Coping during COVID-19
This week Travel Courier checks in with Kathylynne Fenton of Fenton Travel, TPI, in Tisdale, Sask., who describes the madness that ensued after travel restrictions hit — in regards to trying to reach suppliers and keeping up-to-date with constantly changing information — as a gong show and an emotional roller coaster.
Tell us a little bit about what it’s been like being a travel agent over the past few months?
I am an independent agent affiliated with Travel Professionals International (TPI) and a member of the Virtuoso network. The past three months has been the most challenging, stressful and frustrating period of my 10 year career as a Certified Travel Consultant.
In February and early March, with clients’ concerns growing as they watched the situation unfold in China and Europe, I spent a significant amount of time calming fears and directing them to reliable information sources. I was sort of easing into the chaos that was soon to follow when the travel advisories become official that second week in March.
Did you have a particular client affected by the developments?
With only a couple of clients in destination at the time of the travel advisory announcements and none travelling in the immediate three or four days following, I had some breathing room — time to evaluate and prioritize which files needed action immediately and which could wait. The first week was crazy, with information changing constantly, inadequate methods of cancelling files or reaching suppliers — it was a gong show and an emotional roller coaster. Had it not been for an amazing support team from my host agency’s head office, hosting twice daily video calls supporting the advisors and sharing information, it would have been much more difficult to function efficiently.
One particularly challenging situation I dealt with was one client who was in Japan at the time of the advisory, with a return flight originally scheduled for end of April. After much back and forth discussion around diminishing flight options and the risks of not returning home as soon as possible, I managed to get him rebooked to return to Canada; however by the time he wrapped up his business and we got him rebooked, the airline soon cancelled the rebooked ticket. After three further failed attempts at rebooking with that airline, he finally booked a one-way ticket on short notice with another carrier, paying out of pocket. I was relieved when he was finally back on Canadian soil six weeks after the start of the crisis.
What’s been the most challenging part of being an agent during this time?
Throughout this whole COVID-19 ordeal, the most challenging and frustrating part of the job has been (and still is) monitoring and actioning the constantly changing supplier policies regarding changes, cancellations, suspensions, future credits, and assisting with insurance claims. While the changes have mostly been positive, it has been interesting going back to clients on several occasions advising them that rules have changed… again. I always want what’s best for my clients, however, there is a fine balance between protecting the industry’s future and keeping clients happy and I have had many difficult conversations with clients around the topic of refunds as opposed to future credits. Often clients don’t realize the work that we are doing behind the scenes, advocating for them, and administering these cancellations and changes while our commissions evaporate, and without compensation for our hard work. Some days I just wanted to walk away and give up, but I couldn’t because these clients rely on me to guide them through the process.
How has this impacted your business and income?
My business has been steadily growing, with 2019 my busiest and most lucrative year, thanks to a new focus on cruising and complex custom tours. Just prior to COVID-19, I hired a business coach to help me work on my business, fine-tuning specific areas to help me manage my growing business. My income has ground to an abrupt stoppage due to COVID-19; however this pause has also provided a perfect opportunity to take this deep dive into my business and to implement key strategies so I can emerge stronger and more focused as the industry recovers. I think it will be a very gradual recovery, but I am positive that the investment I am making now will pay nice dividends in the future.
What do you miss most about travelling?
I miss the anticipation and sheer excitement, the giddiness I feel as I’m driving to the airport to head off on my next great adventure. I also miss the challenge and the satisfaction of putting together the little details of a complicated itinerary much like solving a complex puzzle. I miss seeing the excitement on my clients’ faces and hearing positive feedback from them when they return from an amazing trip that I have crafted for them.
Have you had a client or supplier do something nice for you during this time?
My clients whose travels were directly impacted by COVID-19 have been very appreciative of my efforts, working on their behalf and keeping them posted of new developments that affect their travel plans. One particular client, a coffee connoisseur, who had the misfortune of having two trips cancelled this season — one due to other reasons and the second due to COVID, has offered to deliver a care package with his favourite exotic coffee beans from around the world. Realizing that I was not earning revenue on either trip, he felt bad for me doing the work and then undoing it all twice. He says he will rebook as soon as travel resumes.
The first week was crazy, with information changing constantly, inadequate methods of cancelling files or reaching suppliers — it was a gong show and an emotional roller coaster. Had it not been for an amazing support team from my host agency’s head office, hosting twice daily video calls supporting the advisors and sharing information, it would have been much more difficult to function efficiently.
Fenton travel, TPI
If there’s one positive thing that’s come out of this, it’s been that people have seen the value of using a travel agent firsthand. Do you agree?
Yes! Those clients who have used the services of a travel advisor have acknowledged their gratitude for not having to navigate this COVID crisis on their own. I have recently had conversations with acquaintances who had booked online and expressed frustration with long hold times to reach suppliers or online booking engines to cancel their trips, unsure of their situation regarding refunds or travel credits and struggling with insurance claims. I truly hope some of these people will realize the value of using a travel advisor in the future – time will tell.
Do you have any advice for other agents during this time?
Take some time for yourself and do something that makes you happy. Enjoy the down time because we will soon be busy again. When it is safe to travel again there will be a lot of pent up demand combined with an uncertainty around safety. Stay positive, take some time to upgrade your skills and brush up your knowledge on safety measures of the hotels, tour companies and cruise lines so you can be ready to reassure and guide your clients to appropriate travel options once they are ready to travel again. Shift your focus if necessary – domestic travel will rebound first. Have a look at the hidden gems in your own country and find ways to promote travel closer to home.
Do you have any strategies to get through the next few weeks/months?
For now, I am taking time for myself, focusing on self care, meditation, yoga which have been helpful in staying grounded and reducing anxiety. I try to limit my exposure to news stations and stick to supplier updates instead. I rely on colleagues to give me a pep talk when needed as only those in the same field as you truly know what you are going through.
To keep busy and connected with the travel world, I have enrolled in a variety of destination and supplier trainings and skill development sessions, all those things that are important but difficult to squeeze in during busy times. Now that things have settled a bit, I am reaching out to my clients to check in and let them know I am here for them to answer questions or listen to concerns they have about the future of travel.
How has travel impacted your own life?
Experiencing other cultures has made me more appreciative of the standard of living and the modern conveniences of living in North America and has made me realize we are all a part of something much bigger than ourselves. Travel makes you modest. You see what a small place you occupy in the world.
Do you have anything to add?
COVID-19 may be around for a long time, so we must find ways as a society and as a travel industry to change the way we think, interact with people, and explore other parts of the world. Because you never know what others are dealing with, be kind to one another. Better times are ahead.