Blake Wolfe is an award-winning journalist and editor, who joined PAX after nearly 10 years in Canada’s newspaper industry. In addition to PAX, his work has been featured in publications such as the Metroland Media group of newspapers and the Toronto Sun.
With the COVID-19 pandemic putting travel on hold and agents now holding off the inevitable desire by clients to cancel, Canadian travel advisors are employing a variety of strategies to save sales.
PAX spoke to several agents across Canada for their advice on coping with this difficult time in the travel industry and for creative methods of staying the course.
Talk it out
With travel on hold for the near future, it’s the perfect time to start talking to clients interested in those bucket-list vacations.
Carl Henderson, an advisor affiliated with Travel Professionals International, specializes in the South Pacific and told PAX that such trips are planned an average of eight months in advance.
While there’s no way of knowing when international travel will begin again, this long lead-time can keep advisors on clients’ radars in the meantime.
And with so much planning involved, Henderson said that he finds clients who already booked are keeping their plans, albeit for later dates than originally planned.
“Thankfully I’m finding most clients are not wanting to cancel,” he said. “They still want to go – but they’re just changing the dates.”
“It’s a matter of talking to them about how they feel and what they think. One client was having a wedding in April – in the end they agreed to keep the booking and they just moved it to a new date.”
Timing is everything
For clients that haven’t yet booked, it pays for agent and client alike to wait for the right time, said Uniglobe’s Ethel Hansen Davey, invoking a lesson from the recent past.
“The clients that I was working on for small groups into early winter I have asked to please hold off,” Hansen Davey explained. “I do send the options of places and resorts that I know that they should consider, but I do caution them that things can change on a dime. Until the actual flight schedules for winter are confirmed, with the resorts available, then I hesitate to have them book.
“I remember all too well the fallout from 9/11 with tour operators failing and contracts changing,” she continued. “To confirm a small group or even individual bookings right now means cancellations and changes for them and for us. I know that many people, once they have submitted their vacation requests from their places of employment, have difficulty in changing them, especially for those traveling in a group, so my advice is to wait and get it right.”
Use those vouchers now
Pat Probert of Bob Family Travel Team at TravelOnly told PAX that as he and his team review client files, “where it is to the advantage of the client we are taking future credits of between 100 and 150 per cent depending on if the trip is cancelled by the supplier or not.”
Probert is giving clients a couple of options for next year for cruises, he says, and talking about a vacation down south this winter before prices start to rise and "all our clients need to do is apply a deposit."
"We are using future vouchers as quickly as we can as some suppliers are offering 20 per cent bonus for booking early on top of the added credits," Probert said. "Keeping in touch with every client travelling in 2020 as well as 2021 and keeping them updated has been very beneficial and gives our clients peace of mind that we will be here with our suppliers.”
Keep clients engaged
While clients aren’t travelling at the moment, agents can stay top of mind by reminding them of those trips they’ll be taking again in the future.
For Scott Waldron of Gravitate, Travel That Revolves Around You, this approach has involved the use of contests.
“Working with a European family travel partner, I am hoping (awaiting approval) to launch a month-long contest to engage families while they are at home,” he explained. “They choose one of four European cities and create a video telling us why they have always wanted to go, why they deserve to go and why it would be a great family experience. The winning family gets a 5-star full day family experience in the city they have chosen in 2021-22.
“I also purchased some Parisian products sold locally in (Toronto neighbourhood) Leaside and will ask on social media for clients to share their pictures and memories of Paris/France. The winner will be chosen at random and these products will be responsibly delivered to the family’s front porch or via Canada Post.”
Waldron has also “restructured” his social media posts “for the next couple of months, focusing on positivity and Canadian destinations and after that, destinations that take long-term planning, like the Arctic/Antarctica and South Africa.”
For Coreen Doucett of The Travel Agent Next Door, a big part of her strategy has come down to a simple concept that can go a long way in times of crisis.
“The one thing I did when this started was keep people calm and show compassion,” she said. “Every email I’ve sent out to my clients I made sure I did that, even if it was the second or third. I’ve given more attention to those who are upset – one client was supposed to get married this weekend in Cuba.
“What I also did was not worry about income: what was most important was to get clients taken care of.”