Sunday,  November 27, 2022  7:58 pm

After two years of COVID, the “level of frustration has reached its peak,” says travel advisor

After two years of COVID, the “level of frustration has reached its peak,” says travel advisor
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

Today (March 11) marks the second anniversary of COVID-19 being declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization.

It’s also almost two years since the volunteer-led Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA) was formed over a concern that independent agents were falling through the cracks as the travel industry, faced with unprecedented challenges, fought for its survival.

The grassroots group, which officially launched in June 2020, was formed by Judith Coates of The Travel Agent Next Door (TTAND), Brenda Slater of Beyond the Beach and Nancy Wilson of TravelOnly – three industry pros who came together online to help give independent advisors a voice in both the sector and House of Commons.

ACITA, since 2020, has amassed a 2,000-plus membership on a private Facebook group, where agents have been urged to contact their local MPs, arrange Zoom meetings, and explain why they’ve needed help.

From left (of ACITA): Nancy Wilson, TravelOnly; Judith Coates, The Travel Agent Next Door; Brenda Slater, Beyond the Beach. (Supplied)

The strategy has paid off in helping MPs and decision makers understand the unique needs of self-employed agents, from the time it takes for them to get paid to the barriers ICs face in accessing federal support programs.

It’s been a long hard road for ACITA, its executive team, and members, and the group continues to put pressure on politicians to act and, as of late, present a solution for sector-specific aid that ICs can actually benefit from.

The group should be commended for their dedication and patience as the Government of Canada, throughout the pandemic, has maintained some of the strictest travel rules in the world, hindering the sector’s post-pandemic recovery.

READ MORE: “Like seeing a character out of a book come to life!”: ACITA meets in person for the first time

But after nearly two years of advocacy initiatives, working for free, and feeling like no one at the top is listening, that patience is starting to wear thin.

“The level of frustration has reached its peak,” ACITA’s Nancy Wilson told PAX in a statement this week. “So many in the industry want to say everything is great, that the future looks bright. Yet we are still dealing with cancellations, both due to some restrictions remaining, as well as the conflict in Europe, which is now threatening the summer travel season.”

On top of that, “barely any revenue” has come in, Wilson said, “and if cancellations continue, with no government assistance, we are quite frankly at a point where we have no choice but to re-evaluate whether we can remain in this industry.”

"No one is making it happen"

While the Canadian government has eased some restrictions, lifting its non-essential travel advisory and allowing fully-vaxxed international travellers to use antigen tests to meet their return-home requirements, barriers in the recovery process remain.

As the Canadian Travel and Tourism Roundtable, a coalition of travel and tourism leaders, has highlighted several times at press events across the country, pre-departure testing for fully vaccinated travellers – even if it’s the cheaper antigen method – is having a devastating impact on business.  

READ MORE: #WeAreNotDoneYet: ACITA social media campaign urges travel advisors to keep fighting

After surveying its members earlier this year, ACITA learned that testing in destination is the single greatest deterrent for consumers to book new travel.

In an effort to bring this concern to government leaders, ACITA, yesterday (March 10), launched a new e-petition – its second one this year – that calls on Ottawa to end all pre-arrival testing completely. (Click here to view and sign it).

In a new petition, ACITA calls on Ottawa to end all pre-arrival testing. (File photo)

But the frustration runs deeper than convincing the government to lift testing measures at the border.

Securing targeted assistance for independent travel advisors remains an urgent matter, especially since leading federal aid programs, like CEBA, CERS, CEWS and RRRF, excluded many hard-hit small business owners.

Only the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB), both of which have ended, have offered some lifeline of support to some independent advisors. But not all. 

ACITA, after more than 330 virtual meetings with politicians, has spent countless hours illustrating the dire situation agents face. But after almost 24 months of advocacy work, few (if any) decisions on financial aid have materialized.

“We are consistently told we are deserving of aid and that message comes from all parties,” Wilson said. “Yet no one is making it happen.”

Ottawa, ON-based Nancy Wilson of TravelOnly. (Supplied)

The Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA) is well aware of the situation and has linked arms with ACITA to help advance the cause.

In January, ACTA, in collaboration with ACITA and Canadian Travel Agents for Change, another grassroots group, submitted an independent travel agent relief proposal to the federal government called the Independent Travel Agent Relief Program (“ITARP” for short).

READ MORE: ACTA submits proposal to help independent agents

The solution aims to create equity between independent travel agents and other travel and tourism small businesses.

