Plan B is NOT an option
Relaxing restrictions will go a long way to stimulating demand
While it’s not the V-shaped recovery that the industry was hoping for, Direct Travel’s president, Canada West, Brian Robertson talks with Canadian Travel Press about how the company is staying connected with its people; what the state of play is now; and what the future holds. Spoiler alert:
Plan B is not an option.
I know that you’ve been holding regular, virtual town halls to communicate with your people and keep them in the loop as to what’s going on. I don’t want to be too ‘touchy-feely,’ but I’m wondering what you’re hearing back from them during these sessions? I don’t think any of us could say that we ever expected to be living through a global pandemic – it’s a tough, disorienting situation and we’re all struggling with it. So, how is their morale?
Morale is as good as it can be expected. Many employees are on temporary layoff and there is nervousness regarding the uncertainty of the future but by the nature of the industry, employees are resilient. Direct Travel have done a great job of keeping all active and inactive employees in touch with internal and external developments via regular contact with managers and regular Town Hall meetings.
Many team members have said “thank you” as these are very uncertain times, however it was important to hear status reports from leadership on a transparent and informative basis.
Our team members love the use of video for our Town Halls because it makes it more personal than conference calls and they feel like they are getting to know the leadership team a little better.
I think team members are optimistic about the industry’s ability to rebound but somewhat anxious that it is taking longer than expected. They have really leaned on each other for support. A lot of them have worked together for years and are more like family than coworkers. They have supported each other while communicating on files while temporary layoffs are in place. While they are uncertain to what the future looks like they are still very passionate about the industry and getting their clients back travelling.
Can you give me an idea of where the industry is at right now and where you see things heading in the next little while – in terms of the industry’s ability to reopen? Are things still at a standstill or is there some activity, in terms of sales?
We are seeing an increase in business, albeit slowly. Our offices are open for business. On the leisure side, there has been a lot of rebooking activity, so it is great to see that travel plans are deferred, not cancelled. We have also seen tremendous response from clients to our Dream Away series with live video presentations including an African Safari at sunset where they were treated to incredible wildlife sightings.
Our clients are taking this time to really look at their future travel plans. They have time to research, are not in a rush and want to be informed about every detail of their trip when it comes time to travel. They will make careful, informed choices but still have a sense of wanderlust and hope.
As a follow up, what’s the current situation at Direct Travel/Vision Travel? Can you give me an idea of how each of your business units are doing right now – corporate, incentive, meeting, leisure, etc. …
For our corporate travel vertical, there is definitely sales activity. We service many essential service clients that work in health care, construction, and infrastructure. Some clients are travelling internationally; however, it is difficult considering restrictions and quarantines.
For our leisure travel vertical, business is starting to crawl back, although not the V-shaped rebound we had hoped for. That said we are just coming up to the fall booking season and anticipate some good demand as sun destinations reopen and flights resume.
For our meetings & incentive vertical, travel is still top of mind for businesses as they don’t want to lose their allotted budgets and they see the value in keeping these programs for their clients and team members. As such, many organizations have reached out to us to manage their events virtually with all the content from keynote speakers to breakout sessions and awards celebrations.
While there are probably more, there are 3 key regulations or restrictions that the industry has been wrestling with in the past few months. Travel advisories, border closings and quarantine rules – can you talk about the impact that each of these restrictions has had and continues to have on the industry?
Travel advisories, border closings and quarantine rules are creating misconceptions and information overload to the travelling public.
All three of these key regulations are make travelling for leisure nearly impossible while they are in place.
Clients are hesitant to deposit vacations within the next 6 months especially the upcoming charter season as they cannot afford to take 21 days’ vacation (7 for an all-inclusive; 14 for quarantine). Clients also want their money back, not future travel credits (FTCs) if they cannot travel. Advisories make travel insurance coverage a huge issue and clients are looking to stay closer to home or postponing vacation travel plans to 2021.
