TORONTO — Travel industry experts addressed some of the biggest issues facing travel advisors today at ACTA’s 2022 Eastern Canada Travel Industry Summit.
Taking place yesterday, Sept. 14, at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, the Summit was attended by 350 travel agents and industry members who spent the day listening to keynote and panel speakers, participating in educational breakout sessions, and networking with suppliers on the trade show floor. The day’s agenda also included lunch, prizes and an awards ceremony.
The Summit kicked off on a bit of a somber note, however, with news from ACTA president Wendy Paradis that 30% of the day’s panelists had fallen ill with COVID-19 the day before. But this, said Paradis, only emphasized the need for the travel industry to be able to pivot, adapt and, in ACTA’s case, advocate during the pandemic.
“I’ll be honest, we are concerned about the upcoming flu season, we are concerned with some of the modelling, and we are concerned about potential federal government actions,” said Paradis. “The number one concern is a new, more deadly variant, and we know that the federal government has left infrastructure in place to shut down the borders like in similar times. So as your advocate, ACTA is doing everything possible and is very assertive, along with our advocacy partners, in ensuring that that doesn’t happen.”
Paradis noted that ACTA continues to meet with the federal government, politicians and policy developers, and will be ramping up communications starting next week about the need for Canadians to travel.
“We need to ensure that the travel industry is not treated differently than the rest of the industries in Canada. But heading into the flu season, we are a little vulnerable. So we want to keep 10 steps ahead of the situation,” she added.
Providing some reassurance via a pre-taped video message, Minister of Transport Omar Alghabra addressed travel agents directly, thanking them for their hard work throughout the pandemic.
“This has been a difficult two years for travel agents and agencies. Your role is extremely important in our economy and for travellers, and we are thankful for the professional services you offer to Canadians,” he said. “Canadians and people around the world are ready to start travelling and this is great news for our tourism industry.”
The Minister, however, noted that with travel and tourism’s recovery comes a few challenges, specifically the long delays airports have been struggling with in recent months.
“I want you to know that we are working with our partners in the air travel industry to remove bottlenecks and speed up the process for passengers in Canada,” he said, adding that air travel is not the only area where the federal government is lending its support. In April 2022, Minister Alghabra announced the opening of Canada’s cruise ship season for the first time in two years, which is great news for agents who work with cruise lines, he added.
“Thank you for your patience over the last couple of years and for your commitment to our Canadian travel industry. I know that with our continued hard work, we will bring back our tourism and travel sectors to their full strength, even better. I also want you to know that your Government will remain a partner with you, that will listen to you, that will continue our work with you to ensure your success,” said the Minister.
“You will see us out in full force”: ACTA
Throughout the pandemic, which began in earnest in March 2020, the travel industry has shouldered much of the blame for the spread of COVID-19. But with Omicron, COVID-19’s most recent strain that emerged in late 2021, medical experts have confirmed that the travel industry, which was still entirely shut down at the time, had close to zero impact on its spread, said Paradis.
“All of the medical experts say it slowed Omicron down by a couple weeks but that was it,” she added. “So our message is clear: that we are an economic driver in Canada, we have between Travel and Tourism, more than two million workers who are attached to this industry, and we should not be shut down on a whim like we have been for the last two years.”
To roll out this key messaging, Paradis said ACTA will be out in “full force” throughout the media, radio, TV and digital. She also told agents in attendance that they may once again be called on by ACTA to participate in letter writing campaigns and to call their local MPs, should any new federal policies be implemented in the future that could negatively impact the Canadian travel industry.
What if the worst happens? What if Canada once again shuts down its borders? Paradis said that one of the key points being made during all of ACTA’s meetings with the federal government throughout the summer has been the need for financial support – for both travel agencies and independent travel agents – in the wake of any new border measures. Moreover, the issues of loan forgiveness and flexible loan repayment deadlines have already been discussed, she added, and will “ramp up when the time is right.”
Paradis presented a few sobering statistics to emphasize just how devastated the travel industry has been by the pandemic. At the height of the pandemic, 80% of travel agents in Canada were furloughed. Hundreds of travel agencies across Canada shuttered their doors. And according to Statistics Canada and the CRA, the travel industry saw the highest drop in employment than any other industry at 32%.
