Wednesday,  August 12, 2020  7:38 pm

“We’re not taking no for an answer”: Group rallies independent advisors as lobbying efforts gain steam


“We’re not taking no for an answer”: Group rallies independent advisors as lobbying efforts gain steam
Brenda Slater, Beyond the Beach (left); Nancy Wilson, TravelOnly (top, right); Judith Coates, TTAND (bottom, right).
Michael Pihach

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.

A newly-formed association of Canadian travel advisors that is fighting for an extension of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), among other things, is urging others in the trade to join their cause.

Why now? A call for change is gaining momentum, and politicians are starting to listen.

The Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors, a group dedicated solely to independent and home-based travel agents, was formed in June to not only provide a forum for advisors during the coronavirus crisis, but to also help Canadian politicians understand the unique challenges travel pros have experienced during the economic downturn.

Founded by Judith Coates of The Travel Agent Next Door (TTAND) and Brenda Slater of Beyond the Beach, the association rallies their 900-plus membership on a private Facebook group and provides them with pre-written letters, which agents then mail to their local MP.

The letters not only request the continuation of CERB funding (specifically, the $2,000 monthly income for independent contractors who rely 100 per cent on commission) but also paint a clear picture of the harsh realities that agents are facing during the pandemic.

The letter, for one, points out that commission is paid to self-employed agents, on average, 139 to 317 days after a customer has booked (which differs from other businesses, like restaurants and hair salons, that receive payment when services are provided).

It also outlines other demands, beyond extending the CERB benefit from 24 weeks to 39 weeks, such as modifying Canada’s EI/UI policies to accommodate independent travel advisors and easing travel restrictions so travel can safely resume.  

But first and foremost, these letters request either a personal call, or a group video chat – via Zoom – with MPs so the group, and agents in the riding, can personally explain why they need help.

The MPs that agree to a 30-minute meeting (there’s 14 of them now, by the way, and counting) are then provided with a separate pre-written letter addressed to Finance Minister Bill Morneau, Chair of the Finance Committee Wayne Easter, and Minister of Small Business and Trade Mary Ng, among others at the top.

The MPs are then encouraged to mail that letter, personally, to the decision makers.

The goal, now, is to secure a spot at the table at this September’s finance meeting, which will give the association an opportunity to voice their concerns, in person.

Is this group serious? Hell yes.

“We’re not taking no for an answer,” Brenda Slater told PAX in a video interview that also included her founding partner, Judith Coates, alongside new recruit Nancy Wilson of TravelOnly.

That passionate, no-nonsense, can-do attitude is what’s guiding this group’s every move as it orchestrates the “aggressive push” needed to ensure that action is taken before financial aid runs out.

“People are worried. We’re worried,” said Slater. “We need to engage and get something happening to help us.”

“We’re not taking no for an answer,” Brenda Slater told PAX. (Supplied)

Taking things 2, 3 steps further

Letter writing campaigns within Canada’s travel industry isn’t new.

The Association for Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA) has lobbied governments, for years, over a variety of issues – including the extension of the CERB during the COVID-19 crisis.

ACTA, also, has encouraged travel advisors to write their local MPs, providing members with ready-to-mail letters that make lobbying easy.

While the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors appreciates ACTA’s efforts, “We’re trying to take it two, three steps further,” said Slater.

“MPs don’t answer their emails – their emails go to assistants, and those assistants go through hundreds on a daily basis,” she said.

The group believes ACTA’s approach lacks direct follow-up on behalf of the advisor.

“We’re directing our members to send repeated emails, every several days, to ensure MPs are getting the information,” said Slater. “We’re getting further into the big pot to give it a big ole’ stir.”

Their biggest differentiator, the group says, is securing that face-to-face (virtual) meeting with the MPs (“It means a lot more,” said Slater).

If a meeting doesn't happen, the protocol is to “follow up, follow up, follow up.”

Just like the way a travel agent would chase a lead, explained Slater.

“When somebody calls asking for a quote, you send them a quote, and then you send them an email saying, ‘Hey! What did you think of that quote?’ It’s the same process,” she said.

The stuff politicians need to hear

The group’s efforts are meant to “overlap” with ACTA’s, explained Coates, who said politicians are shocked when they hear, first-hand, how long it takes for independent advisors to get paid.

