark, because they tend to visit for a longer time than a typical vacation or business trip, and generally have family to stay with. Even if there’s still a 14-day rule upon return to Canada, this type of traveller will be more likely willing to accept the pain because their motive for travelling is emotional. For the rest of us, the Canadian government has to find a solution to allow Canadians to skip the 14-day rule when they return. Maybe consenting to a COVID-19 test upon arrival back in Canada would work. Otherwise, don’t expect a rebound in international travel until the 14-day rule is revoked at both destination and home.”
Looking to the future, Elmy foresees that the end of travel as a commodity – at least with overseas travel — may be in sight.
“In the future, travel will cost more and become a more special experience. Hygiene, space, and sustainability will become the new standards of luxury,” he says. “Mass tourism will fade; and with it the popularity of large hotels and resorts. Because travel costs will be higher, consumers will be looking for a more boutique experience to justify the higher costs. Mass tourism will become the exclusive domain for cruises and Mexico-style vacations. Travel abroad will become a rare experience for most; and the almost exclusive domain of the privileged.”
Although many may predict otherwise given recent bad publicity, he believes there will be a come back for the cruise industry.
“The cruise industry is a master of marketing, and it will rebound,” he says. “Watch for major innovations: the cruise industry will, once again, re-invent itself. Demand for smaller ocean ships and river cruises will continue to grow; but we have not seen the end of the mega-ships. The latter will just need some fine-tuning.”
Similar to how travel consultants made a compelling case for their services after 9/11, he believes agents will be able to do the same after the pandemic.
“In fact, this COVID-19 event has been so massive, it will be embedded in people’s minds for years to come – that means years of opportunity for travel consultants to tell their story,” he notes. “We need to drive home the insane hold times, busy signals, and refusals by some suppliers to accept calls. We need to remind the public we were the ones working tirelessly to bring our customers home. And how we helped non-customers get home when they were abandoned by the online channels and suppliers they booked direct.”
Rather than focusing on the negatives in the short term rebound from extra time spent at the airport to wearing a mask on long haul flights, Elmy says people should focus more on the positive developments to come as airlines, hotels, cruise lines, and tour operators make adjustments.
“We can look forward to great advances in technology and procedures at hotels, on cruise ships, and on flights,” he points out. “When this is all over, travel will actually be more pleasant, safer, cleaner, and more efficient, not less. This crisis has forced travel companies to re-imagine how they deliver their services. In a few years we’ll look back at what we used to experience and be amazed we put up with it. Travel companies need to talk about the positive changes we will see in the future.”
Travel Consultant, The Great Canadian Travel Group Inc.
In order for clients to travel again after borders reopen, Karen Pearson, a travel consultant with The Great Canadian Travel Group Inc. in Winnipeg, says they will need to know that it is safe.
“Meaning few cases of COVID-19 and evidence of governments taking precautions to prevent further spread,” Pearson tells Travel Courier. “I think clients will also want to be reassured that airlines, hotels, restaurants, attractions, and transportation are taking proper measures for disinfection and sanitation.”
Overall, she believes clients will be conscious of choosing smaller group sizes, whether it be on a cruise ship, coach tour, or resort.
“I feel that they will also be more likely to choose outside cabins or balconies, after seeing news stories about people being stuck on cruise ships for several weeks,” she adds. “I think they will choose options that give them more flexibility and value.”
In order to draw in a clientele that is looking to explore domestically first, she suggests engagement on social media and using other marketing tools to let clients know agents are there to assist with travel to any destinations, including Canada.
“Product training is an important part of that,” she says. “I have been focusing my time on taking webinars about travel within Canada, rather than some of the other destinations or products I would normally prefer to learn about. Once restrictions have eased, I can also take my own trip (fam or personal vacation) in order to gain more first-hand knowledge of a new destination.”
As for a rebound in the cruise industry, she thinks enhanced cleaning protocols will go a long way.
“I think that all the publicity surrounding cruise ships during COVID-19 has led people to believe that going on a cruise can be risky to one’s health,” she says. “Cruise lines will need to make their efforts at cleaning more obvious and publicize their cleaning measures to ensure that passengers will feel safe sailing with them. I also think cruise lines will need to have better contingency plans in case of quarantine and communicate those plans clearly to consumers. Nobody wants to book a cruise thinking they might be stuck in their cabin for two extra weeks.”
