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.
It was the call Caitlin Lajeunesse was dreading.
Last month, right before Christmas, the Cambridge, ON-based travel advisor’s clients – a family of five – were enjoying a warm Sunwing vacation in Cancun at The Grand at Moon Palace when suddenly, on the day before the group was scheduled to fly home, Lajeunesse saw her client’s name light up on her phone.
That’s when her “heart sank,” and after answering the call, her suspicions were confirmed: individuals in her booking – two sons and a father – had tested positive for COVID-19.
“It was scary for the entire family and myself,” said Lajeunesse, a Caribbean specialist who heads Vacations by Caitlin, an affiliate of Independent by Flight Centre. “I wasn't exactly sure what to do.”
After all, it’s not like Lajeunesse was receiving calls, like this one, regularly. For the past three months, she had sent hundreds of clients to beach destinations, without incident.
But with the discovery of the highly-contagious Omicron variant, which has aggressively spread through communities worldwide – vacation resorts included – Lajeunesse knew a call like this was inevitable.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty that comes with booking travel these days,” Lajeunesse told PAX. “Will my clients test positive? Will they be able to reach their rep? Will there be fees associated with their new return flight?”
Throwing travel for a loop
They’re fair questions.
Incidents of Canadians being forced to stay in destinations and quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19, amid the Omicron wave, are more common than ever, posing new challenges to travel advisors as they help clients navigate their way through an often-confusing system.
It’s an international ordeal that involves extra steps, such as rescheduling return flights, and unexpected costs when extended stays, food requirements and additional PCR tests are thrown into the mix.
COVID-positive travellers who can’t fly home as scheduled, and who aren’t prepared, also face the hassle of making last-minute arrangements, such as negotiating extra time off at work or securing help with extended child or pet care.
It’s an issue that many tour operators are paying close attention to.
In a B2B newsletter going out today (Jan. 19) from Air Canada Vacations (ACV), the company outlines its trade-specific tips for guiding COVID-positive customers in destination.
Those tips include urging clients to review their insurance plan in advance and to attend the welcome orientation at resorts (as this will provide them with the info they need if they test positive).
“We also advise reminding them to keep the information packet they receive upon arrival somewhere safe, as it contains relevant details that can help them if required,” writes Mary Santonato, manager of national accounts at ACV.
If a client tests positive for COVID-19 in destination, they should contact their insurance provider “immediately,” inform the hotel that they are extending their stay, contact their destination rep for next steps and cancel/reschedule their flight home, ACV says.
For professional travel advisors who care about the welfare of their customers, receiving news of a COVID-positive client in destination can be distressing.
“It was hard to handle at first,” Lajeunesse said. “I'm used to booking beautiful vacations and seeing my clients depart and return on their booked dates.”
Securing help in destination
But once COVID-19 enters the picture, plans change, as Lajeunesse quickly learned in taking those first initial steps to help her clients in Cancun.
The first thing Lajeunesse did was email the general manager of the resort – someone she knew personally – and from there, she was assured her clients would be taken care of.
Next, she advised her clients to contact their in-destination rep through the Sunwing App.
“This is something that needs to be available from all suppliers,” Lajeunesse said. “It’s necessary for clients to have their rep’s contact info as they are the only one to assist with the return flight.”
After Lajeunesse’s clients received positive tests, they were transferred to an isolation wing at Moon Palace, where they had a comfortable room, access to room service from all the restaurants, and were in constant communication with the property’s team.
On day five, Lajeunesse’s clients were able to test again and everyone’s results came back negative.
Sunwing rep Carlos (“Who was fabulous,” Lajeunesse noted) arranged a flight home for the family the next day and they were even able to enjoy one final day at the resort.
“They raved about the resort for the whole duration, and luckily, this continued through their quarantine stay,” Lajeunesse said. “There was no charge for the return flight change, which was very helpful.”
“I was so impressed with the level of care and communication from both Palace and Sunwing.”
But not every outcome has a happy ending. A successful resort quarantine can depend on several factors, from whether or not travellers choose to buy insurance, which can cover some travel interruption costs, to the manner in which destinations, and hotel chains, handle COVID-positive guests.
Quarantine locations aren’t universal either. For instance, it was only this month that Cuba began allowing COVID-positive guests to self-isolate at the hotel they booked with (instead of a government-designated facility).
She delivered a “care package”
Isolation times can also end sooner than expected, as Lajeunesse learned this month when she oversaw a second incident of COVID-19 that had found its way into a family booking of 20 people.
This group was having an “amazing” week at Hyatt Ziva Rose Hall in Montego Bay, but when it came time to complete the 72-hour PCR tests the Canadian government requires of international arrivals, both a mother and son tested positive for coronavirus, which meant they had to stay behind and quarantine.
In this case, Hyatt allowed the mother and son to stay in their original rooms, which had balconies, offered room service and a nurse checked in daily, Lajeunesse said.
“I was in constant communication with the guest experience team and the in-destination rep at Transat Holidays, Mary, who was wonderful. We touched base daily via WhatsApp,” she said.
Lajeunesse even arranged to delivered a “care package” to her clients with the help of a contact she had on the island “which went a long way.”
