ACITA turns one: A look back on its growth and accomplishments
ACITA's founding members, clockwise from top left: Judith Coates, Brenda Slater and Nancy Wilson

ACITA turns one: A look back on its growth and accomplishments

TORONTO — It’s hard to believe that after forming ACITA a year ago, the three founding members have still not met one another.

Thanks to the global pandemic and lockdown measures, Judith Coates of The Travel Agent Next Door in Orillia, Nancy Wilson of Leisure Life Holiday in Ottawa, and Brenda Slater of Beyond the Beach in Tiny, Ontario have been forced to meet virtually, like everyone else in the travel industry, during these past 15 months. But it’s also through the magic of Zoom that ACITA (Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors) has been able to make an indelible impact in such a short amount of time.

June 26 will mark a full year since the organization’s very first Zoom meeting with MP Michael Barrett, Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes. Since then ACITA has held close to 250 virtual meetings with various MPs as part of its ongoing advocacy efforts on behalf of Canada’s 12,000+ Independent Travel Advisors, a huge accomplishment considering Coates, Wilson and Slater had no previous political experience.

“I say it all the time, we’re just three wee chicas who sell travel, that’s what we do,” Slater tells Travelweek during an exclusive interview. “So if we can do it seriously and we can mobilize all of these people across the country, anybody can do it. It just takes a lot of one people.”

 ACITA turns one: A look back on its growth and accomplishments

ACITA’s Management Team


THE EARLY DAYS & RAPID GROWTH

For ACITA, a chance encounter started it all. In March 2020, Flemming Friisdahl, Founder of The Travel Agent Next Door, encouraged Coates to request a meeting with her MP since at that time, Independent Travel Advisors were not being considered for any government funding. After three months of waiting to see whether the federal government would clue in, Coates finally reached out to Bruce Stanton, MP-Simcoe-North in June and secured a meeting, then invited other Independent Travel Advisors via Facebook to join in. It was during that fateful initial Zoom call where Coates first met Wilson and Slater.

After a post-meeting chat, the three formed an easy alliance and agreed to join forces in their advocacy efforts. ACITA was quickly born and soon enough, they were generating quite a bit of buzz in the industry.

“We asked our travel advisor colleagues and shared the information on other travel agent groups to get the word out. The biggest advantage we had was word of mouth and specifically through the host agencies. When advisors who weren’t constituents joined a call, we invited them to share the information about our group and what we were doing with agents in their host agencies. That really helped spread the word,” said Wilson.

The plan worked. Within six months, ACITA’s membership skyrocketed to 1,000 strong and after a year it now boasts 1,800 members, all Independent Travel Advisors. Salaried agents, agency and business owners and media are all prohibited from joining to ensure the authenticity of the group.

With a growing team, ACITA was able to reach out to MPs across the country more quickly and more efficiently to advocate for financial aid and commission protections. Rumours swirled for months last year of a possible government bailout plan for Canada’s airlines that was contingent on the airlines offering refunds to all passengers whose travel plans were cancelled by COVID-19. Refunds, of course, would mean commission recalls for travel advisors so time was of the essence to connect with as many MPs as possible and bring the plight of travel advisors – both salaried and independent – to the forefront of the conversation.

How did they do this? ACITA provided their members with customizable email templates and talking points that they could, in turn, use during meetings with their MPs. Coates, Wilson and Slater also opened up their own MP meetings to allow members to listen in, which was a huge motivating factor for members to take up their own advocacy efforts. 

“By the end of August or September, we were starting to have the same regulars jumping on calls and now ultimately, we have a small crew of people who are helping us,” said Wilson. “As you can well imagine, we’re doing this voluntarily, in addition to our own businesses, and not getting paid for it. It was starting to become a bit hard to manage, with some weeks being 50-hour weeks. So it’s great that we had all these people step up and say, ‘how can I help?’”


MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENTS

Another upside to having a bigger team is having more people to celebrate accomplishments with, and ACITA had several over the past year. The biggest one is commission protection, first announced by Air Canada on April 12 and then Transat on April 29 following their respective funding agreements with the federal government. By then ACITA had spent several months relaying to MPs how dire it was for Independent Travel Advisors to have their commissions protected so when two of Canada’s major airlines came forward with the news, it was a major victory celebrated by all its members.

