Any time a country or region imposes any sort of visa stipulation - even if it’s a waiver - the travel industry sighs a collective groan, knowing the obstacles and headaches to come.
MISSISSAUGA — “We must become easier to work with” was the key message at TICO’s Annual General Meeting yesterday, which covered everything from the organization’s financial performance and its new digital strategies, to the current state of its Compensation Fund.
Taking place at TICO’s new head office in Mississauga, the AGM was hosted by Board Chair Jean Hébert, and President and CEO Richard Smart. Also in attendance was Michèle Sanborn, Assistant Deputy Minister, Policy, Planning and Oversight Division, who was there to represent Lisa Thompson, the newly appointed Minister of Government and Consumer Services.
Sanborn took the opportunity to formally thank TICO and express the Ministry’s appreciation for its continued leadership in the field.
“Your work promotes a fair marketplace and helps consumers make purchases from travel agents and wholesalers knowing they are protected by TICO,” she said. “As the organization designated to administer and enforce the Travel Industry Act, TICO has helped created good standards of practice throughout the industry that benefit Ontarians.”
Though it has been a strong year in travel, which Hébert said speaks to the innovation and ingenuity of the industry in Ontario, he also noted that there’s certainly room for improvement in the future.
“With the changes happening with today’s travel marketplace, it’s also an important time to look at changes to the rules that govern the industry,” he said. “I’m confident that TICO will continue to be a progressive regulator supporting a trusted marketplace where consumers are confident purchasing travel from registered professionals.”
Here is an overview of key points from the AGM:
As of March 31, 2018, there were a total of 2,359 registrations with TICO compared to 2,418 registrations the previous year. According to Smart, this reflects a slow, continued decline caused by industry consolidation, changing industry dynamics and new business models.
“We live and work in an exciting era, one in which change is a constant,” said Smart. “Our goal at TICO is to be a modern and transparent regulator. That means embracing the challenges of a complex marketplace, evolving consumer expectations, new business models and continuous technological advancements confronted by all businesses. This ever-changing landscape of the travel industry is what makes TICO’s role so important: to ensure consumers remain confident with their travel purchases, wherever they go, regardless of the purpose or destination.”
Financially, TICO had one of its strongest fiscal years since inception. Revenues exceeded budget expectations while operating expenses came in under budget, generating a healthy net surplus for the year.
Overall, its net surplus of revenues over expenses was approximately $1.9 million, an increase over the prior year surplus of $1.5 million. Smart also noted that over 80% of this surplus was directed towards the Compensation Fund.
Total revenues grew by over 20%, to over $7 million. Smart also reported that TICO’s total expenses were managed below budget expectation, and that operating expenses were higher than the prior year by approximately 9%, reflecting growth in our consumer awareness campaign, communications, investments and technology.
“Our continued efforts to be cost-conscious over expenses will remain steadfast as we recognize our commitment to efficiency and effectiveness, investments for the future, and service excellence for our registrants and consumers,” said Smart.
SERVICE & TECHNOLOGY
“Service excellence” is not just a buzzword. We recognize it’s fundamental to our existence,” said Smart. “This is why we’re investing in technology.”
In recent years TICO has moved towards being 100% cloud-based, and has invested in collaborative tools while ensuring our IT securities are at the highest standard. For example, just this year the organization enabled online payments for annual registration renewals and migrated its education platform to an e-portal.
“Both initiatives make it easier and more efficient for registrants to work with TICO,” said Smart.
TICO is also in the process of developing a portal to allow registrants faster and more accurate submissions of other documentation.
“There’s a credible passion and ingenuity by government, industry and TICO for ensuring that consumer experiences are both positive and protected,” added Smart. “It’s not just good policy, it’s good business.”
It was a record year with the lowest number of claims against the Compensation Fund in a single year, with the Board approving claims of $27,585. The Fund’s balance at March 31, 2018 was approximately $21.7 million compared to $20.6 million in 2017, an increase of $1.1 million for the year. This contribution to the Compensation Fund, said Smart, is the result of strong industry sales, the realization of past fee increases and reasonable returns from TICO’s investment portfolio.
