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 DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
“Heartbreaking” is the word travel advisor Amber Hughes uses to describe what it feels like to call a family to say that their Walt Disney World vacation is in shambles.
The owner of Howard Hughes Travel, based in Mahone Bay, N.S., recently appeared in a national news story about her clients – a husband and wife that wanted to treat their daughter, son-in-law, and their two kids to a Disney getaway over March Break until Sunwing grounded their vacation with little explanation.
The tour operator, amid an operational reset, has cancelled select routes in Atlantic Canada, and elsewhere – and the Halifax to Orlando, Fla. flight Hughes booked for her clients was among the causalities.
It’s a sad travel tale. As first reported by Global News, the trip to “The Most Magical Place On Earth” was announced to the couple’s grandkids, aged five and seven, as a Christmas present.
The children even received Disney-themed backpacks and personal invitations from Disney characters to keep the excitement going.
But it was Hughes, a travel advisor of 35 years, who had to break the bad news once Sunwing pulled the plug on the flight, putting Grandpa and Grandma not only at a financial loss for the park tickets they bought, but also in an awkward situation of having to tell the kids the trip was likely kaput.
“It doesn’t just affect clients, but agents as well,” Hughes told PAX, reflecting on the wave of flight cancellations that have occurred since late December.
Hughes, in fact, intervened twice to try and save this trip to the House of Mouse.
The first hiccup came in November when Sunwing cancelled a March 10 flight that was initially supposed to fly to Melbourne, Fla., which is about an hour from Orlando.
Hughes, resourcefully, got that flight transferred, until she learned on Jan. 9 that the alternate Halifax-Orlando flight was also cancelled by Sunwing.
With rising prices and few flight options, the possibility of getting six people to Florida over the March Break rush looked bleak, and while clients of Sunwing get reimbursed when flights are cancelled, travel agents’ commissions aren’t protected when things go south.
This is what particularly stings for agents like Hughes, who spent a considerable amount of time planning out the family’s trip to Florida.
“I can’t even disclose how many thousands of dollars I’ve lost over cancellations,” she said.
It’s a reality that Canadian travel advisors face these days as Sunwing, after a chaotic holiday travel season, presses the reset button on its winter schedule in an effort to stabilize its operations and service levels.
The tour operator faced backlash during the holidays after it left some customers stranded in destinations as it scrambled to reposition aircraft following a snowstorm that hit parts of Canada.
As Len Corrado, president of Sunwing Airlines, told MPs at House transport hearing earlier this month, the company struggled after its request to hire 63 pilots as temporary foreign workers for winter was denied.
Since late December, Sunwing has thinned out schedules in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and parts of Atlantic Canada (Fredericton, Moncton and Halifax). Flights out of Northern Ontario, as of Feb. 1, are also cancelled.
The impact the cutbacks have had on travel agent earnings has drawn the ire of advocacy groups, like ACTA, who say commissions should have been part of the decision-making process.
Still, amid the complications, travel consultants have found support in a refreshing way: by helping each other.
Keep the faith
The story of Hughes’s disrupted Disney file caught the attention of another travel pro in the Nova Scotia area.
When Faith Sproule of Niche Travel Group, based in Bedford, N.S., heard the sun was going down on a family’s Disney getaway, she immediately asked herself: who’s their travel agent?
Sproule soon discovered it was none other than Amber Hughes – who she actually used to work with. (It’s a small community).
She contacted Hughes with a solution to the Disney dilemma: Sproule’s agency didn’t have any Halifax-Orlando flights to offer, but she did have Air Transat seats on a flight from Halifax to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for the same March period – at a lower price.
Sproule had secured block space, and while the family would have had to rent a car in Fort Lauderdale and drive more than three hours to Disney World in Orlando, it was a solution, nonetheless.
“When I saw the story, I just thought, ‘This poor family.’ But I knew we had seats left [on Air Transat],” said Sproule, who makes a point of buying block seats every March Break.
Moving forward – together
Agents helping agents. The pandemic has thrown many curve balls, and some of the best sources for trade support have been found by leaning on each other – even if it’s between competitors.
“It’s a tight community here. A lot of agents here, whether storefront or home-based, we know each other,” Sproule said. “We work together.”
More agents have band together ever since the onset of COVID, she said, whether it be competitors teaming up to host a wedding show or agents forwarding leads to other agencies that have certain specializations. This is something her own agency does.
New advocacy networks, like the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA), and private Facebook groups, like "Canadian Travel Professionals,” have also served as hubs for advisors as they navigate booking challenges, she says.
After all, if there’s one thing travel advisors are good at doing as a group, it’s problem-solving.
In today's climate, Sproule encourages all travel advisors to “think outside of the box and work together.”
The kids are alright
So, whatever happened to that family’s Disney vacation? Did they end up accepting Sproule’s offer and fly to Fort Lauderdale?
While it was an exciting idea at first, the family, in the end, decided to shelve Disney World for now and take a Canada-based vacation instead, said Hughes, who appreciated Sproule’s offer nonetheless.
And apparently, when the new plan was presented to the children, no tears were shed.
In fact, the response from one of the grandkids, a seven-year-old girl, was reportedly: “That’s ok, Grampy. I know the airlines are a mess.’”
“I can’t believe the insight of children who see the news,” Hughes said.
The family’s vacation will move forward, but left behind will be Hughes’ recalled compensation for the work she put into the file.
She, like many travel advisors, would like to see Sunwing – all companies, for that matter – step up and protect commissions when trips are abruptly cancelled.
“I watched my kids play outside all summer while I worked on a wedding group,” Hughes said. “We work very hard to sell their product. There’s no compensation for when they do these things.”
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