Travel advisors are firing back at comments made by Ontario Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries Lisa MacLeod, who, speaking to media last week, urged travel professionals to send their clients to places in Ontario instead of sun destinations down south.
As first reported by PAX, the remarks were made during a virtual press conference on Oct. 7 to launch a $6 million-dollar campaign, called “Rediscover Ontario,” that encourages Ontarians to “safely rediscover the diversity of attractions and experiences that demonstrate Ontario offers the world in one province.”
When the floor opened for questions, PAX asked Minister MacLeod why travel advisors were excluded from a $100 million-dollar tourism recovery program that the province unveiled on Sept. 27.
MacLeod, in response, said the program is geared towards “resuscitating actual attractions” and that TICO-registered travel agents, earlier this year, had an opportunity to apply for the Ontario Tourism and Travel Small Business Support Grant, as well as federal supports, instead.
But as PAX has previously reported, many travel advisors – independent ones, in particular – did not qualify for Ontario’s small business grants.
Ontario, this year, took the position that only TICO-registered agencies were eligible for the funding, which did not cover many independent advisors who are registered through a host agency.
PAX shared this fact with Minister MacLeod, who said “we worked within the guidelines of what the auditor general would have expected.”
The Minister then suggested Ontario travel advisors focus on selling experiences within the province rather than sending their clients abroad to sun destinations.
“One of the things we talked about with the [Tourism Economic Recovery Ministerial Task Force] was building out itineraries – so rather than travel agents looking at how they can book travellers from Ontario into places like Cancun, or the Dominican Republic, or other places… [they would] find those travel itineraries here,” MacLeod said.
Tim Hudak, Chair of Ontario’s Tourism Economic Recovery Ministerial Task Force, later echoed this sentiment, saying that Ontario is looking at ways of adding the all-you-can-drink, all-inclusive format typically seen at resorts in the Caribbean to its own hotels, resorts and festivals to attract tourism dollars.
“It’s these types of ideas that we think would be very attractive to tourists in our province, and outside of it, and offer new business opportunities for travel agents,” Hudak told PAX.
Get ready for "balmy Ontario"
But travel advisors aren’t convinced.
Shortly after an Oct. 13 story about the Minister’s remarks was published, a barrage of angry comments filled PAX’s Facebook page as travel advisors, many of whom have lost nearly 2.5 years-worth of income due to the pandemic, and have worked for free for 19 months processing refunds and travel credits, pushed back.
As agents blasted Minister’s MacLeod remarks using words like “ignorant” and “clueless,” readers outlined several reasons why selling travel in Ontario doesn’t quite equate with selling sun destinations like Cancun.
The low (or lack of) commissions attached to selling domestic products is one obvious point. There aren’t many travel advisors out there making money off of locally-run hotels, Airbnb rooms and boating tours.
And travel agents (who, also, sell a lot more than just sand and sun) can market Ontario all they like, but they might have trouble convincing clients to stay in the province, and not travel south, when Old Man Winter rears his head.
In response to Minister MacLeod’s statements, a satirical meme began circulating on social media on Thursday (Oct. 14) depicting a woman in a blue bikini, sitting on a throne made of snow under an umbrella, drinking a bottled beverage in the wintery outdoors.
“Special offer,” the meme reads. “Book your January all-inclusive vacation in balmy Ontario. Enjoy negative temperatures, frost bite, and possible hypothermia. For a 20% discount enter ‘Lisa MacLeod’ at checkout.”
Milton, ON-based travel advisor Kristin Hoogendoorn, who created the meme, said Minister MacLeod’s words are not only short-sighted, but also “a clear indication that she has no idea how our business works” – especially after Ontario agents were shut out of the province’s $100M tourism recovery plan.
“Ontario generates the lion's share of revenue in travel arrangement and reservation services for outgoing travel. I am not sure Minister MacLeod gets that,” Hoogendoorn told PAX.
MacLeod’s statements also come as the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) – the only federal aid program that most Canadian independent travel advisors could access – ends on Oct. 23.
"The door has been closed to Ontario travel advisors not once, not twice, but three times,” Hoogendoorn said, referring to the barriers agents have faced in accessing provincial grants. “My fear is that we are going to lose amazing and dedicated travel advisors when we have spent so long holding on.”
“We are so close to the finish line and all we are asking for is aid to help bridge the gap. That has never been offered to us.”
“Minister MacLeod has insulted us without ever giving us the time of day.”
ACITA is trying
The Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA), which has been meeting with government officials over Zoom during the pandemic to educate politicians on how the travel industry works (and why independent agents need help), has yet to secure a meeting with Lisa MacLeod despite several attempts.
“We continue to tag her in posts and email her office in an attempt to get a meeting directly with her,” ACITA’s Brenda Slater of Beyond the Beach told PAX.
“Really, the statement she made speaks volumes (or lack thereof) of her understanding of the role independent advisors play in Canadian and Ontario tourism.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Canada’s travel arrangement and reservation services industry generated $14 billion in operating revenue in 2018, up 0.4% from the previous year, according to Statistics Canada.
Ontario, notably, accounted for the largest share of revenue (46.3%), followed by Quebec (22.3%), British Columbia (18.6%) and Alberta (9.0%).
“We are intent on educating our Ontario Tourism Minister on what we do, and why she should be including us in the tourism recovery plan,” Slater said, noting how ACITA has made key alliances with politicians, such as MP Vance Badawey, who has agreed to help the grassroots group secure meetings with high-ranking politicians.
Grimsby, ON-based travel advisor Sarah Boville of Barefoot Travel said it’s “so disappointing” that Ontario isn’t recognizing the role travel advisors play in tourism recovery.
“Selling within Ontario does not support the recovery of airlines, airports, tour operators, cruise lines and hotels, which is needed for this industry to recover as a whole,” Boville told PAX.
At a time when travel advisors continue to face serious financial hardships, Kimberly Machan of Essence of Romance Travel said Minister MacLeod’s comments “reek of ignorance.”
“For me, it only solidified that she has made no attempt to understand the dynamic of our businesses,” Machan told PAX. “Nor has she listened to many of our local MPs, who have also tried to advocate for many of us in Ontario.”
Machan said she can’t suddenly turn to her destination wedding clients (“hundreds of combined travellers”) and tell them that their dreams of a wedding surrounded by turquoise waters and palm trees needs to be found somewhere in Ontario.
These include groups who have “tens of thousands of dollars invested,” Machan said.
“I have a responsibility to these clients who are already booked for their destination weddings. I can’t just abandon them because Lisa Macleod doesn't seem to value their own personal travel needs and wants.”
“Not only does it show a lack of consideration to travel advisors, it is also incredibly disrespectful to Ontario residents who have the right to get adequate professional help, through advisors, when they choose to spend their very hard-earned money on travel.”
PAX has reached out to Ontario’s Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries offices for further comment.