Agents frustrated with long hold times and delayed responses as suppliers scramble to staff up

Clients are booking but long hold times for tour operator call centres remain a challenge

TORONTO — Travel agent Sandy Willett’s auto-response email was a clear indication that after more than a year and a half of extremely challenging times for the travel industry, the tide is finally turning.

“Travel is picking up again and we are very busy with new inquiries and bookings! However, your business is very important to me and I will get back to you at my earliest convenience. Thank you so much for your business!”

Reached later, Willett confirmed that bookings at her Waterloo, ON-area Vision Travel agency are definitely on an upward trend. “I have been very busy in the last few weeks with inquiries and actual bookings from clients, especially to the south for the winter. I’ve had clients already travel and report back that they had a wonderful trip and are so happy to be doing so again,” she says.

The news that the U.S. plans to reopen its land border to fully vaccinated Canadians effective Nov. 8, as announced earlier this month, woke up the travelling public and triggered bookings not just to the U.S. but to sun destinations this winter too, plus Europe and cruises.

And now that the blanket travel advisory against all non-essential travel has lifted, as announced last week, many in the industry expect bookings to come back with a vengeance.

Some clients will still be deterred by the cost of PCR testing for all passengers returning to Canada. Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland has said “the rules are the rules”, indicating that the PCR test requirement won’t be going away any time soon.

As Transat’s Chief Distribution Officer and President, TDC, Joe Adamo, put it during a panel discussion at TPI’s Emerge conference, asking returning passengers who have already shown proof that they’re fully vaccinated to also do mandatory PCR testing “is like having to wear a raincoat and carry an umbrella at the same time.”

For many, many Canadians who have waited more than 18 months for a vacation, the PCR tests will be worth it.

All the hassle and confusion with PCR tests and other requirements for vacationing now have made travel agents a traveller’s best friend.

“They are relying more now on agents to assist with the information they require to travel regarding

COVID restrictions and requirements – especially since things are changing so quickly. This hopefully will convince more people that using a travel agent is  the way to go!” says Willett.

She adds: “It is also so nice to see countries and cruise lines opening up and relaxing their restrictions – but at the same time working to keep travellers safe.”

Cruise lines including Holland America Line and Princess Cruises have announced revised vaccination policies, in line with the CDC’s update, that recognize mixed doses as fully vaccinated.

“We are getting some Canadians now but do expect to see more as travel restrictions begin to evolve permitting more access,” says Holland America Line spokesperson, Erik Elvejord. “Certainly the Caribbean and Mexico have been strong cruise destinations for our Canadian guests in the past and with the pent-up demand, we expect a great deal of interest from our Canadian cruisers this winter.”

Sandra McLeod of Red Door Travel in LaSalle, ON says she’s seeing more interest in cruising, especially from past cruisers. “They are comfortable with all the testing and health screening. Many have said they feel safer on a cruise ship than going to the grocery store or Costco,” she says.

For McLeod’s clients, the focus is also on Europe. “People are definitely more interested in travelling. Bookings for 2022 and beyond are ramping up.”

All those bookings mean more calls coming into the tour operators. The sudden influx of business is making the long hold times for call centres – a problem throughout the pandemic – even worse.

Tour operators taking part in the TPI Emerge panel discussion recently tackled the issue head-on.

“It’s the elephant in the room,” said Lucy Sabella, VP Operations for Air Canada Vacations. Current hold times are upwards of three hours, she noted, adding “we’ve been seeing this every day for the past while.”

Adamo said Transat is experiencing similar challenges, while Sunwing Travel Group’s COO Andrew Dawson said Sunwing has been cushioned somewhat thanks to call centre resources at U.S.-based Vacations Express, owned by Sunwing Travel Group.

Sabella, Adamo and Dawson all say they’ve been onboarding hundreds of new recruits for their call centres.

To read the full article, with more feedback from Sabella, Adamo and Dawson on the issue of long hold times, click here.