Exclusive: DWHSA tackles key issues with agency owners as wedding bookings pick up
Clockwise from top left: Lois Barbour, Laurie Keith Whiting, Liz Scull, Amira Harris

Exclusive: DWHSA tackles key issues with agency owners as wedding bookings pick up

TORONTO — From travel insurance and service fees to proof of vaccination, Destination Wedding & Honeymoon Specialists Association (DWHSA) covered major ground during yesterday’s webinar featuring top Canadian destination wedding specialists. 

Titled ‘Canada Reopens for Travel – How Canadian Advisors Should Prepare,’ the hour-long session aimed to highlight the key issues facing destination wedding specialists now that bookings are starting to pick up and destinations are slowly lifting travel restrictions. As moderator Liz Scull, DWHSA general manager, Canada, put it, “we’re entering new territory, which is why we wanted to reach out and see how we’re all preparing for the upsurge in business that we’re going to have.”

Featured on yesterday’s panel were agency owners Lois Barbour of Travel Time TPI in Newfoundland, Amira Harris of Aisle Travel in Alberta, and Laurie Keith Whiting or Romantic Planet Vacations in Ontario. Here are some highlights:

Forward bookings: “I feel that buzz”

When asked whether bookings have finally picked up, responses varied across the panel. On the East Coast, where lockdowns have been strict throughout the pandemic, Barbour said travellers are still in the mindset of staying safe and staying put.

“Even though people can now come into Newfoundland, I don’t think quite as many as we were probably expecting are ready to get on a plane and go away on vacation, especially to go south with the government advisory still in place,” she said. “So bookings haven’t been quite as quick to come back as we would like.”

In contrast, Harris on the West Coast said her agency has been “busy nonstop,” with people “very eager to travel.” Keith Whiting reported a similar upward trend in Ontario, saying her agency has “gotten so busy in the last few weeks and I feel that buzz.” She added that not only is her team busy with providing quotes, clients are actually following through and booking thanks to amazing sales from tour operators.

“People are booking and that gives us so much confidence that travel is coming back probably sooner than we think,” said Keith Whiting. “Borders are opening up and people are getting vaccinated, which I think will help build that consumer confidence. Our biggest hurdle after that will be the government now saying it’s safe to travel. Once we get that green light, the floodgates are going to be wide open.”


Challenges & Marketing: “We had to really curtail spending”

As travel gradually resumes, travel agencies and travel agents will no doubt face logistical challenges following months of working from home and limited-to-no bookings. The biggest challenge right now, said Harris, is long wait times for quotes – particularly group quotes – from tour operators, which she chalked up to lack of staff.

Keith Whiting said she’s experiencing her own staffing issues that have impacted day-to-day operations. 

“We need to build not only ICs but also the team to support the ICs. So we have a lot of job postings out there but not too many responses as of yet,” she said. “I think staffing is going to be an issue, especially as everybody begins to get busier.”

To help with time management, Keith Whiting suggested outsourcing certain duties, like marketing. 

“I’ve discovered a company called Fiverr and it’s all outsourcing. It was based on giving $5 for a job so now I use them all the time with video ads, social media posts and it’s $5-$10 to do. And they also do accounting so if you don’t want to do all the invoicing and other things that will bog you down, that’s an option too,” she said.

With many marketing budgets slashed as a result of the pandemic, rates as low as these will certainly help during this period of recovery. Keith Whiting added that her agency had to really curtail spending last year, a major shift considering that pre-pandemic she spent about $100,000 a year in marketing alone. The majority of this was spent on live events, including the annual RomanceTravelShow.com for wedding couples, held each February in various cities across Canada. Since the pandemic, however, she’s focused her energy on non-paid advertising like webinars and seminars, all conducted on Zoom, to maintain her connection with clients.

But the one thing that Keith Whiting has found to be the most successful is email broadcasting.

“I would highly recommend, if anybody doesn’t have a CRM, to invest in that,” she said. “There are a lot of free CRMs out there right now. We use HubSpot and I think if you have 2,000 contacts or under it’s free. So that’s a great way to continue that communication with your client list, which is so imperative.”


Vaccinations & Cancellations: “It would be a big issue for us”

With many destinations around the world now requiring proof of vaccination, the panelists were asked how they would approach this issue with their clients, considering that it may be a polarizing matter for some.

Barbour, who cautioned against getting “too personal,” at the same time added that “it is our job to make sure that all of the information is disclosed.” She said that she will most likely add information about vaccination requirements to her agency’s existing COVID-19 waiver. 

Barbour also noted that agents not only need to stay on top of vaccination requirements for each destination, but also which destinations are not permitting mixed-doses for entry. Earlier this week, the CBC reported that Canadian Chris Storey, who received both a Pfizer and Moderna shot, was still required to test upon arrival and await his results at a hotel, requirements that are typically waived for vaccinated travellers.  

Here in Canada, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) has recommended that anyone who received a first shot of the AstraZeneca vaccine can take either Moderna or Pfizer for their second, and that Moderna and Pfizer can be interchangeable for a second dose for anyone who received an mRNA vaccine for their first shot.

If clients are denied entry based on their vaccination status, added Barbour, they may be able to cancel or change their destination up until 3-4 days prior to departure thanks to tour operators’ ‘Cancel For Any Reason’ policies. This, however, puts agents’ commissions at risk, “which would be a big issue for us,” said Barbour. 

“What we’re doing in that area is, before we used to go net plus our markup, and here’s your gross plus tax. Now we’re doing it a bit differently. If your net is $1,200 we say, ‘here’s your $1,300 plus $100 service fee plus tax,’ and then that service fee is brought in during the deposit time. That’s non-refundable, non-transferable and kept and now I can distribute commission to the team right away instead of having them to wait for commission at time of travel,” she added.


Travel Insurance: “It’s going to be way easier to sell”

With so much uncertainty in travel nowadays, all panelists agreed that selling travel insurance will be much easier now than prior to the pandemic. However, although many tour operators offer their own insurance packages, Keith Whiting is still recommending to her clients to double up and purchase coverage through insurance companies as well.

“It’s going to be way easier to sell insurance than ever in the past. Statistically, the majority of those who are booking right now are going to book insurance,” she said. “Even if tour operators are adding that extra comfort level with their Carefree policies, buy the extra insurance because I think it’s needed.”

Harris also concurred, adding that her agency has a link on booking forms to direct clients to get a quote or purchase travel insurance, regardless of whether the tour operator is providing its own insurance coverage. 

“We’ve had probably 90% of people actually book additional travel insurance, whereas before it’d be 50/50,” said Harris. “Clients used to say it wasn’t worth it, it’s overpriced. But now we don’t even have to say anything, they’re just booking it themselves as a self-service.”


Service fees: “We deserve to be compensated”

All panelists were in full agreement: service fees are a must, especially now that the value of travel agents has been proven time and time again throughout the pandemic. 

Barbour, who’s always had a service fee policy and yet never enforced it, said she’s learned a lot about her own value in the past 16 months. 

“To my surprise, people are very willing to pay you for your professional service,” she said. “Even though I have not charged my regular clients before, when I got back to them with my professional fees, it won’t be a problem. It’s a mindset for us that we need to get over.”

Harris doubled down on the matter, saying that she questions any agent who’s not already charging service or professional fees. 

“If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s always be prepared for the unknown and be compensated for all the work you’ve put in,” she said. “Every agent has booked, cancelled and rebooked while making no money during that timeframe. Most of us were in the negative during that timeframe so, if anything, this should have taught us that we deserve to be compensated and should be charging professional service fees – period and end of story.”