Certain about the uncertainty
Four agents talk about the path to recovery
Several veteran Toronto-area travel agents say there’s light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to a rebound in business, but differ somewhat on how brightly that light is shining right now.
The agents say there remains a significant number of obstacles during these days of the coronavirus pandemic for a major rebound to happen in the near future, although some are optimistic about travel’s long-term prospects, even if that optimism may sometimes be guarded.
Ready to travel, not ready to book
David Pierce of Collacutt Travel told Canadian Travel Press that his agency is seeing “very little sign of actual business – a villa vacation and a trip to St. Lucia won’t pay the bills. We are keeping interest alive with planned group trips to Cuba and Nassau through our newsletter and social media postings.”
Collacutt’s physical office is closed right now, with staff working from home.
Pierce says he believes that there are many who are “maybe ready to travel, but not ready to book. All the tour operator/cruise incentives that allow late booking and flexibility actually work in reverse in some cases as the client says ‘I will wait and see what other incentives might come along.’ Changes in ‘refund policies’ also make the client hesitant.”
“The rebound will be more protracted than I would have expected,” he continues. “Failure by the government to support the airlines is just now being reflected by Air Canada and WestJet. These ‘permanent layoffs’ will have a huge multiplier effect on the economy, which in turn means fewer people travelling etc. All of the virus-defending processes are costly and ultimately must be reflected in the cost of flying. The ‘opportunity’ is to address selective markets that can afford the opportunities. I know this sounds somewhat discriminatory, but that seems to be the short-term future until airlines and tour operators get back to pre-COVID 19 levels. But even then, travel will be considerably more expensive.”
Pierce expects a travel rebound will come but warns that “we won’t suddenly break out into sunlight and have everything back to where it was.”
One positive development cited by Pierce is that “the value of travel agents must, by now, be acknowledged, and as such a full range of service fees must be established and recognized. The COVID 19 event has seen us doing massive amounts of work to recover clients’ issues for no compensation, but in many cases, we are refunding commissions as well as doing the work – a double whammy.”
Too many unknowns
UNIGLOBE agent Ethel Hansen Davey reports her agency is seeing some inquiries but that’s not now translating into many bookings.
Hansen Davey has long ties with Mexico and has seen some January bookings for the destination but wonders if they’ll be changed following the news that Aeromexico has filed for bankruptcy protection.
She reports her agency is seeing some interest in 2021 European river cruises but adds that there’s a “reluctance to commit until the fall,” and coronavirus concerns continue to hinder island tourism.
Another obstacle is Ottawa’s requirement that those who return to this country self-quarantine for two weeks.
Nevertheless, Hansen Davey remains upbeat about tourism’s future.
“I’m very hopeful,” she says. “However, with all eyes on the inability of the US to get their COVID-19 ducks in a row, it will take time for many destinations to open. There are some destinations that require connecting flights through US hubs and that makes many Canadians nervous. Many clients are also expressing concerns about booking in advance only to find that the tour operator, airline or resort will go out of business before travel time. There are just too many unknowns at the moment.”
And she concluded: “As an agent that has seen our industry weather many storms, I know we will rebound. It’s the timeline that is uncertain.”
Confident of a rebound
Paul Nielsen also sees reason to be hopeful, thanks in part to his tourism industry counterparts.
“Business potential is excellent,” he says. “Our task is to deliver suitable marketing to draw the clients in. Our industry partners (hotels, tour operators) are tremendous aid in this.”
But he cautions that, “until people get past the fear (that reinforces every time they put on a mask or struggle to talk through plexi-glass) the commitment to travel will be weak. We are seeing strictly family travel and mostly to Greece.”
But Nielsen says he’s confident that there will be a travel rebound, although it’s not yet clear when that will be.
And he too expects people will have a greater appreciation for travel agents, with his agency using phones and emails to respond with its “usual crispness” and is looking ahead to having clients visit the agency after making appointments after such visits are okayed by authorities. A “socially distant consultation space” has been prepared in the office.
“The push-me-pull-ya is that people will have heard nightmares with online agencies but have to overcome the social fear of a face to face with us in our office (ie working with real people in the neighbourhood who have invested a great deal in relationships with the suppliers is now clearly the preference).”
Worried about the future
Meanwhile, Roger Boyajian of Sevan Travel says coronavirus has created a number of complications and frustrations.
“We are operating on a 4-day basis,” he reports. “Apparently, people have not decided yet that travel is on their agenda and their priorities seem to be their health, their livelihood and the economy.”
The reopening of some Caribbean islands to tourists is not yet leading to inquiries about vacations in that part of the world, he says.
Some Sevan Travel customers who travel business class each year to Europe and the Middle East are disappointed by airlines not now booking them to their hoped-for destinations, and the agency has had a few clients who found themselves stuck in Europe after connecting flights were cancelled.
“Meanwhile, some airlines are cancelling their flights in July and are refusing to refund the passengers and they are issuing vouchers for future travel,” Boyajian continues.
“In this pandemic and COVID-19 situation, we are very worried for the future of the travel industry,” he warns. “Many of my colleagues and travel agencies are under stress, mentally and financially, and cannot cope any more if this situation continues. It will be extremely hard to carry on with the travel business, which we love and serve the public to realize their dreams to travel to exciting destinations.”