The ladies behind a grassroots group that has fought for Canadian independent travel advisors during the COVID-19 pandemic were Zoom pals at best.
Judith Coates of The Travel Agent Next Door (TTAND), Brenda Slater of Beyond the Beach and Nancy Wilson of TravelOnly, the leadership team at the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA), met online last year over a shared concern that independent travel advisors were falling through the cracks as the industry fought for its survival.
The volunteer association, since June 2020, has rallied a 1,800-plus membership on a private Facebook group, urging agents to contact their local MPs, and arrange Zoom meetings, so they can personally explain why they’ve needed help.
The correspondence between ACITA and its members, which led to impactful campaigns that resulted in the words “independent travel advisor” being spoken in the House of Commons for the very first time, has been limited to remote platforms – phone calls, email, Facebook messages and Zoom meetings only.
This past weekend, Coates, Slater and Wilson, alongside other members of the ACITA executive team, met for the very first time, ever, in person.
“I never realized how two dimensional Zoom was until I saw these two ladies!” Coates told PAX, explaining how she felt meeting Slater and Wilson, in the flesh, on Sept. 18. “Being able to hug them and see them in full length view was like seeing a character out of a book come to life!”
The meetup last Saturday unfolded at Lone Star Texas Grill on Airport Road near Toronto Pearson International Airport and then later moved to the Holiday Inn, which provided the group with a private room in their restaurant.
The timing was perfect for a group that is spread out across Ontario – Coates lives in Orillia, Slater is in Tiny Township and Wilson is based in Ottawa.
Slater and Wilson were heading to YYZ to jet off on a FAM trip to The Grand at Moon Palace in Cancun, Mexico, so the group jumped at an opportunity to meet up, given that they’re rarely in the same area, at the same time.
There was no saying, “Sorry, you go first” or “I think Nancy has her hand up” – isms often associated with Zoom calls – at the in-person gathering, Coates said.
“It was refreshing to sit around the table and talk about things totally unrelated to travel, advocacy work or politics,” she said. “I realized there and then that these are two women that I would absolutely choose to have in my life as friends – even if we hadn’t been thrust together to fight for our industry.”
“We have a ton of love to pass around"
Although they are linked to competing agencies, Coates, Slater and Wilson have built a level of camaraderie never seen before in the industry, connected by a passion for ensuring that travel advisors get a fair deal while the pandemic continues to batter the industry.
ACITA’s direct approach has been instrumental in helping MPs and decision makers understand the unique needs of self-employed advisors, from the time it takes to get paid for services to the barriers ICs face in accessing government support programs.
The group’s efforts have gained support from politicians and, in turn, have given travel advisors a new and influential voice in Ottawa.
“COVID has been a bit of a double edge sword,” Slater told PAX. “Shutting the world of travel down has been catastrophic for our community of travel advisors, but it also forced us to gather together and form bonds with other agents all across the country.”
“These people have become our constant companions and the best of friends in this crazy world.”
The advisors who have helped ACITA in its advocacy efforts have become “the best support system we could have asked for,” Slater added.
“Simply put, we completely understand everything each of us have gone through,” she said, extending an open invitation for other independent travel advisors to join the group.
“We have a ton of love to pass around.”
The #WeAreNotDoneYet hashtag that ACITA created as part of a social media campaign launched last April “has never been more true,” Slater said.
A “very surreal moment”
Wilson called the first in-person meeting “surprisingly emotional.”
“After so long, and not having met in person, it seemed almost as if we weren’t real people,” Wilson said. “I could not believe how different it felt to be in the same room with these ladies, talking face to face, after all this time.”
“It was a very surreal moment for me that I will never forget.”
Having ACITA’s executive team join was “the icing on the cake,” Wilson said, writing PAX from the Palace FAM in Mexico, where she said she has met other supporters in person for the very first time.
“It really does feel like an extended family,” Wilson said. “I couldn’t be happier to have been introduced to so many amazing people in the industry through the creation of ACITA.”
“We are far from giving up!”
Following the Liberal government’s minority win in the federal election, the plan for ACITA, now, is to continue advocacy efforts “full steam ahead,” Wilson said.
ACITA, currently, is trying to get the Liberals to offer support for the industry, whether that be sector-specific aid or relaxed travel restrictions, she said.
“We need to identify that travel can be done safely and advocate for better (and less expensive) testing options and an easing of travel restrictions,” Wilson said.
“We are not done yet. I’m sure we will have a new and improved slogan to come because we are far from giving up! There is still a lot of work to do.”
You can also follow ACITA’s progress on Twitter here.