Despite hurdles, some clients are still travelling and that’s giving the industry hope for the weeks ahead

Despite hurdles, some clients are still travelling and that’s giving the industry hope for the weeks ahead

TORONTO — The double blow of the travel advisory, reinstated Dec. 15, together with rising omicron caseloads and flight cancellations, would be challenging enough at any time for the travel industry.

But coming after more than 21 months of instability and restrictions, they were devastating.

And yet … and yet … some clients haven’t cancelled yet. Some are still travelling.

Here’s what we’re hearing from travel advisors and tour operators as this year gets underway.

“WE HAVE TO LEARN TO LIVE WITH IT”

Lesley Keyter, CEO and founder of The Travel Lady Agency – South Travel Inc. in Calgary, sums up the industry’s frustration with wry efficiency: “Just when we thought it was safe to go back in the water. Omicron has really created more problems.”

But whether it’s weariness from the pandemic, or confidence in vaccination status – or a bit of both – this time around more clients are willing to soldier on with their vacation plans.

Keyter says her agency has had a few cancellations, “but most people just want to go on holiday and feel that with double vaccinations and a booster they should be fine.”

Amazingly, some clients have even become blasé about testing positive in-destination.

Says Keyter: “Of course some [clients] have had issues with testing positive and have had to stay down there for five or six days until they get a negative test. They were quite philosophical about it and said that with the weather being what it is in Alberta, they would rather stay down in Mexico.”

She adds that cruise bookings for her agency are still strong and her staff is busy. “I think we are all realizing that we have to learn to live with omicron.”

TOUR OPS DETERMINED TO KEEP FLIGHTS GOING

For all those clients who want to travel this winter, tour operators are determined to keep core winter programs going.

Last week ACV announced it was temporarily suspending service to more than a dozen sun destinations, effective Jan. 24 for the balance of the winter season, due to reduced demand. The suspensions are impacting 7% of ACV passengers, said ACV Vice-President Nino Montagnese in a letter to agents.

ACV is so far on track to maintain operations to 23 sun destinations throughout the winter season, he added.

Transat has also had to make service cuts — 30% of flights through at least Feb. 25 — and Joe Adamo, Chief Distribution Officer, Transat and President, TDC, agrees that 2022 “is not starting the way we would like.”

However, as Adamo tells Travelweek, “we still plan to operate the vast majority of our flights this winter to many destinations in the South, the United States, Europe and within Canada.”

Adamo adds: “The hard work and perseverance shown by travel agents are commendable. Although it is easy, at times, to feel discouraged let’s not forget that before this new variant, we were seeing very positive booking trends, more people were travelling, and life was feeling a bit more normal.”

Sunwing has also trimmed down its flight schedule in these first weeks of 2022, and urges clients to sign up for flight alerts at Sunwing.ca. For qualifying bookings, Sunwing passengers can change their departure date anytime up to seven days before their original departure date.

Sunwing’s Chief Marketing Officer Samantha Taylor says Sunwing is committed to providing further updates to agents and customers as the situation evolves.

“As we continue to assess the impact of the variant on the duration of the winter season, we would like to send our sincere gratitude to our travel agent partners and customers for their understanding and patience as we navigate through this pandemic together. Our relationships with travel agents are so important to us at Sunwing,” says Taylor.

“CANCELLATIONS HAVE BEEN SUPER DISAPPOINTING”

As travel agents continue to work hard to do right by their clients, the flight cancellations may have been understandable, but there is frustration just the same. “The airline and tour operator cancellations have been super disappointing and the lack of commission protection even more so,” says Sandy Willett at Vision Travel in Waterloo, ON.

One of many challenges for agents these days is putting all the usual required work into a booking, even though they know on some level it may end up getting cancelled.

“Many had no choice but to start booking when clients began asking, only to find themselves now with even more work for the cancellations, with no compensation,” says Travel Time – TPI’s Lois Barbour.

Selling travel in these uncertain days can be an endless loop of wait-and-see, as the St. John’s, NL agency owner can attest. “One group for the end of January is hanging on, but I understand the uncertainties and I am encouraging them all to have Allianz insurance which would protect them for cancellation should they test positive on their pre-departure COVID tests.”

Barbour adds: “I am starting to have conversations with groups for later in the spring as well, but I am encouraging them to at least wait until final payment time to make decisions. We can always hope that 4-6 weeks of this wave will see us in a different place, and with more confidence for April – May bookings.”

The biggest issue now, as she puts it, “is there is no end game. We have the highest vaccination rates, and some of the strictest measures. It’s very hard to know if the time spent on any inquiries going forward will result in actual travel or more cancellations, which is a very discouraging prospect.”

Barbour adds: “I did not enter the travel industry to cancel travel and dash plans but rather to help my clients embrace the special moments and experiences that travel brings. I am hoping that before too long, we will be getting to do more of that again.”

To read the full article, including reaction from more travel agents in Canada, click here for the Jan. 13 issue of Travelweek.