In an effort to build back, Paradis said ACTA will be focusing on two key priorities: attracting new travel agents, and training and certification. ACTA has already started rolling out a new social media campaign that touts the benefits of working in the retail travel industry, and will also be working closely with Tourism HR Canada on several organized workforce development initiatives. As for training and certification, ACTA has been actively engaging agents throughout the pandemic via webinars, and is leaning heavily into its education and certification mandate by way of the Canadian Institute of Travel Counsellors (CITC), which was rolled into ACTA back in 2013.
Hold times & commission payments
Several hot-button issues were addressed during a panel discussion called ‘Rebuilding the Canadian Travel Industry – Together!’, moderated by Tripcentral.ca’s Richard Vanderlubbe and featuring Stéphanie Bishop of Globus family of brands, Frank DeMarinis of TravelBrands, Monica Johnstone of Uniglobe Travel Innovations, and Nino Montagnese of Air Canada Vacations.
When asked about long call centre hold times and any progress being made, Montagnese acknowledged that it has been an issue but that the situation is improving.
“Our industry got hit the hardest and a lot of our peers left and never came back, so it has been very difficult to recruit,” he said. “But I’m happy to say that we’re pretty staffed up and our wait times have been very good over the last month. We are prepared for the winter season.”
Montagnese also noted that ACV has spent a lot of money this past year enhancing its self-serve tools. Agents can virtually manage bookings using ACV’s Manage Your Booking tool or TripBook through SIREV, up to seven days prior to departure. Since February 2022, Montagnese said over 60,000 transactions have been made via TripBook.
Noting the unpredictability of travel nowadays and how travel agent commissions are still largely being paid post-departure, Vanderlubbe asked the panel if they foresee any changes to the payment model.
Garnering major applause from the audience, Johnstone, speaking passionately from an agency perspective, said: “We should be paid for the work that we do, whether the trip happens or not. Cancellation penalties, which they keep, we get nothing. We should get a portion of that cancellation penalty.”
Noting that the issue won’t be resolved any time soon, Johnstone added that it’s a conversation that needs to be had between agencies and suppliers.
“We work hard, we all charge fees. But when it comes down to it, if you’ve charged your customer $100 or $300, but the potential loss in revenue could be into thousands of dollars, that’s a big ticket to a travel agent,” she added.
In response, Montagnese noted that ACV recently changed its policy for all of its preferred partners.
“With Air Canada Vacations, we do pay. If a booking gets cancelled at 100%, we pay commission, cancel the 50% we pay commission. And now with all of our preferred partners, even if on deposit it cancels, every quarter we’re going to run a report and you’ll get a per-person amount for that booking that was on deposit that cancelled. So we’re not keeping any fees without giving back.”
“Let’s not waste a good pandemic”: Bruce Poon Tip
Keynote speaker Bruce Poon Tip, CEO of G Adventures, inspired audience members to not settle for a “return to normal” in the travel industry, but to push for real, positive change moving forward. Citing the fact that only $5-$10 of every $100 stay in local economies when travelling, Poon Tip, who recently executive produced the feature-length documentary ‘The Last Tourist,’ imagined a scenario in which travellers could change the world simply by going on holiday.
“If we could get to a place where the money you spent on holiday stayed in that local economy, and where we could create wealth distribution with a $10 trillion industry – one of the largest industries in the world that contributes 10% of the global GDP – we can really make travel a force for change,” said Poon Tip.
This, he added, starts with changing the simple mindset of travel being not a right, but rather a privilege. With this change, travellers are more likely to find purpose in their holidays, find ways to give back to local communities, make more meaningful connections, and venture beyond their resort grounds or cruise ship deck.
“If you want the comforts of home, maybe you should stay at home,” said Poon Tip. “We got to a point where local cultures are being used against the traveller, who are told to not leave the walls of their resort because it’s dangerous. When the local culture is being used to promote the experience and to drive profits back to companies, we’re left with a model that’s not at all sustainable.”
Using cruise ships as an example, with their over-the-top amenities like go kart tracks, “the destination can be anywhere,” he added, and “it’s no longer relevant where the ship is going because all you care about are the amenities.” Poon Tip warned against commoditizing the travel experience as it detracts from the true purpose of travel, which is to experience the destination and other cultures.
