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.
Winter booking trends, call centre wait times and building a bright future for travel advisors that embraces new technology.
Those were some of the many themes covered on Wednesday (Sept. 14) at the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies’ (ACTA’s) 2022 Travel Industry Summit at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.
The conference brought together roughly 300 travel advisors and industry leaders for a full day of panels, meetings, prizes and presentations that revolved around the latest travel industry research, insights, trends and best practices.
Yesterday afternoon, president of Tripcentral.ca Richard Vanderlubbe moderated a discussion on ways to rebuild the Canadian travel industry – together.
The live chat on stage featured Stéphanie Bishop, managing director, Globus family of brands; Frank DeMarinis, CEO of TravelBrands; Monica Johnstone, president and owner of UNIGLOBE Travel Innovations; and Nino Montagnese, vice-president of Air Canada Vacations (ACV).
Last-minute travel, higher commission
Speaking for Globus, Bishop noted how last-minute bookings – trips that are happening within three months – for river cruises and tours are driving the recovery.
“We're also seeing that the average booking is much, much higher than in the past,” she said. “We're seeing consumers that want to have experiences…We're seeing multi-generation travel. We're seeing small groups that have taken on a life of their own. I'm not talking three passengers. I'm talking friends and family travelling together.”
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DeMarinis said the industry at large is doing “extremely well,” given that price points are up 40 per cent over where they were in 2019.
“You’re earning more commission today then you have ever before because of that margin increase,” DeMarinis told the audience.
The TravelBrands CEO said the market’s performance, these days, heavily depends on what's trending in the media.
Stories about airport delays, lost luggage, or even former U.S. President Donald Trump, can have a negative impact on sales, DeMarinis explained.
“When there's no negativity in the market, the demand increases dramatically,” he said. “Right now, no news is good news.”
Leisure travel, DeMarinis said, is what’s driving the industry’s recovery at this stage of the pandemic.
“If you're not in leisure, I highly recommend you switch gears a little bit until corporate travel comes back,” DeMarinis told the crowd.
UNIGLOBE’s Monica Johnstone said corporate travel likely won’t recover until offices are fully opened and employees are back to work.
Inflation isn’t helping either.
She referenced a study from the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) that suggested that global business travel won’t reach pre-pandemic levels until 2026.
Meanwhile, at ACV, bookings have been “quite strong” as fall and winter rolls in, said Montagnese. Across all product lines (with exception to cruise).
Europe, in particular, is trending strong as customers, as per Bishop’s point, are travelling at the last minute – “within the next few weeks,” Montagnese said.
“What we have found is that [customers] are looking for flexibility,” he said. “They’re looking for five nights, six nights, nine nights, 10 nights. They don't want to be pushed into the seven and 14 days.”
ACV "staffed up" for winter calls
As for reducing telephone wait times for travel advisors, a problem that has plagued most tour operators during COVID, Montagnese said ACV is prepared for the upcoming winter rush.
“We're pretty staffed up,” he said. “Our wait times have been very good over the last month, and we are prepared for the winter season. Fingers crossed that we can maintain this.”
“Let's face it, the hospitality industry got hit the hardest [during COVID]. A lot of peers left the industry years and never came back. It has been very difficult to recruit.”
Montagnese pleaded with the travel trade to embrace technology, like ACV’s new self-serve tools.
“If you talk to anyone on our sales team, they're pushing, ‘Serve yourself. Help yourself. Don't sit on a phone and wait.’ You can virtually manage your booking from A to Z on our website,” he said.
TravelBrands spending millions on tech
On technology, DeMarinis said TravelBrands is investing millions of dollars in digital modernization.
“All of that is going to be geared towards you, the travel agent, and how you interact with our brand in the future,” he said. “Over the next two years, you're going to see a vast improvement on where we are today to where we're going.”
Amazon Web Services (AWS), he said, is going to lead TravelBrands’ strategy.
“This industry is still in the dark ages, in certain aspects,” DeMarinis said. "The issue we have, going in and coming out of a pandemic, is that we did not have the digital transformation ready.”
One example is how tour operators, like ACV, unveiled flexible booking options at the height of the pandemic to stimulate business.
“We weren't set up in the back end,” Montagnese said. “We had to step back, and then rebuild everything in order to accommodate it.”
During a Q&A, one agent pointed out how the aging population – a group that relies heavily on travel agents – likely won’t embrace new technologies and that launching high-tech platforms, too quickly, could lead to lost business.
