OCHO RIOS — The pandemic has been hard on the travel industry, with many agents leaving the travel industry for good. And host agencies haven’t been immune, either.
For The Travel Agent Next Door (TTAND), about 220 agents have left since the start of the pandemic. But, during this same period, TTAND managed to add another 400 agents, for a current total of 933, and launched in Quebec with three agents. It also picked up some new suppliers along the way.
A number of these agents flew to Jamaica at the end of October for the 6th annual TTAND conference at the Moon Palace Resort in Ocho Rios. This year’s theme was ‘Agent ExtraordinIRIE’ — a play on the Jamaican word irie, which means nice, good or pleasing — and for many, it was the first time they’d travelled abroad since ‘the before times.’
While the 230 attendees (including 33 suppliers) had been asked to refrain from hugging and to maintain their physical distance during the conference, the energy of a live conference was palpable. And there was a bit of hugging.
For most new agents, it was the first time they’d met their peers, suppliers and the TTAND team in person.
Brittany Rayner is one of those new agents, joining TTAND in April. She’s also new to the travel industry. “Everyone has their own version of what has worked for them and hearing that is what’s really beneficial,” she said.
Up until that point, all of her onboarding and networking experiences had taken place virtually. Then, Rayner met a group of TTAND agents on the bus from MoBay to Ocho Rios and they were inseparable at the conference—an experience that couldn’t be replicated in a virtual environment.
Beverley Edgar joined TTAND in March 2020, right before the pandemic hit, with no prior experience in the travel industry. It’s been a tough go, and she continues to run a propane business with her husband.
“My confidence level is a lot higher after this conference,” she said. “I’m thinking okay, I can do this.” One of her key takeaways from the conference? She’s learned the importance of putting herself out there on social media.
For Consuela Lewis, an agent also attending the TTAND conference for the first time, posting about her own travels has boosted her clients’ confidence in travel. After going on a FAM in August and posting about it on social media, “the increase from that skyrocketed,” she said. “I had no one interested in travelling until I travelled.” After that, she had eight to 10 calls from potential clients.
For many agents, trying to run a travel business during a global pandemic was deflating and demoralizing, so connecting with peers was just as important as connecting with suppliers. And while the conference had a lot to offer new agents, it also honoured some of its long-standing and top-performing members.
At a gala wrap-up event, Judith Coates took home the Extraordinary Agent Award—voted on by her peers—for her efforts during the pandemic. Coates, along with Brenda Slater and Nancy Wilson, co-founded the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA) to help agents access government aid, advocate for government financial support and commission protection, and rebuild the travel industry during the pandemic.
Coates also took home an Industry Shaker Award, along with Shalene Dudley (for her efforts to bring more diversity and inclusion to the travel industry). Christine Winchester won the Ambassador Award (for the largest number of referrals in 2020) and Arlene Gibbons won the Peer to Peer Award, voted on by agents, for being the most supportive agent.
Along with the excitement of attending an in-person conference, there was also a sense of hope that travel is starting to come back. TTAND’s sales and commissions are on the rise, according to Flemming Friisdahl, founder and president of TTAND. And cruise sales are up.
“That was something that surprised me, because we are seeing a lot of cruise sales,” he said. “We see a lot more high-end, with Regent Seven Seas, with Crystal, with Oceana — [sales are] through the roof.”
To support agents, TTAND is offering a solution for immediate passenger booking recovery — and a long-term strategy for the new normal — with the Priority Protection Passport, which features COVID-19+ medical assurance coverage for travellers. This covers pre-existing conditions, has no age restrictions and provides emergency medical evacuation flights for travellers hospitalized for COVID-19 while abroad.
Friisdahl said this offering won’t compete with coverage from insurance companies like Manulife; rather, it’s meant to complement a traveller’s existing medical insurance. And for agents, he says it will help to boost consumer confidence (with consumers more likely to book travel through agents offering this program).
The TTAND conference was held at Moon Palace, within Jamaica’s Resilient Corridor — a designated ‘corridor’ for tourists designed to encourage safe tourism practices — which had its own safety protocols in place. Clifton Reader, head of the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association (JHTA), said the ‘corridor’ approach is working, and Canadian airlines will be operating 50 direct flights a week to destinations throughout Jamaica this winter.
“So that’s a good signal that the Canadian market is going to come back very strong,” said Reader, adding that all three cruise ports in Jamaica are now open, with 110 cruise ships expected to visit the island nation between now and April.
And cruises may be easier for agents to sell, now that Manulife is providing insurance coverage for cruises. “Manulife will allow cruise coverage for travellers although we’re still at a level four,” said Manulife BDM Karen Salviato. That means agents can now sell COVID coverage to cruise travellers — so long as those travellers are fully vaccinated.
Salviato also said agents will no longer have to sell COVID-19 coverage on top of a comprehensive insurance plan for land travellers. “Travel insurance will be one of the most important and sought-after components of the travel sale moving forward,” she said. “The majority of travellers will not go abroad without it.”
And while there was plenty of excitement at the conference, there were also a lot of questions and concerns after 20 months of industry upheaval and ongoing uncertainty.
During a Travel Agent Think Tank, some agents expressed concern about staying on top of the latest COVID protocols, for fear of giving clients outdated information. Some wanted more simplified information from suppliers about consumer protections. Some were worried about backlash from anti-vaxxers. And some were wondering how to charge service fees without alienating their clients.
“I know there’s a lot of talk about refunds … and there will be speed bumps as we go forward selling travel,” said Friisdahl. One way to move forward, he said, is to charge service fees.
At this point in the pandemic, it’s more likely that a client will cancel a trip, not the supplier. “It’s highly unlikely the supplier is going to cancel,” he said, “so they’re not going to be offering refunds now that [they] have the ‘cancel for any reason up until X days before departure.’ But why should that agent do all that work for free up until that day?”
With the TTAND model, agents are free to charge — or to not charge — service fees. But with so many agents losing their commissions during the pandemic, some see a service fee, or a “planning fee,” as a way to protect themselves in future. To support agents during this time, TTAND reduced its annual fees by 50 per cent until April 2022.
Despite these challenges, agents were still more than willing to give back.
Because of COVID restrictions, TTAND wasn’t able to send attendees out into the community for its annual Give Back Day. Instead, they donated a busload of goods to St. Christopher’s School for the Deaf in Brown’s Town, as well as raised $35,470 for Pencils For Kids, which supports classrooms in Niger.