“Let’s not waste a good pandemic,” he said. “The positive side of this pandemic is that the travel industry has become the world’s largest startup economy. We all get to restart our businesses, so let’s rethink everything we do and not just rebuild the same way we did everything before.”
“We will always pay travel agents and utilize their services”: Gary Sadler
Citing Travelweek’s own 2022 Consumer Survey, Gary Sadler, Executive Vice President of Sales & Industry Relations, Unique Vacations Inc., worldwide representatives of Sandals Resorts and Beaches Resorts, focused on the essential role travel agents play in the travel ecosystem, with findings showing that 58% of Canadians are now more likely to seek out an agent’s services when booking a trip.
Addressing the travel agents in the audience during his keynote speech, Sadler said: “Travel advisors have been the backbone of Sandals and Beaches Resorts. It all stems from the vision of our late founder, Gordon “Butch” Stewart, who knew from day one, in 1981 when Sandals Montego Bay first opened, how vital you would be to our success as an organization. And that has never changed and it never will. We will always pay travel agents, pay commissions and utilize the services of our travel agent partners – forever.”
Noting the importance of the Canadian market (“We recognized some 29 years ago that opening an office at 4211 Yonge Street is a clear indication that Canada is not a state of the United States, but a country that we are proud to have an operation here,” he said), Sadler encouraged Canadian agents to continue their training and stay up to date on Sandals and Beaches products in order to maximize their sales potential.
“Travel advisors who take the time to learn about the products they trust are truly the experts. Travel advisors who take the time to visit the products they trust, such as Sandals and Beaches Resorts, to experience it for themselves will find that it actually makes a difference. You always have to sharpen that pencil, sharpen your skills to make you the expert ahead of the other person down the road,” said Sadler.
He added: “Those travel advisors who make a real commitment to building trust through their experience and expertise are also the most successful and profitable ones, believe me. This is not a coincidence. That is why we have this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rise up and emerge from the struggles of this pandemic to showcase your professional skills with your clients both current and future. Know that they need you more than ever before.”
The big reveal: ACTA European River Cruise Summit 2023
After teasing the unveiling of a “big secret” throughout the day, Paradis at long last announced that for the first time ever, ACTA will be hosting a European River Cruise Summit for travel advisors with Avalon Waterways in October 2023.
A total of 100 Canadian travel agents will be able to take part in the seven-day ‘Romantic Rhine’ itinerary, which will sail from Amsterdam to Basel. The Summit, said Paradis, will take over the entire ship, meaning it will be a 100%, travel advisor-only cruise. Highlights include biking and onboard workshops like painting and cooking classes.
Registration details, qualifications and associated costs will be announced in early November. Registration will be provided on a first-come, first-serve basis, once all registration criteria are met.
“This has been a project that we’ve been working on for a while and there’s still a lot of work to do, but we wanted to show you our 100% commitment,” said Bishop of Globus family of brands, parent company of Avalon Waterways. “We believe in the travel advisor, we believe in helping you really learn the product but also experiencing an extraordinary journey. It will be the first time that Avalon Waterways in Canada does something of this magnitude and I think there’ll be lots more surprises coming.”
Paradis added: “By spending just one week with us, travel advisors will be set up for success for years to come. Recognizing that river cruising is the fastest growing travel style across the globe, it’s clear that the new wave in cruising is on the world’s rivers. Through our first River Cruise Summit with Avalon Waterways, we are ready to show travel advisors why river cruising is a wonderful way for them to really grow their business.”
ACTA Awards: And the winners are…
Paradis handed out several ACTA Leadership Awards during yesterday’s Summit, to travel agents she says have made a positive and lasting impact on the Canadian travel industry. The winners are:
- Leisure Travel Agent Award: Angela Harrison-Mowbray, CTC, Travel Escapes Vacations, Revelstoke, BC
- Corporate Travel Agent Award: Monica Voigt, Marlin Travel, Ottawa, ON
- Tomorrow’s Leader Award: Shari Tucker, Love the Way You Travel, Halifax, NS
- Ches Chard Education Award: Patricia Marques, CTM, CAA North and East
- Gerald Heifetz Advocacy Award: Shalene Dudley, CEO, owner and lead Destination Wedding and Group specialist, Latitude Concierge Travel Ltd., Burlington, ON