DeMarinis clarified his plan, saying that TravelBrands is “building the future for travel agents so you can interact with suppliers, like myself, in a more convenient way.”
TravelBrands is building “a more holistic solution” for the trade when it comes to interacting with the company, he said.
“So we don't have questions like, ‘Where's My Refund? Or, ‘I need to call in to make this change.'"
DeMarinis added that TravelBrands is also eliminating general terms and conditions.
“The way you're going to be able to interact with us in the future is going to be personalized to that specific booking,” he said.
"We should be paid for the work we do"
How travel advisors get paid was also discussed. Pre-pandemic, most tour operators paid commissions at final payment.
At ACV, when the pandemic hit, “we were in a position where we had millions and millions of dollars paid out to suppliers and paid out to our trade partners. And when I say millions, it is millions,” Montagnese said.
ACV, in turn, decided to pay commissions at departure.
“As soon as the passenger departs, commission is released. We are on a two-week cycle where commissions get printed and sent out. Will that change in the near future? Possibly. But right now, I think everyone is just trying to protect themselves,” Montagnese said.
Bishop noted how Globus, during COVID, paid commissions – even on deposits.
“I think that was certainly well received from the agent community,” she said. “We are always looking for ways to secure more of your paycheque throughout the process.”
On the industry’s commission structure, DeMarinis was frank.
“We're not going to resolve this answer today,” he said. “This is a complicated question. When Nino says millions of dollars, he’s actually putting it a very lightly. It's hundreds of millions of dollars that are at stake. Can the industry change on how payments are received and distributed? Yes, I believe there's a solution. But it's not here today. It doesn't exist.”
Johnstone offered an agency perspective on the matter.
“I personally feel we should be paid for the work we do, whether the trip happens or not,” Johnstone said, generating applause in the room.
She said agents should get a portion of cancellation penalties when they occur.
“It's a conversation that needs to be had. We work hard, we charge fees… But when it comes down to it, if you've charged your customer $100 or $300, or whatever, the potential loss in revenue could be into thousands of dollars. That's a big ticket to a travel agent.”
Montagnese noted that ACV, for one, does pay if a booking gets cancelled.
The tour operator has changed its policy for preferred partners so that even on a deposit, if cancelled, the company will pay a per person amount for the deposit on a quarterly basis, he said.
“We're not keeping any fees without giving back,” Montagnese said.
"Pumped & excited about selling travel"
ACTA’s Toronto summit was one of three happening this month – the in-person event will move to Richmond, B.C., on Sept. 20 and then Laval, Q.C., on Sept. 28
The Toronto stop included a keynote address by G Adventures’ Founder Bruce Poon Tip, who discussed the many ways agents can use travel as a force for change, and an uplifting presentation by Gary C. Sadler, executive vice-president of sales and industry relations at Sandals and Beaches Resorts.
Louise Gardiner, CTM, ACTA board treasurer and VP of The Agency Solution by The Travel Agent Next Door, led a panel featuring travel advisors, who shared how they survived the pandemic by revamping their business.
There was a trade show featuring more than 50 exhibitors, from destinations to airlines to tour operators to cruise lines to ground transportation companies.
Speaking to PAX at the end of the day, Wendy Paradis, ACTA’s president, said she was pleased with how engaged agents were.
“They’re pumped and excited about selling travel,” Paradis said. “The desire to learn, engage, and be part of something bigger is really incredible.”
At the same time, as demonstrated by the afternoon panel, it’s clear “there are parts of our infrastructure that our broken,” Paradis said.
“There is a desire to work together on some of these difficult fixes,” she said.
Winter restrictions are a legit concern
As for ACTA’s advocacy focus moving forward, the team is legitimately concerned about potential federal actions that could, once again, disrupt travel this winter as flu season begins.
Even after Transport Minister Omar Alghabra submitted a friendly video message to play at ACTA’s summit – in which he thanked advisors for their patience over the last couple of years and promised to listen and remain “a partner” – Paradis is remaining cautious.
“I am concerned. However, optimistic,” she said. “A lot will depend on variants.”
As PAX reported yesterday, ACTA is advocating to keep Canada’s border open so the travel industry can thrive.
“We will be assertively and proactively advocating – as we have – to reemphasize to key ministers the impact that travel advisories and border restrictions have on our industry, and how they have very little benefit in stopping the spread of COVID-19,” Paradis said, noting the importance of working with government collaboratively.
“We have heard things throughout the summer about being prepared to increase testing and bring back testing. Nobody wants it, but based on the insight we have, it is a real concern," she said.
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