“The light goes on for them,” said Coates. “They think that once we make a booking, we get paid our commission. When, really, it could be year or year-and-a-half until we see it.”

Another thing MPs don’t realize, she said, is that self-employed agents typically don’t qualify for the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) loan, the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), or EI.

As such, the group is also lobbying for a special add-on to Canada’s EI program so independent contractors, like travel agents who earn delayed commissions, can receive support.

Then there’s Canada’s travel ban and quarantine measures, which the group believes is having a severe impact on the industry’s ability to survive.

“We’re asking for the government to be a little more creative instead of issuing a blanket ‘do not travel outside of Canada’ [order],” said Coates. “There are places that have a good handle on COVID. Why not open up to those countries?”

Testing travellers for COVID-19 when they return home, and exempting those who test negative from a 14-day isolation order, would also help the industry, said Coates.

We’re asking for the government to be a little more creative instead of issuing a blanket ‘do not travel outside of Canada’ [order],” said Judith Coates. (Supplied)

The group would also like to know when Canada’s passport offices (which have been closed for months) will reopen so clients can renew their travel documents. 

“These seem like easy solutions and yet [the government] seems to be dragging their heels,” said Coates.

The group is, however, grateful for the support they have received from politicians, including the Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, Bruce Stanton, who is MP for Simcoe North (Slater and Coates’ riding in Ontario).

MP Stanton was the first to meet with Slater and Coates on June 12th, providing them with a solid action plan, including letters outlining the issues, addressed to Ottawa’s leaders, that the ladies could offer, as a way of convenience, to any MPs willing to back their cause.

Tim Uppal (Millwoods, Edmonton, AB), Dane Lloyd (Sturgeon River-Parkland, AB), Colin Carrie (Oshawa, ON), Michael Barrett (Leeds—Grenville—Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes, ON) and Marwan Tabbara (Kitchener South-Hespeler, ON) are among the 14 MPs that have, so far, engaged with the association. 

A good start, yes, but the group would like to see more action in the Atlantic provinces, as well as in British Columbia, where activity is lacking, they say.

Get involved

It all comes down to travel advisors sending that “door opening” letter to their local MP, and scheduling that Zoom meeting, the group says.

“A lot of people feel intimidated by that level of communication,” said Wilson, who joined the group’s leadership team recently.

The association makes it easy, however. Through their Facebook group, they coach members and even present the issues to the MPs in the Zoom call, if one occurs.

“You get the meeting, we’ll handle everything else,” said Wilson.

The group (which is open only to independent advisors “because our issues are different,” noted Slater) estimates that there are 10-12,000 agents in Canada working on commission – a number they expect will grow as more advisors go home-based.

"You get the meeting, we’ll handle everything else,” said Nancy Wilson. (Supplied)

Competitors working together

Slater, Coates and Wilson (a travel agent supergroup comparable to Crosby, Stills and Nashall, notably, work for competing agencies.

This experience, they say, has built a type camaraderie never seen before in the industry.

“Up until this point, it’s been very territorial,” said Coates, who didn’t meet Slater until that first meeting with MP Stanton. “You didn’t collaborate with anyone who wasn’t in the same company. Whereas now, we’re joining together, regardless of which host agency we work for.”

The higher-ups are helping, too – TravelOnly’s Gregory Luciani, TTAND's Flemming Friisdahl, and Nexion Canada’s Mike Foster, among others, have offered guidance to the group when and where possible.  

While the group has, by their estimates, so far rallied about 10 per cent of independent advisors in Canada, they still face detractors.

Some agents, the group says, have “piled on” their efforts, questioning their relevancy when “ACTA is taking care of it” already.

To that, the group says: “more the merrier.”

“It’s easy to sit back and say there’s a group looking after it all,” said Coates. “But it’s all of us doing it – your individual effort – that is making the difference.”

It’s about building a “momentum” and having a seat at the table, Coates explained.

And ensuring that travel advisors can continue to work in field that they are immensely passionate about.

As Wilson put it: “We all want to see a healthy future for our industry.”  

Want to join the movement? Independent travel advisors are encouraged to join the association’s Facebook group by clicking here.

Interested parties can also email Coates (jcoates@thetravelagentnextdoor.com), Slater (brenda@beyondthebeach.net) and Wilson (nwilson@travelonly.com) directly for more information.


Don't miss a single travel story: subscribe to PAX today!

Indicator...