On day five, her clients got tested again. This time, the mom tested negative but the son was still positive, so he had to stay for 11 days, which, as of Jan. 15, is the shortest period of time a symptom-free traveller abroad must wait until they can show a positive molecular test (instead of a negative one) to fly back to Canada.
Once quarantine was over, Mary the Transat rep booked the return flights home, at no charge, and Lajeunesse’s clients were on their way.
Uncertainty in the air
While these two scenarios worked out well for Lajeunesse’s clients, not every file is smooth sailing, especially when communication (and expectations) break down between clients, agents and suppliers.
For agents, the most important thing, Lajeunesse says, is having that easy connection to reps in destination so an agent knows, for instance, if the rescheduled return flight is free or not.
“It seems each situation is different and that creates a lot of uncertainty for us,” Lajeunesse said.
This is precisely why Lajeunesse now advises her clients to obtain their in-destination rep's contact info when they arrive on property by attending the welcome meeting. In case she can’t.
Furthermore, after advising COVID-positive clients in destination twice now, Lajeunesse says she is narrowing down her product circle even further.
“Quality matters, more than ever right now, and I will only feel comfortable sending clients to resorts that have a comfortable plan in place for our mutual clients,” she said.
Quarantined in Saint Lucia
Gail Lea feels the same way.
Having confidence in a product, and setting expectations, was her approach from the get-go when she went ahead and organized a FAM trip for five travel agents in Saint Lucia this month with Sunswept Resorts.
The experience from Jan. 5-12 started with five nights at the BodyHoliday and finished at sister property, Rendezvous.
But on Jan. 11, the day before they were scheduled to fly home to Canada, Lea and her colleagues received a late-night phone call from hotel reception, informing them that four out of five return-home PCR tests for the group were positive – including Lea’s.
“Our reaction was complete surprise,” said Lea, a Montreal, QC-based advisor with Direct Travel, because none of her colleagues had coronavirus symptoms and she, herself, only had a slight “uhumhum” in her throat.
But there was no way around it. The next day, the positive members in the group were transferred to a secluded part of Rendezvous, in the entry-level Garden View section, which was reserved for COVID-positive guests.
“Prior to departure, I asked each agent the same question: Should we test COVID positive, are you ready and willing to assume full responsibility for your choice to travel? This, I believe, was the best move I could have made,” Lea said.
In fact, it’s a question that Lea recommends all travel agents ask their clients before processing a booking.
“We need to make clients aware that, prior to booking, there is a possibility they may find themselves in quarantine and their choice of destination, and property, will make all the difference,” Lea said.
Lea had long followed Saint Lucia’s COVID-19 health and safety measures and was confident enough to escort a group to the Eastern Caribbean island, praising the country’s “pro-active” approach.
Prior to travelling, she told her group: “If we are to test positive for COVID, Saint Lucia is the destination you would want to be in.”
Now that she’s been in quarantine there for more than a week, she can speak about the experience with firsthand knowledge.
“We have been treated extremely well,” Lea wrote PAX in a message from her quarantine room at Rendezvous.
For example: her room came stocked with cleaning products, linen, shampoo and toiletries, and three gourmet meals are served each day – “plus teatime.”
The beds and pillows “are the same quality” as the rest of the resort, there’s a “lovely patio” with two chairs and a table, plus a lounge chair with a soft cushion to lie on during the day.
The group is checked in on, daily, by a nurse, who takes their temperatures and checks their heart rates and levels of oxygen in their blood, and the director and assistant director contacts Lea each day to see how everyone is doing.
“The staff, who bring us anything we need, are so kind and considerate. They have become our friends…from a distance,” Lea said.
Of course, Lea, who has organized many adventures over the years through her FAM de Femmes group, understands that her quarantine stay at a luxury resort differs from “some of the nightmare experiences” that have been shared with mainstream media and on travel agent Facebook pages.
Catching COVID-19 in Saint Lucia has taught her that when choosing a destination and property, “budget should no longer be the driving force” behind a client’s decision.
“It is our responsibility, as agents, to guide our clients towards properties that will ensure their safety and comfort,” Lea said. “It is no longer a question of ‘deal,’ but ‘value.’”
“We are professionals who are there to guide our clients. Not just to take an order like a fast food drive-thru.”
“Know your stuff”
Lea’s advice to other travel advisors during Omicron season?
“Know your stuff,” she said. “Do not book a client in a destination or at a property that cannot provide on-site quarantine.”
And “be prepared and available” to clients, Lea added. “They booked with you expecting assistance and guidance. It is your job,” she said.
And, above all, remain calm and confident if and when you get that call or text.
“Clients can sense when you are on top of things, which will help them feel secure in destination,” Lea said. “If you’re an agent in panic, then how can you expect your client to remain calm?”
Be ready, yes, but “don't lose sleep” over it, as Lajeunesse says.
“Clients are travelling, knowing that there’s a risk. It's not your fault [if clients test positive while abroad] and you can't fix it,” she said.
But what travel agents can be is a support person. “So be there and check in with your clients if they have to quarantine. They will be lonely and a text, here and there, goes a long way,” Lajeunesse said.
“Set the expectations before they depart. It is important clients know that this is not an extension of their vacation. The vacation ends and isolation begins.”
“The key is knowing what to expect so clients (and you) are prepared and not shocked if it happens.”
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