“We know that they would never have entertained the idea,” said Slater. “The thing about the politicians is that they didn’t understand how our business works and they didn’t understand the connotations of refunds. They didn’t know that it meant taking back our revenue from 2019 and early 2020 and the airlines weren’t about to tell them. 

“ACITA was on it, ACTA was also, it was coming at them from all angles. But where we differed from ACTA was that we were extremely vocal in the House of Commons and busy talking to MPs and getting them to talk about us in the House of Commons, whereas ACTA was coming at them from the back end, from the policymaker point of view. 

“So when they use the term ‘Independent Advisors’ in the House of Commons, it’s because we put that in their ears and for no other reason. We don’t always get the pats on the back from our community but we certainly do get them from the House of Commons.”

Another big ‘get’ for ACITA this past year was a virtual sit-down with Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra on March 29. After efforts to meet with his predecessor, former Minister of Transport Marc Garneau, proved unsuccessful, Coates, Wilson and Slater were all “thrilled” when the door opened to have a one-on-one with Minister Alghabra less than two months after he took over the post. Though Wilson says he was “very careful” during the meeting to not make any promises regarding the lifting of travel restrictions and providing financial aid for travel advisors, he at least made them feel heard and, more importantly, valued.

“He made it very clear that he knew about us before the meeting had even happened and that he knew about the issue of commission protection,” says Wilson. “He really reassured us that they understood the critical factor of it all and that it was definitely being addressed as part of ongoing negotiations. And I think our meeting gave him that extra understanding of us to the point where he stood up in the House and mentioned specifically Independent Travel Advisors. We had heard quite a few people speaking in the House by that point but to have somebody of his stature mentioning us made us feel like that was an accomplishment.”

ACITA worked just as hard at securing a seat at the table with FINA, the federal government’s Standing Committee on Finance, before which they appeared as witnesses at one of its Committee meetings to address the issue of commission recalls. It was shortly after that meeting that Air Canada announced it would be issuing refunds to eligible customers and protecting agent commissions.


NEXT ON THE AGENDA & AFTER THE PANDEMIC

With several victories already under its belt, ACITA is now looking forward to new issues it can lend its voice to. Next on the agenda is the Ontario Tourism & Travel Small Business Support Grant, which according to Coates is leaving Independent Travel Advisors out in the cold. As reported yesterday by Travelweek, applicants for the grant must have a TICO registration number. But for Independent Travel Advisors, their TICO number belongs to their host agency, which prevents more than one Independent Travel Advisor from the same host agency to apply for the grant. 

“There’s a huge flaw there and we think they just didn’t realize that that was going to be a huge roadblock,” says Coates, adding that ACITA was scheduled to meet with the Assistant Deputy Minister of the Tourism Ministry of Ontario, immediately following Travelweek’s interview, to discuss the issue ahead of the grant’s June 25 deadline. “They’re finally listening to us because we’ve done huge email campaigns with them as well.” 

Beyond this and the pandemic, what’s next for ACITA? Will it still be around once travel resumes and everything goes back to normal?

Coates says bookings are already picking up for 2022 and 2023 and that the three founding members are trying to determine how to juggle their respective businesses with ongoing advocacy efforts. 

“We realize that there’s going to be a tipping point when we’ll have to start pulling back a little from ACITA. But going forward when the pandemic’s over, there are always going to be issues with our Independent Travel Advisors so we definitely plan to stick around.”

Some of these issues, post-pandemic, may include new questions about how commissions are paid out and whether regulation is needed to protect them, should another pandemic occur. Slater also notes that the travel industry works differently province by province, and that host agencies also have varying rules, commission splits and fees. This begs the question whether there’s a need for more public information to ensure each province and host agency is in line with each other, “to keep everybody honest,” says Slater.

In anticipation of all these issues, Slater adds that the three founders are getting their management team more involved in taking on projects and moderating the group. This ‘passing of the torch,’ so to speak, will help ensure that the work will continue and that Independent Travel Advisors remain part of any conversation going forward in the travel industry. As noted in ACITA’s hashtag, #WeAreNotDoneYet, the group’s influence and impact will continue long after the pandemic.

“The perception has always been the agency was king and that agents were just the little people, with outside agents being an afterthought,” says Slater. “But now almost half, if not more, are independent advisors and we’re really the ones driving the bus on where revenues get spent with which suppliers. Hopefully we’ll be able to maintain some kind of influence in the industry and make it better in the long run.”