It was created, at the encouragement of MP Randy Boissonnault, Canada’s Minister of Tourism and Associate Minister of Finance, because independent workers were excluded from Ottawa’s Bill C-2 Financial Support legislation.

What's up with ITARP?

But here we are in March and ITARP may be held up in a web of bureaucracy.

The ACITA team met with Boissonnault on Dec. 16, 2021, and were led to believe that ITARP could be a solution in getting financial assistance to independent agents, Wilson says. 

Wilson recently watched Boissonnault field and “deflect” questions about ITARP at a recent travel industry event and now feels the plan is hitting roadblocks.

In a statement to PAX on Thursday (March 10), ACTA President Wendy Paradis said meetings with senior government officials on the ITARP, and other ways to support independent agents, are active.

“ACTA recently submitted its Pre-Budget Consultation, which urges for independent travel agent financial support, and next week we will be activating a grassroots campaign to activate members,” Paradis said.  “The issue is ‘on the table’ until Budget 2022 is released by the federal government, and ACTA will continue using all resources and avenues to advocate for this critical and urgent need.”

Last month, at a virtual town hall, ACTA's Avery Campbell, director of advocacy and industry relations, reviewed several areas of financial support that ACTA was (and is) lobbying for, including the ITARP. 

READ MORE: “We are on the edge of change”: ACTA holds town hall, urges agents to not give up

“The government is highly engaged to find a solution for independent travel agents,” he said at the Feb. 8 meeting. “They appear interested in ITARP and other possible tools to support independent travel agents.”

ACTA President Wendy Paradis. (File photo/Pax Global Media)

Some feedback ACTA has received is how to identify entrepreneurs for support “as there isn’t a legal definition, or CRA identification code,” for independent agents, Campbell said.

“We are working to clarify that definition,” he explained at the time. 

There are also “philosophical challenges” Ottawa has in providing support to only one group of sole proprietors, Campbell said.

“We continue to support government in their research and study by sending needed data and addressing their concerns in a corporative solutions-oriented fashion,” he said.

But Wilson, alongside the ACITA team, wants to know what the holdup is, and why there’s no urgency from the government to help hard-hit travel advisors as they face total collapse.

The ITARP “was suggested to be the quickest method to getting assistance to us,” Wilson said.

An open letter to Minister Boissonnault

ACITA expressed their concerns in an open letter to Minister Boissonnault on Tuesday (March 8), on International Women’s Day, because 85 per cent of travel advisors, who are women, have “been left behind by this government.”

The letter, which can be viewed on Twitter here, highlights a double standard in the way federal aid is awarded, noting how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, on Feb. 19, announced immediate support ($20 million) for Ottawa-based businesses that were impacted by the convoy protests.

While that support was “absolutely necessary,” independent travel advisors, too, face an urgent situation as business owners, for 23 months, have not been able to recover nor have been properly helped during the pandemic.

“We cannot help but wonder how it is possible to get eligible businesses this urgent assistance with such immediacy while we have been told by your office these things take time,” ACITA wrote Minister Boissonnault in their letter.

“Our industry is on a wobbly crutch"

ACITA also notes how its members have respectfully “gone through the proper channels” to ask for help, with “impassioned letters” and virtual meetings, instead of occupying Ottawa’s streets.

“How is it that we have done this the right way, yet still have not had this very critical assistance directed to us?” the group asks in their letter, which also contains heartbreaking testimonials from travel advisors facing bankruptcy, debt and who have been forced to borrow money to pay for groceries and car insurance.

ACITA has always maintained a positive attitude and professional composure, even amid the pandemic’s most challenging moments, but the group, it appears, is being pushed to its limits. 

“Our members have rallied with us from a place of positivity, and while we have had some substantial success, the fact is that we lost the last form of aid available to us in October. Many advisors have left the industry, and many are feeling more and more helpless as each day passes,” Wilson said. “Our industry is on a wobbly crutch.”

Wilson, to be clear, doesn’t begrudge the businesses in Ottawa that received instant federal aid.

But she was “completely floored” to see how the government could move so quickly to provide help during a time of need – “the exact type of aid we proposed for eligible independent travel advisors,” she said.

Two years of COVID later, it begs the question: what shape will the travel industry take as independent travel advisors, still without federal support, call it a day and move into other professions?

Many suppliers have claimed that travel agents – both independent and agency-employed – account for a range of 65 to more than 80 per cent of their business.

It’s stats like this that make Wilson wonder: “If we all leave, who is going to keep them going?”

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