We continue to update our Direct Travel Coronavirus Resource Hub, designed with specific areas for corporate travel managers and both corporate and leisure travellers.
Our in-depth Guide to Resuming Corporate Travel, assists corporate customers by steering their travel program through the recovery stage of the crisis.
Again, following up, what advice would you offer government (at all levels) in terms of how they could relax these rules to help the travel industry reopen, while still making sure that the Canadian public’s health and safety was still protected?
The Canadian government has issued travel advisories for every country around the globe and mandated travel restrictions from every country into Canada. They need to look at each country and where COVID-19 is under control, relax regulations for countries that aren’t deemed as high risk. We need to ramp up rapid testing upon arrival at Canadian airports as soon as possible which would essentially reduce the need for the 14-day quarantine for Canadian and international travellers.
Before COVID-19, Direct Travel was being fairly aggressive in the Canadian market in terms of acquiring agencies. Has that strategy been shelved during the pandemic or does the company still see this as a good strategy to continue to follow?
Direct Travel has had an aggressive acquisition strategy across North America since its inception. We are always looking for great companies, with great clients and great profitability. Since COVID-19, we have had to pause our acquisition strategy as we right-size our operations. We continue to have discussions with other travel agencies across Canada where we see a fit with our strategy and culture.
In addition to acquisitions, we have ramped up our Host Agency program for travel agencies looking to continue operating under their own brand, while taking advantage of our scope and scale in the marketplace.
For every challenge, there is an opportunity – that’s a bit of an old chestnut, but I’m wondering if – even now – that’s still the case. Can you talk about some of the challenges that the industry and Direct Travel are currently facing and some of the opportunities that these challenges present for both the industry and Direct Travel?
From the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen the necessity for more cohesive industry standards related to cleanliness and the safety and well-being of all travellers. Travel approval and traveller tracking systems have become cornerstones in managed travel programs, therefore reinforcing the value that travel agencies provide.
We need travel products and experiential travel experiences to sell. Relaxing restrictions will go a long way to stimulating demand. In terms of opportunities, we are so fortunate to have incredible relationships with our suppliers and we know that once the pent-up demand is unleashed, our partnership approach to sales and marketing will mean that Direct Travel/ Vision Travel will be counted on by suppliers to make it happen.
The challenge for independent travel advisors is the need to be affiliated with a brand that can provide overall support for their business growth and Direct Travel is a perfect solution. Our combination of corporate, leisure and meeting & incentive travel verticals provides a “one stop shop” and unparalleled preferred partner programs with exclusive offerings and top commissions.
Canada’s travel industry associations have been working hard during COVID-19. How do you think they’ve done so far? And what do you think they need to do next to further help the industry?
Canada’s travel industry associations have done a good job in creating resources for the travel agency community and travel advisors, especially with their campaign to engage the industry to educate and lobby the government about the economic impact of travel and tourism and to provide further financial support and extensions to existing government funding programs. ACTA has been incredible with their lobbying on behalf of independent contractors and our industry overall.
So, if Plan A is that the industry reopens and gradually rebuilds to the business levels of 2019, what happens if that doesn’t work out? Is there a Plan B? And if there is, what do you see Plan B being?
We are already active in making Plan A work as we began reopening our offices as per Canadian provincial guidelines and reconnecting with our clients, keeping them aware of our road to recovery.
Due to government regulatory issues, we have had to change our recovery projections several times, however we are rebuilding our business one month at a time through the remainder of 2020 and beyond.
Plan B is NOT an option!
Last question. Is the travel industry’s glass half full or half empty? Why?
Half full of course!
The industry is resilient, and people wish to seek out new opportunities and experiences for both business and personal reasons. Everyone we speak with is frustrated by virtual meetings and they will never replace in-person experiences.
This COVID-19 pandemic has helped highlight how valuable and crucial travel agencies and travel advisors are to the industry.
People will always have a strong desire to wander and explore the world, and our advisors will be waiting to help them navigate the ins and outs of travel in the new normal world.