TORONTO — Travel agencies across Canada have suffered the blow of COVID-19 with varying degrees, with some being forced to permanently shutter and many others seeing staff layoffs and drastically reduced profits. And though government aid programs like the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) and the Canada Emergency Rent Subsidy (CERS) certainly help in a pinch, the impact the pandemic has had on agents and agencies has been immeasurable.
There are business owners, however, who have been lucky enough to not only stay above water these past few months, but actually find new opportunities in the midst of the industry’s most challenging time. Cindy Gaudet, owner of Fareconnect.com in Winnipeg, considers herself among these fortunate few.
With four travel agents on staff, her storefront agency on St. Anne’s Road has certainly seen a massive decline in bookings since March. But Gaudet remains optimistic by what little activity she is seeing.
“Obviously, activity for bookings is moving like a turtle but activity is always positive and engaging in everyone’s workday,” she tells Travelweek. “I thrive on putting trips of a lifetime together as it is so rewarding to make these trips a reality.”
Gaudet, who considers independent, flexible travel itineraries her number one specialty, first found her passion to sell travel while serving in the Canadian Forces. As a mother of four, she found it difficult to save for a family vacation, which is why she teamed up with a host agency in the U.S. in 2007 to start her travel journey. After earning enough income to take her family on two vacations, Gaudet started looking for a host agency in Canada and eventually landed at Fareconnect. Around the same time, Gaudet and her husband, Rick, opened the Travel Mug Café, a trendy coffee shop-slash-full-service travel agency. However, after Rick became CEO of Fareconnect.com, the couple found that running two businesses took up too much of their time, and so they sold the Café and bought two other agencies (one of which saw a planned closure earlier this June). The couple is currently retired but remain as agency shareholders along with silent partners.
Here’s what Gaudet has to say about what her experience has been throughout the pandemic:
What was the immediate impact the pandemic had on your agency back in March?
We needed to take a two-pronged approach. We needed to take care of all the clientele from our storefront and online sales, plus also provide support and guidance to our Independent Contractors (ICs).
Our office and ICs have done an outstanding job from the beginning. We had clients all over the world we had to get home. With many sleepless nights communicating with clients in different time zones, we were able to bring home our final client from Morocco at the end of March. In April we moved into our second phase, which was cancelling future bookings and assisting clients with insurance claims. Our focus was making sure our clients knew what was going on with their future travel.
Can you put into words the responsibility you feel as an Owner during this time?
The responsibility is immense as you never want to let your staff down by having to tell them that they will not be working for you. I think we were very fortunate, I only had to lay off my three part-time staff in April. The ladies seamlessly transferred over to CERB, so financially they were doing fine. Our staff from Head Office (also located within the storefront and employing seven team members) all remained on to support our ICs. We were very fortunate to be with a debt-free company that was prepared for a rainy day.
Have you applied for any government aid?
We sure have applied for all the funding that has been offered. The government assistance has kept us in full business and allowed us to maintain all of our full-time staff. The funding has reduced our burn-through rate to a workable rate.
Now that we’re eight months into the pandemic, what is morale like today?
We have staff meetings every second day to connect with our staff on work activity. Our staff’s morale is very important to us during this pandemic as everyone reacts differently due to their personal situations. Mental health is very important to us and we make sure that even if we can’t travel, they can take their holidays to spend time with their families.
Heading into the important winter season, what’s selling right now?
The Caribbean is selling for long and short stays. We saw an uptick when suppliers came out saying that clients are able to cancel 25 days prior. As for emerging trends, we have seen lots of interest to travel but clients are very reluctant to book with the 14-day quarantine upon their return.
Would you say that the pandemic has forced you to look beyond your usual clientele base for new bookings? If so, how are you doing this?
For sure. We are setting up a referral program through our existing clients to engage clients for referrals. We hired a company to create an Agent Resource site to provide information to all agents in a central location. We also decided to improve our New Agent Training by creating our own training platform, which is still being worked on.
In addition, Rick and I host Open Mic Night with all our home-based agents once a month to stay connected and update them on any changes that have happened. We do recruitment nights via Zoom once a month. And we also have A Nightly Affair once a month for our clients to have a virtual customer night with suppliers so that they can learn new ways to travel in the future. This event has brought bookings and enquiries from our clients. It’s interesting to note that we’re selling more luxury cruise lines now than before the pandemic.
On top of all that, we also send out our Travel Chat Newsletter a few times a month to stay engaged with our clients and let them know we are here for them. Keeping clients informed and maintaining communications is our most important tool right now.
What are you biggest challenges today as Owner? Are there any new issues that have arisen since the start of the pandemic?
Our biggest challenge is knowing the right time to put it out there. The suppliers have done an outstanding job protecting our clients by putting some travel protections in place, including healthcare coverage for COVID-19. From the beginning, I always said to clients that it’s a personal choice to travel, and I still give them that same advice for future bookings. As for refunds, we had clients wait a long time for their refunds but as of two weeks ago, our office had our last one, which is great as we made calls once a week to get updates.
We’ve also rebooked cruises for 2021/22. The cruise companies have been wonderful as they have very local clients and they, in turn, have been loyal to clients. Cruise companies made this very easy for us.
Why do you think other storefronts have closed and yours has not? What’s been your secret to success these past few months?
It’s hard to say exactly why any agency has closed as everyone handles business differently. Since we run both our host agency business and our travel agency under the same roof, there is lots of synergy between the two. We were able to pivot and work on improving the brand and our offerings to our agents. If we were solely a travel agency, things would be much different. With sales down 98%, there’s only so much that agents can do until the situation changes and clients can travel again without the advisories in place.
What tips do you have for other agency owners on how to not only survive, but possibly thrive at this time?
If anything, I have learned that running a storefront requires constant communication with clients because they are your referrals. Letting your clients know you are here when they are ready to book is imperative in the recovery. Plus, cross-promotions with local businesses are a great angle at no cost. I have exchanged by advertising in a spa with every client of mine getting a coupon for 20% off spa services.
When it comes to staying afloat, it really depends on the individual. Take a hard look at your business and see where your profit is and where all your major expenses are coming from. Maybe it’s time to pivot and move to where you can be more profitable so that you can reduce risk in the future.