With COVID-19 showing the advantages of using an agent as opposed to booking online, she says The Great Canadian Travel Group Inc. has already been sending out a weekly newsletter informing clients about what the company has been doing during this crisis, which emphasizes the benefits of working with a travel consultant.
“For agencies, [the biggest challenge] will be recovering from the financial loss this crisis has caused. It will take huge profits to make up for all the lost revenue from several months worth of cancelled trips,” she says. “For agents, I feel the challenge will be client confidence. I don’t mean they won’t trust their travel consultant. However, I think the COVID-19 situation will be in their minds for a long time which may make them hesitant to book, in case it happens again.”
Although she doesn’t yet have clients with any specific plans to travel in the near future, she says she’s had many inquiries. She says their main concern isn’t presenting a negative COVID-19 test — but with being quarantined.
“Several clients have cancelled because the country they were travelling to requires a 14-day quarantine, and the trip was only two weeks long to begin with,” she says. “I have other clients who cancelled because their job would have enforced isolation for 14 days upon return; that would mean unpaid leave in many cases, which most people cannot afford.”
For another client, turning a two week vacation into a six week ordeal with 14-days of isolation on either side would involve having to take a leave from work, which she couldn’t justify.
“Most people would be in the same situation,” she says. “If quarantines continue to be a reality, either upon entry to a foreign country or upon return to Canada, I can foresee some clients forgoing their travel plans for the time being. Some may travel only when absolutely necessary, such as for a funeral. Fear of the situation recurring is also a factor. A few clients have said that they’re not too concerned about going somewhere, but what happens if they can’t get back home?”
Owner & Travel Designer,
Exclusive To You Travel Services
Steph Switzer, owner and travel designer at Exclusive To You Travel Services under The Travel Agent Next Door umbrella, has many clients who are anxious to travel once the COVID-19 pandemic is over and it is safe to do so.
“However, none of us know when that time will be or what new requirements will be in place, for example, immunity passports, self-imposed quarantine in destination, self-imposed quarantine upon returning home,” she tells Travel Courier. “At this time the Government of Canada Travel Advisory to avoid non-essential travel is still in place with no published end date. Choosing a date when it will be okay for people to travel internationally again is like trying to hit a bullseye on a dart board in the dark.”
Switzer, who has nine home-based associate agents under her across Ontario from Milton, across the GTA and East to Ottawa, recalls when COVID-19 hit Canada and everything was changing very quickly as a hectic, stressful and traumatic time to be in the travel industry.
“All of the work we had done researching and booking travel had to be undone, and at a rapid pace. Clients were calling and emailing us frantically, it was near impossible to get through to suppliers. Policies were changing on a daily basis, we were caught in the middle delivering the updates to our clients, being the messenger who had good news one day and not good news the next,” she says. “It became clear that we are at the bottom of the travel industry totem pole. Mid-March through to April was a very hard time for travel agents, and I am sure a time that none of us want to repeat, that is the reason why I am not comfortable to book any new international travel at this time. I do not want to relive that experience ever again.”
However, she says agents who have a passion for developing road trips close to home will have some opportunities for travellers looking to explore domestically first. As it stands, she feels private renters are better positioned to profit more from the local market than travel agents.
Another challenge she had to deal with was being put in a position of having to do work to process cancellations while having to pay back commissions they had already received.
“We definitely won’t be receiving compensation reflective of researching, booking, cancelling, re-doing the researching and booking again,” she says, noting some cruise lines paid out commissions on cruises that they had refunded as a nice gift for their hard work. “The best description I have for what has happened is that my business was pulled out from under my feet through no fault of my own. I did everything right and have been left feeling very defeated. The strongest are the ones who will survive all of this and still want to try being a travel agent once this is all over. I do hope to be one of the strong ones and one of the survivors in the end.”
Her hope for the future is for more standardization in the industry going forward such as the ability to process changes online rather than having to call suppliers and be stuck on hold for hours at a time.
“Clients will have many more questions about their travel than they have ever had before,” she says. “I am hoping that charging a reasonable booking fee will become common practice, it is something that will only be accepted by clients if all travel agents are doing it. Clients can choose to pay a small booking fee to work with a Professional, who is available to assist with answering all of their questions. Or they can take their chances and book online where their questions may or may not be answered.”
In addition, she says agency cancellation fees should also become common practice.
“Suppliers charge cancellation fees, yet we are the ones doing all of the client-facing work and are being left with nothing but more work should the clients cancel,” she adds. “This is the only profession I have ever come across where we work for free. As with everyone else who works, we are entitled to get paid for our time.”