TORONTO — Destination wedding specialists in the Canadian travel trade say they’ve lost, on average, $20,506 in commissions due to cancelled bookings as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And asked what reaction they got from clients who received future travel credits (FTCs) / vouchers in lieu of refunds for their cancelled bookings, respondents said that 27% were generally happy to get the FTCs / vouchers, and 12% said clients were upset they could not get a refund. The majority, 60%, said they saw a mix of reactions: some were generally happy but others were really upset.
The findings and feedback from Canadian travel agents were shared exclusively with Travelweek in the Canadian market by the Destination Wedding & Honeymoon Specialists Association (DWHSA), the world’s largest romance travel network.
900+ DWHSA MEMBERS IN CANADA & U.S.
DWHSA surveyed its 900+ members in the U.S. and Canada to collect statistics on the impact of COVID-19 on their businesses. The agents were also asked about future trends for destination weddings, as the world grapples with how to enforce social distancing and health and safety protocols for large gatherings, including weddings.
DWHSA’s President Lisa Sheldon says the pandemic caused three in five romance travel clients in the U.S. and Canada to cancel their booked trips completely. And while their travel advisors lost half a year’s commissions on average, agents expect better days in 2021 – or a bit later.
“This survey shows how dedicated romance travel advisors are to their clients,” said Sheldon. “They’ve worked long hours with little or no pay to take care of their couples and travellers, while hoping that better days are on the way soon.”
Asked what they’re doing to stay in front of clients during this incredibly challenging time, with multiple answers allowed, 84.8% said they were focusing mostly on client service, while 63.6% were focusing ways to encourage clients to rebook rather than cancel completely. Equally strong majorities were cutting back on their own spending until things get better (78.7%) and ramping up appropriate messaging on social media and / or their own sites (66.6%).
“TRYING TO PUT A POSITIVE MESSAGE OUT THERE”
Many of DWHSA’s Canadian members shared their ideas for maximizing this time and elevating their customer service strategies. “I have also sent all my clients personal handwritten notes,” said one. “Running Zoom meetings with some clients/potential brides & grooms showcasing different properties and trying to ease travel concerns,” said another. And this: “Trying to put a positive message out there. Also spending time on training that I wouldn’t otherwise have time to do.”
DWHSA’s Canadian members also weighed in on when they think bookings will return to pre-pandemic levels. Just 6% said by the end of 2020. Just over half, 54.5%, said bookings will return to normal levels in 2021. And 39.3% said ‘not sure – it may take longer.
The survey also showed that although many advisors have been worried about credit card chargebacks and debit card disputes filed by upset clients, only one in 10 DWHSA members has been hit with them so far (8.9% U.S.; 9% Canadian).
Meanwhile 72.7% of Canadian respondents said they had applied for assistance from the federal government in the form of the CERB and other programs; 69.6% have received funds already. An almost equal percentage (69.7%) of U.S. DWHSA member agents say they have applied for assistance in the U.S., however only 24% so far have received funds.
“IT’S OK TO SAY YOU DON’T KNOW”
Asked to share their number one piece of advice for fellow travel agents and destination wedding specialists during this time, DWHSA’s Canadian respondents showed why travel agents are at once resilient and savvy.
. “Things change quickly. Empathize with your clients. It’s OK to say you don’t know because no one does.”
. “Stay healthy and positive. Inspire hope. Seek out good news. Use this time to learn and organize.”
. “Take notes on which suppliers supported us through this and which ones threw us under the bus. Only use the best suppliers going forward.”
. “Be completely transparent and clear and concise with clients regarding their options moving forward.”
. “Do not do the part of the scientists or the medical professionals and give advice to your clients re: travel and health! There is a lot of misinformation out there, including the folks who tie all of this into a political agenda. It is not! It’s a pandemic! Advise caution, but be optimistic.”
. “Have lots of patience. Believe in yourself and your service.”
THE NEXT SURVEY: KEY TRENDS
Sheldon says another DWHSA report, set for release later in June and into July, will show key trends members expect to see with hotels, cruise lines, airlines, and destinations in the near future.
“We’ll share these results in June and July with suppliers and tourism offices in the romance travel niche so they understand what’s going on with romance travel specialists,” she said. “We know everyone is hurting in the industry, but travel advisors have been hit the hardest because we’re the front lines in many cases who’re taking care of travellers directly.”
FIRST-HAND EXPERIENCE: TRAVEL TIME-TPI’S LOIS BARBOUR
Travel Time-TPI’s Lois Barbour (traveltimetpi.com), based in St. John’s, NL, is a member of DWHSA. She told Travelweek she’s currently in the process of moving fall groups who do not have the confidence that travel will be back up and running by then. “Some of them were originally booked for spring, and we moved them to fall, and now we are moving them again for the second time into 2021!” says Barbour.
She says one of her groups for April 2021 has cancelled already, but for the most part clients booked for 2021 have confidence that this will end.
“It is certainly tough to watch so much immediate and future business evaporate. I am thankful for those who choose to postpone and not cancel, as at least that gives some hope for the future of this business!” says Barbour.
She adds that it can be a struggle some days, “to feel I am reversing the work already done constantly, and the best coping mechanism seems to be to have a mindset to expect the immediate future will be a backwards move in business and be okay with that, and go through the details to take care of clients and groups affected.”
She says spending time on self- care and education is a focus, “to be in the best position possible when things start to return to normal, and confidence is building.”
Barbour notes that she has heard from brides for 2022 who are not affected so far, and are just waiting for the time to be right to get quotes and a group booking.
And here’s a bit of good news – not everyone is put off by the current situation, says Barbour. The travel advisory, the mandatory quarantine upon return, the insurance issues, the health and safety protocols, the whole lot of it. Some clients just want to travel, and they’re doing it regardless.
“Some say as long as flights are going they are OK with the precautions. Last week I booked an elopement wedding for July to Sandals in Jamaica.”
She adds that “there is a range for sure in clients’ comfort levels, and it does seem to be a bigger issue for groups.”