Hold times and self-service tools for tour ops and airlines: What agents are saying now

Hold times and self-service tools for tour ops and airlines: What agents are saying now

TORONTO — Hours-long hold times for supplier call centres – the bane of the industry for the better part of two years – are finally improving.

The situation has been a source of major frustration, both for travel advisors – enduing interminable waits to get answers for their clients – and for suppliers too, equally frustrated that they couldn’t provide their usual high levels of service.

Now as the industry continues to work overtime to meet client demand – amid the sharpest uptick in bookings the travel industry has ever seen – hold times are starting to normalize.

That’s partly thanks to suppliers staffing up, no small feat considering the industry was all but dormant for two years.

Suppliers have also made great strides with their online self-service tools, and travel advisors are making good use of them.

THE BEST TO WORK WITH IN TERMS OF BEING AVAILABLE”

“I haven’t had to wait [on hold] more than two hours in the past few weeks … this is a big step,” says Cambridge, ON-based travel advisor Caitlin Lajeunesse, part of the Independent by Flight Centre network.

She adds: “The self-serve tools are very useful, and I appreciate that our tour operator partners are listening to our needs. It would be nice to have a more control over our bookings when it comes to changes (dates, room category etc.) to reduce the need to call in even further, but we are getting there,” she adds.

Tour operators and airlines have been front and centre throughout the pandemic promoting the use of their self-service options, with more functionality than ever as they encouraged agents to bypass the jammed phone lines and go online.

Just recently ACV added more self-service options for agents looking to access reservations made online and in the call centre for bookings in Mexico, the Caribbean, Las Vegas, Hawaii, California and Orlando. ACV’s extra self-serve tools, as well as those launched in late 2021, can be accessed through ACV’s website and all external distribution channels, including Sirev, Galileo Vacations, and Sabre Vacations. Clients can also access their reservations directly online and modify certain elements of their booking via the Manage Your Booking page on aircanadavacations.com.

Another tour operator, Sunwing, launched enhancements to its travel agent portal earlier this month. The portal, at Sunwingagents.ca, now offers improved features and new tools.

WestJet meanwhile is seeing good use of its call-back feature. WestJet’s Manager, Commercial Sales, Spencer Sorensen recently noted that call centre hold times had “improved significantly, but there’s still work to be done.” More agents and consumers are choosing the call-back option, and that’s helping, he said.

Travel agent Jennifer Trofimuk with Planes, Trains & Kids Travel in Calgary has been impressed with Sunwing’s call centre, noting that the tour op “has been the best to work with in terms of being available.”

And ACV’s self-serve tools have been a huge help, she says. Even back when hold times were at their most challenging, “at least we could fill out ACV’s cancellation form online, as well as utilize other self-help tools they created.”

Warman, SK-based travel advisor Ashley Doell says she’s finding hold times have come way, way down. “The hold times are much better now. I’m finding that it’s rare that you wait longer than 30 minutes to speak to someone and in lots of cases it’s less than 10 minutes which is awesome.”

She adds: “The WestJet and WestJet Vacations call-back features have really helped decrease the hold times and manage business more efficiently. Sunwing has a great site for self-serving bookings where you can add their insurance within 48 hours of booking, add special requests, and they also have a feature where you can add credits right in the booking screen so I would say they have some of the best self-serve options out there.”

One area that still has frustratingly high turnaround times? Group bookings, and that’s true across the board for all tour operators, says Doell.

“It’s been a 3-4 business day turnaround to get responses back from Group reps which is just not feasible when you’re trying to start new groups or business,” she says. “It’s taken over a month to secure one group booking number alone, and I’m still waiting on the other gateways and booking numbers now.”

And while staffed-up call centres have improved hold times across the entire industry, there are still some hours-long waits.

Kathleen Penner with Plenty of Sunshine Travel, based in Ontario, says she was on hold for several hours with one airline. When she finally got through, she wound up helping the brand-new call support agent. “She mentioned it was her second day. I was coaching her on how to do things. The entire time (including time spent on hold) was over 9 hours!”

WEB SEARCHES & FACEBOOK GROUPS

Resourceful agents are finding work-arounds for getting their questions answered, when they can’t find what they need using the self-serve tools.

Penner says she’ll do web searches to find her answer. “I also ask other travel agents if they have dealt with a specific situation that I am dealing with and how it was handled. My host agency, Cruise CEO, has a very active Facebook group, and I have never met such friendly, helpful agents before! They are always willing to help, and occasionally there is a post saying they are calling a supplier, which has a very long wait time. They offer to ask questions while they have the phone agent on the line. That kind of help is excellent!” says Penner.

The solidarity in the travel advisor community is invaluable, agrees Trofimuk. “I can tell you as a community, agents are always helping each other by posting on social media how long a wait time is with a particular supplier, or if they were able to get through right away with little to no hold time. This information is huge to help us plan our work flow for the day.”

Penner adds that other supplier resources are helpful as well. “Royal Caribbean now has a list of FAQs and step-by-step documents highlighting ways to deal with situations without calling. Many other cruise lines are starting to do the same,” she says.

These are crazy times in the industry, but compared to much of the last two years, they’re at least good-crazy, as booking volumes go through the roof. Penner is keeping her sense of perspective as she remembers what things were like at the beginning of the pandemic. “During the first few weeks I had my cell and landline on hold. I have not had them both answer at the same time … yet!”