While overall claims to the Compensation Fund were relatively low, there was one larger claim made as a result of Sinorama Holidays Inc., whose parent company in Quebec went bankrupt last summer. In total, 5,800 Ontario consumers had their travel plans interrupted or outright cancelled. TICO assisted 136 of those customers with imminent departures and trip completions, and after the fiscal year a further 135 customers with their claims against the Compensation Fund.
In total, $328,000 was charged against the Fund for the year, the vast majority of which was related to Sinorama.
Speaking exclusively to Travelweek, Smart said: “The compensation fund is the cornerstone of TICO’s consumer protection plan, although it’s not the only consumer protections we provide. What I’m pleased to say is that all consumers have either been reimbursed or been approved for reimbursement, so no one is out of their investment. We were here to work with any consumers who didn’t pay by credit card or had issues with their credit card company and I’m pleased to say that the Board approved all the claims that came in. The hit to the fund was actually a lot smaller than we thought – it’s still healthy, and we’re still continuing to work with the government on future reforms.”
WHAT ABOUT CONSUMER CONTRIBUTIONS?
The concept of consumer contributions to Ontario’s Compensation Fund, similar to the system implemented in Quebec, has been floating around for years, with little to no traction at the government level. Wendy Paradis, ACTA president, vented her frustrations to Ministry representatives in attendance, noting that an immeasurable amount of time, money and resources have been put into reviewing the Travel Industry Act over the last three years.
“We have had no less than 20 meetings in the last six months with government officials trying to express the sheer frustrations of businesses in Ontario, and the burden we have financially with the Travel Industry Act as well as the administrative burden of trying to run a travel agency – whether it’s a small or large business – due to a number of legislation and regulations,” she said. “We are now on our third Minister in this Ministry and we are frustrated in that we cannot get any movement. We go to consultation after consultation and what we feel from a travel agency perspective is that we’re getting more regulation and more burden.”
Noting how government officials are now on summer recess, Paradis added: “Politicians may be on break for the next few months but we are not. Our next meeting is within the next two weeks. We will not stop our lobbying for fairness for Ontario businesses.”
In response, Hébert reiterated former Minister Bill Walker’s response in April: “Let’s stick to regulatory development at this point in time and then we’ll address this issue of the Compensation Fund.”
From a personal standpoint, Hébert did agree that consumer contribution “is part of the solution” and is hopeful of further talks with the new Minister.
For the first time in its 22-year history, TICO has moved to a digitally focused campaign. According to Kristina Wilson, Stakeholder Relations Manager, as consumers increasingly turn to the Internet to research and book travel, it’s important for TICO to also use the same medium for its consumer awareness activities.
A new digital campaign was launched last year that comprised of three videos, social media posts and Google Search ads, all of which highlighted the value that a registered professional can bring to the process of buying travel services.
The star of the campaign was a life-sized asterisk, which Wilson said represents “that one missed detail that can really take a consumer’s travel plans off-course.”
A critical part of the campaign, added Wilson, was measuring the impact it made. What really matters is whether we moved the needle on awareness and on people’s intentions, and I’m proud to report that we’ve done both,” she said.
Before campaign launched, TICO conducted a survey to determine a baseline measure for unaided awareness, meaning awareness without any prompts about what TICO is or what it does. The survey found that 14% of Ontarians could name TICO as the provincial travel regulator. After the campaign the same survey showed that unaided awareness of TICO increased to 17.23%, a 23% increase over the baseline.
As part of its Omni-Buzz survey, TICO also found that individuals who viewed its videos and digital ads had a higher intent of booking their travel with a TICO-registered travel agency or website in the future. Intent increased by 6 percentage points from 51% to 57%, showing a change in intended behaviour.
CORPORATE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY
TICO staff exceeded its employee contribution goal of $5,000 for Plan International Canada, a global organization dedicated to advancing children’s rights and equality for girls. This amount represents $30,000 worth of impact for girls worldwide, with initiatives that included equipping two schools and installing one water system.
A NEW BOARD
In 2017 TICO underwent a governance of review to assess its Board’s position. This led to the reduction of TICO’s Board from 15 to 11 directors, which came into effect following yesterday’s AGM.
“The goal of our new structure is to make sure the Board can continue to deliver the highest level of stewardship and continuity while considering efficiency and cost savings,” said Smart. “I’m confident that TICO will continue to be a progressive regulator supporting a trusted marketplace where consumers are confident purchasing travel from registered professionals.”