TORONTO — For the past eight months travel agents have worked long hours cancelling and rebooking clients’ travel plans, and navigating travel policies that can change on a dime.
They’ve been stuck in the middle of more than a few refund requests, using every diplomatic skill in their arsenal to deal with frustrated clients and sometimes hard-to-reach suppliers.
And they’ve watched as other industries have gotten at least a tentative green light to restart, whereas travel is still under the same tight restrictions as it was back in March.
Who would blame travel agents for wanting to leave this industry?
And yet, they’re staying.
New stats from the recently released Fall 2020 edition of Travelweek’s COVID-19 Agent Survey show that 75% of Canadian travel agents said they were committed to staying in the travel industry as a travel agent, despite the severe and ongoing negative impact from the pandemic.
Just about one-quarter of agents (24%) said they weren’t sure, and that number could rise as the months go by. There’s a lot of love for working in this industry, but there’s only so long people can go without revenue, or hope. Another number that may rise: 1% of agents said no.
The survey, a follow up from Travelweek’s COVID-19 Agent Survey in April 2020, gathered the responses from some 370 agents across the country.
Asked how they’re feeling about the future of travel, a majority of respondents, 56%, said ‘cautiously optimistic.’ Another 27% said ‘optimistic’. Six percent said they felt neutral about prospects for travel, 6% were pessimistic and 5% were undecided.
Agents are also more confident than ever about their value proposition to travellers. An overwhelming majority, 94%, agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown travellers the value of working with a travel agent. That number has inched up even since the spring, when it was 93%. Travel agents have made miracles happen since the outbreak of the pandemic and they know it – and increasingly, so do consumers.
PCR TEST REQUIREMENTS: PEACE OF MIND OR DETERRENT?
In a typical year, by mid-November travel agents and tour operators are waiting for those first big snowstorms to get the phones ringing and the emails flying. This, of course, is not a typical year. And yet there are clients who want to travel, especially to their favourite winter sun destination.
Many Caribbean destinations are requiring mandatory pre-testing for COVID-19 prior to entry, and agents in Travelweek’s COVID-19 Agent Survey are split 50% – 50% on whether this will make clients less likely to travel to those destinations.
The Bahamas requires a negative PCR test, but Paul Strachan, Sr. Director, Sales and Marketing for the Bahamas Tourist Office Toronto, says he hasn’t seen a lot of pushback from consumers or travel agents related to the PCR test requirement.
Based on feedback Strachan’s heard from various virtual shows/events, webinars and presentations, “overwhelmingly people felt it was a required measure which provides some level of safety for them, other travellers and locals in the host countries,” he says. “Most accepted and expressed that this would be the ‘new normal’ and gave no sense that it would be a deterrent or hurdle to travel plans to a sun vacation this winter.”
As Strachan notes, “the biggest hurdle to travel this winter which has and continues to be expressed is the mandatory 14 day-quarantined which is required by Canadian government upon return to Canada. We’re all hopeful that this would change soon.”
Saint Lucia is another Caribbean destination that requires a negative PCR test. “Having visitors provide a negative PCR test 7 days prior to travel is mandatory in order to coexist with the virus,” says Andrew Ricketts – Public Relations, Canada / Saint Lucia Tourism Authority. Saint Lucia has done an incredible job containing the virus, and it wants to keep it that way. “We’ve received positive feedback from travel agents, consumers and the industry colleagues for being able to reopen in responsible manner,” says Ricketts.
Jamaica does not require negative PCR tests from Canadian travellers, and at this point in time, there are no plans to introduce testing requirements for Canadian travellers, as visitors from this region have been deemed low-risk, says Angella Bennett, Regional Director, Canada for the Jamaica Tourist Board.
“So far, Jamaica’s health and safety protocols have proven to be very effective in reducing the risk of virus transmission in our two COVID-19 resilient corridors on island. There have been no known cases of COVID-19 in the contained tourism corridors and this speaks very highly to the effectiveness of the measures currently in place on the island as well as the pre-screening requirements for travellers,” says Bennett.
Bennett adds: “For some travellers, the added step of conducting and uploading COVID-19 tests for themselves and travel companions prior to travel might be considered a barrier to booking a vacation to the island. We want to ensure the travel experience is as smooth and seamless as possible for Canadians — while also prioritizing their health safety.”
Visitors from designated high-risk countries including the U.S., Brazil and several others are required to provide a negative PCR or Antigen test prior to departure as an added level of precaution and pre-screening, she adds.
THE CARIBBEAN’S CLIMBING
Even if few clients are travelling right now, 8 in 10 agents (83%) say they still believe there will be significant pent-up demand resulting in many bookings when travel restrictions ease.
When bookings come back, 49% of agents say Mexico and the Caribbean will be the first to recover, followed by Canada (32%) and Europe (10%). Meanwhile the U.S., cruising and long-haul travel were in the single digits (4%, 4% and 1% respectively).
When asked the same question in the April 2020 survey, the top 3 were Canada, Caribbean & Mexico, and the U.S.
Allison Wallace, VP Corporate Communication & CSR, The Americas for Flight Centre Travel Group, says: “We have definitely seen an increase in inquiry for Mexico and the Caribbean along with bookings to these destinations. Our data certainly seems to be in line with your survey though right now domestic travel would be in the lead in terms of recovery. Vancouver and Toronto were our most booked destinations last month with Cancun rounding out our top three. Jamaica was also among our Top five destinations booked, indicating that sun destinations are going to be among the first to see strong recovery.”
Wallace says demand is being fuelled by “a combination of ‘COVID-fatigue’ (people really wanting to get away), timing (this is typically when people are booking winter holidays) and very good pricing, particularly for travel before Christmas.”
Just over one-third (36%) of agents in the fall edition of Travelweek’s COVID-19 Agent Survey said they feel confident recommending the Caribbean to clients at this time. Just under one-quarter (24%) said no, and 40% said maybe.
TRAVEL TRENDS & COVID-19 INSURANCE
No matter where they’re travelling, clients will be looking for more stringent health protocols in destination (29%), more travel insurance purchases (27%), shorter booking windows (23%) and small group sizes (11%). Back in the spring, agents put small group sizes at the top of the list, and health protocols at the bottom. The past six months has taught the whole travel industry just how important stringent health protocols are.
When agents were asked about travel trends so far, visiting friends and family (VFR) tops the list (36%), followed by closer destinations with shorter flights (24%), outdoor adventure / wide open spaces (10%), smaller group sizes (8%) and more demand from younger travellers / less from Baby Boomers (5%).
The biggest hurdle preventing Canadians from travelling right now are the travel restrictions and out-of-country insurance, say 73% of agents. High numbers of COVID-19 cases in other countries, and uncertainty / changing rules, both come in at 7%.
While many insurance companies as well as airlines, resort companies and even destinations have introduced COVID-19-related coverage over the past several months, the challenge now is making sure that agents and consumers know these products are out there.
Says Dan Keon, Vice President, Market Management for Allianz Global Assistance: “No doubt there is still a ways to go in educating the broader market on the availability of out-of-country medical coverage for COVID-19. There is a delicate balance to strike as government travel advisories are in place for good reason, however, some Canadians may need to travel for family or work.”
Keon says Allianz Global Assistance has been in frequent contact with its travel agency partners to build their comfort with the company’s new program through online interactive training modules and live webinar training. “Throughout this month, we’ll also be rolling out additional tools to help our partners build awareness and promote the coverage directly with their clients, while reinforcing the importance and availability of training for agents,” says Keon. “We believe these efforts will be a positive step towards closing the gap in awareness.”