The Ontario government released its 2021 budget on Wednesday (March 24), unveiling targeted incentives aimed at supporting the province’s struggling tourism and hospitality sectors.
One of the key initiatives outlined by Ontario Finance Minister Peter Bethlenfalvy is an Ontario tourism and hospitality small business support grant – a $100 million-dollar program that provides one-time payments between $10,000 and $20,000 to travel-related businesses that don’t qualify for the Ontario small business support grant.
The funding is intended for hotels, motels, amusement parks, hunting and fishing camps, overnight summer and vacation camps and, yes, travel agencies.
Targeted support for the trade is long overdue, and comes as welcome news to Ontario-based travel agents, who have been shut out from accessing the province’s previously-announced small business support grant program.
Judith Coates of The Travel Agent Next Door, a leader at The Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors’ (ACITA), told PAX that she was “quite surprised” by Ontario’s announcement.
“The news about the Ontario budget including funds for tourism and hospitality was both a surprise and a relief,’ Coates wrote to PAX in an email Wednesday night. “We were encouraged that they specifically mentioned ‘travel agencies’ as those who will qualify.”
At the same time, Coates said ACITA is being “cautiously optimistic” that the program will include independent travel advisors.
Stoney Creek, ON-based Laurie Keith, founder of Boutique Travel Services, which includes the host agency Romantic Planet Vacations, said that while the news “could have come earlier” to save jobs and prevent agency closures, “I consider it to be a major win for our industry!”
Advocacy heats up
Over the past ten months, ACITA, which Coates runs alongside Brenda Slater of Beyond the Beach and Nancy Wilson of TravelOnly, has successfully met with up to 170 politicians over Zoom, giving independent travel advisors a new and influential voice in Ottawa.
ACITA’s efforts, in recent weeks, have zeroed in on Ontario for excluding agencies from the province's small business grant program. (This, in addition to lobbying for commission protections at the federal level).
Two weeks ago, the group launched an email campaign to Ontario Minister of Economic Development, MPP Vic Fedeli, whose Ministry designed the grant.
“Ontario travel advisors were mobilized to flood his office with emails describing what it has been like as an independent travel advisor, to be without business income (other than CRB to help with personal bills) for a year, and then to be turned away,” Coates said.
“We needed him to see that we have been slipping through the cracks.”
Ontario’s new tourism grant “may be the lifeline that Ontario independent advisors need to stay afloat and hang on for a few more months until travel opens up,” Coates said.
"Struggles are not over yet"
The inclusion of travel agencies in the Ontario budget is an important win as the trade continues to fight for much-needed support, Keith said.
When Keith first learned that agencies didn’t qualify for Ontario’s small business grant, she started “pounding the pavement” to notify agency owners while alerting her local MP, MPP, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland and Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra.
She even started a Facebook group for agency owners called CATE (Canadian Association of Travel Entrepreneurs) with an advocacy arm to “correct the wrongs” of being excluded from support and reduce, what she calls, "travel restriction overkill.”
“I do strongly believe that each of us and our valued advocacy groups, like ACITA and ACTA [The Association of Canadian Travel Agencies], have played a role in finally being heard,” Keith said.
However: “While we're all starting to see light at the end of the tunnel, our struggles are not yet over,” she added.
“We still need an economic recovery plan that forgives our CEBA loans – and ending the mandatory hotel quarantine would be a good start,” she said. “But for now, I fully accept the win [in Ontario’s budget] and appreciate that my travel agency colleagues and I can breathe a sigh of relief and move forward to recovery.”
ACTA is on it
ACTA, upon learning that agencies didn’t qualify for Ontario’s small business program, has been intensely lobbying the provincial government for two months now.
“This issue has been particularly frustrating – to have the travel agency community specifically omitted from much-needed financial support,” Wendy Paradis, president of ACTA, told PAX.
As such, the targeted funding now available to agencies in the new Ontario Tourism and Hospitality Small Business Support Grant is news that ACTA welcomes, Paradis said.
ACTA also will “ensure that the greatest number of travel agencies and travel agent businesses are eligible” for the grant as the details emerge, Paradis noted.
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