“It’s been a long, gruelling year and certainly none of us dreamt we would be at this place, at this time,” said Wendy Paradis, president of the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA).
In a telephone interview PAX on Monday (March 29), Paradis shared her latest insights on the COVID-19 pandemic, its impact on travel trade communities, and ACTA’s plan for 2021 as the trade association continues to lobby all government levels for sector-specific support.
Paradis, for one, is taken back by how long the pandemic has dragged on as it was this month, last year, that the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus crisis a global pandemic.
It was also around this time last year, on the Friday before March Break, that ACTA called an emergency meeting at the Toronto Airport Marriott Hotel, gathering travel agencies, tour operators, airlines, and tech providers, to brainstorm a strategy for tackling the health crisis that was unfolding.
It was just 90 minutes into that meeting, said Paradis, that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addressed the nation on TV, outlined the severity of the situation, and urged all Canadians abroad to fly home.
“I think many of us had this idea that it was a serious but short-lived crisis,” Paradis said, recalling that day. “Executives were forecasting revenues for the summer, thinking we would be back.”
What's the plan?
But here we are, in spring of 2021, and the travel and tourism industry, still, is left wondering what comes next in the road to recovery.
Canada’s strict air, quarantine and testing measures for travel, combined with provincial lockdown rules and the uncertainty of future sector-specific support, has left travel agency communities – and the travel economy in general – in dire straits.
In February, ACTA finalized its 2021 Tourism and Travel Industry Recovery Plan, which was submitted to Ottawa for inclusion in the government’s budget-planning process.
This document includes a seven-point plan for travel agency/agent support and recovery, outlining priorities, such as extending and amending benefit programs, aid to cover commission recalls, ensuring that support works for all – including home-based, independent travel agents, criteria for a safe reopening of travel, among other items.
(The entire plan can be viewed here.)
One key (and perhaps most concerning) aspect of this document is the trade-specific data ACTA has collected over the past year.
Among its findings, ACTA reports that:
- Revenue declines between March 2020 and Dec. 2020 compared to 2019 were 95%.
- 90% of the 24,000 travel agents in Canada are laid off and/or being paid by CRB or EI programs.
- Economic losses will be approximately $3 billion in annual revenue to travel agencies in Canada between March 2020 and March 2021 ($30 Billion in sales).
- More than 85% of travel businesses will be unable to stay in business without access to government-supported financing.
- 66% will not be able to pay on-going expenses beyond March 31, 2021 without new financing.
ACTA also notes that 75% of the trade workforce, including self-employed entrepreneurs, are women.
“After one year with close to zero revenue, the financial situation for travel agencies and travel agents remains dire,” Paradis told PAX. “Most remaining travel agency personnel are on the wage subsidy providing travel for essential workers or family emergency travel or are working to keeping their businesses running with skeleton staffing levels.”
Getting the trade through COVID
“At the beginning of crisis, our number one priority was emergency aid for travel agencies and agents and to get them through COVID,” Paradis said.
ACTA’s strategy, at the beginning of the pandemic, was to align itself with other associations, Paradis said, such as the Hotel Association Of Canada, the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, the Canadian Federation Of Independent Business and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
“What we all had in common was small business, and many were in hospitality – the hardest hit business,” Paradis said.
Ensuring the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy was boosted to 75% to ensure businesses could stay afloat was one important win in those early days, Paradis said.
Then, ACTA had to “really advocate on behalf of independent agents because of the way their business model is held,” Paradis said. “We had to push for them to be included in any kind of emergency support for work.”
This “took a little while to get through,” Paradis explained, but this, again, came down to aligning with other players in similar situations.
“We aligned with the music industry,” Paradis said, noting the similarities between music’s “gig economy” and the work of independent travel contractors.
Ensuring agencies had support for fixed costs, such as rent, along with extending the HASCAP, CERB, CRB, EI, provincial grant and loan programs, and ensuring regulators waived fees, were also major agenda items, Paradis said.
Since then, and up to now, “It’s been non-stop for a year, meeting with ministries and circling back,” Paradis said, noting how ACTA keeps its meetings small and intimate for the purpose of having “really candid conversations.”
Is ACTA OK?
Travel agents and agencies are doing their best to weather the coronavirus storm, but how is ACTA faring? Is the membership-based association in any trouble?
All travel organizations in Canada have been “significantly impacted” by the pandemic and, as a result, have had to make difficult financial decisions, Paradis said.
“And this includes ACTA,” she said.
Paradis told PAX that, over the past year, ACTA has reduced as many expenses as possible “without interfering with our ability to advocate on behalf of travel agencies and travel agents.”
“Our team has never been busier,” she said. “We have also applied for government assistance where eligible.”
Paradis said ACTA is “very grateful” that the vast majority of travel agencies, travel agents and partners have “found a way to contribute to ACTA in 2021,” and have renewed their memberships, “so we can continue to advocate on their behalf.”
She called on all travel agencies and travel agents to consider joining ACTA “since all benefit from the work ACTA does – not just ACTA members,” she said.
A road map to recovery
Looking ahead at 2021, Paradis said ACTA’s efforts are focused on continued aid to the end of the year or until 90 days after travel restrictions are eased.
There’s also a push for enhanced aid. (“There’s too many eligibility requirements that disqualify many travel agencies and travel agents,” Paradis said).
But the main priority, now, is to “strongly encourage” the government to work with the travel and tourism industry to develop an official “road map for recovery,” Paradis said.
“The government has made it very clear: they cannot give an exact date at this point in time,” Paradis said. “Our ask is for a road map that lays out the conditions required for a meaningful restart and the easing of restrictions.”
In fact, ACTA, today (March 30), meets with Transport Minister Omar Alghabra to outline urgent trade-specific issues, such as commission protections and conditions for restarting travel.
“We’re not asking him for a specific date,” Paradis said, referring to travel's restart. “We’re asking him to work with us and build a plan based on what the criteria and conditions are.”
“We all need to be advocating”
It’s a similar ask that the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA), a separate advocacy group dedicated to supporting independent travel advisors, pitched to Minister Alghabra yesterday during a Zoom call – which ACITA organized on its own.
The grassroots efforts of ACITA, which has gained wide attention for mobilizing independent advisors, motivating agents to schedule one-on-one Zoom calls with their local MPs, and achieving vocal support in the House of Commons, is work that has “absolutely” helped advance lobbying initiatives, Paradis told PAX.
“We all need to be advocating – that’s our call,” Paradis said. “This is so critical and important.”
As more voices emerge in the trade lobbying space – perhaps more than ever before – what’s most important, Paradis said, is that “we are all using the same data.”
“And we are,” Paradis said, “which is great.”
One figure that advocacy groups should stick to, Paradis advised, especially in the fight for commission protections, is the amount of income travel professionals in Canada will lose if airlines issue mass refunds.
ACTA pegs the total recall amount at $200 million dollars – “15% of which has already been paid out, and 85% is still to come,” Paradis said.
The Liberal government’s federal budget will be released on April 19 and “we have a lot of work to do in the next couple of weeks,” Paradis said.
Until then, alongside the Coalition of Hardest Hit Businesses, ACTA plans to have as many discussions as possible with key ministers and policy developers, Paradis said.
Paradis, who represents Canada on the “Standards For Digital Health Certification Committee” with Travel Again, a global coalition, also intends to share “data and best practices from around the world” with officials.
She encourages grassroots groups to “keep up the pace and pressure.”
“We are firing from all cylinders and it takes all 24,000 of us in [Canada’s] travel agency community to be helping,” she said.
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