Michael Pihach & Christine Hogg
“It’s been a difficult time, but never before has the value of a travel agent been so strong,” said Susan Bowman, vice-president of marketing and industry relations at Transat Distribution Canada (TDC).
With that sentiment in mind, Bowman, alongside a panel of industry all-stars – notably, Tim Morgan (general manager for Canada at Virtuoso) and David Harris (chief executive officer at Ensemble Travel Group), met via web cam on Tuesday (June 16th) to exchange ideas about the road ahead for Canada’s travel agencies.
As part of Pax Global Media’s PAX Live show, a weekly broadcast on PAXnews.com’s Facebook page, the meeting unfolded as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to put economic pressures on travel advisors, and agencies, countrywide.
“We need to stay strong and resilient,” Bowman told PAX Live host Frederic Gonzalo, an online marketing expert.
Bowman’s words, notably, came on the same day that TDC announced that it was reopening more than 25 of its Transat Travel agencies in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec, all of which will be accompanied by new health and safety protocols.
READ MORE: TDC reopens more than 25 Transat Travel agencies
Harris said the COVID-19 situation is “beyond a branded challenge,” calling the travel industry a brand in of itself, and stressed the importance of working together during this difficult time.
“It’s important for everyone to do what they need to do to stay relevant and stay in touch with their clients,” Harris said.
Morgan recognized the emotions many have felt over the past few months ever since COVID-19 suspended travel activities due to border closures and restrictions.
However: “Travel advisors thrive at resiliency,” Morgan said. “With resilience, you have to have hope as well. Our members and advisors are anxious, but hopeful.”
A tarnished reputation?
Harris pointed to the “reality” of the coronavirus crisis, that being that it’s an unprecedented event.
“We don’t have the answers, and neither do our suppliers,” he said. “It’s easy to think of ourselves, but these very large companies are dealing with unbelievable struggles.”
The economic uncertainty of the situation has led many travel companies to issue vouchers to customers for cancelled travel during the pandemic, instead of refunds, creating a hot-button issue that many travel advisors have had to navigate with their clients.
Vouchers vs. refunds is a debate that has generated controversy, and federal attention, but will it impact the reputation of travel advisors in the long run?
“Most clients know that this is a supplier decision, backed by the federal government and other regulatory bodies,” Bowman said. “The travel advisor’s role is to give the best advice and help [clients] with their future plans. Some clients aren’t happy, but I don’t believe this will stick on the travel professional as a fault of theirs. They’re simply doing their jobs and trying to do what’s best.”
Despite the industry’s economic downturn, being a strong advocate for the business is one way to rise above the current situation, Morgan suggested.
“One of the main functions [of a travel advisor] is to be an advocate – the middle person between travel and travellers,” he said. “Travel advisors who take advocacy seriously will thrive.”
Service fees – a golden opportunity?
The mid-to-late ’90s saw many travel agencies adapt professional service fees.
In coping with today’s crisis, agencies that uphold a formal fee structure have “a significant leg up,” Harris said.
“I hope those that have chosen to not charge fees strongly consider it,” Harris said. “You can’t give away your product…It’s just not viable when we’re making as little as five per cent and some are earning nothing.”
Harris called fees “overdue” and urged businesses that have not implemented fees to “look very carefully at this,” he said.
Morgan echoed that sentiment, stating that there “should always be a fee” associated with a professional service, noting that fees could take the shape of a membership or monthly payment model.
“At TDC, we charge service fees and we’re proud of it,” Bowman added. “We encourage our members to do the same. Would you have argued with someone to pay $50-$100 to help you through the repatriation crisis? No. Working with customers, no matter what happens, travel advisors need a lot of skills to be in the business.”
On selling domestic travel
Bound to a federal non-essential travel ban and a 14-day mandatory self-isolation order upon re-entering Canada, some Canadians may explore their own country this summer – a prospect that, potentially, could get the market moving again.
“Whether you can go between borders, provincially, or even in your own backyard, there are some amazing options for people that they might never have thought of before,” Bowman said, noting that TDC has started seeing an uptick in bookings. “We celebrate [bookings] like they are candy...We’re beginning to see people get excited about travel.”
READ MORE: More than half of Canadians plan to stay home this summer, survey says
Virtuoso is taking a holistic approach to the pandemic, said Morgan, breaking it down into three phases: crisis, recovery and reinvention. (Domestic travel, he said, fits into the recovery phase).
Harris said “there’s no question” that local travel is an option that will help matters.
However: “It’s unfortunate that advisors are not consulted upon for local travel as much as they are for international and transborder activity,” he said. “Advisors should hone their skills and develop [local travel] as a legitimate opportunity.”
Words of wisdom
Each of our panelists shared their advice for Canada's travel trade as the travel economy gradually reopens.
“Stay close. We are one industry and we can help each other,” said Bowman. “Together, we will all come through this. It’s the attitude that we take that will get us there. Consumers will be ready to travel again. However, the love for travel has never been more profound. We need to hold our heads up and continue to shine.”
Harris urged travels pros to remain optimistic.
“We need to get to market and let consumers know what travel will look like,” he said. “We may not have all the answers, but we need to be proactive.”
"From the advisor standpoint, have hope, remain resilient, and help your clients dream,” he said. “They want to travel again, so help them do that.”
These were some of many ideas shared on Tuesday’s show. Click the video below to watch the entire episode!
PAX Live will return with a brand-new episode next Tuesday, June 23rd at 2:00 p.m. (EST) on PAXnews.com's Facebook page. Stay tuned for details!
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