TORONTO — If the global pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the unexpected can happen at a moment’s notice. So although travel is getting back to normal after two years of global border closures and travel restrictions, it’s always good for travel advisors to have insight into best practices should things go awry for whatever reason with a client’s trip, whether due to the pandemic or anything else.
Travelweek caught up with Heather Kearns of Latitude Concierge Travels, Ltd in Burlington, ON, who has recent experience with the unexpected. Back in January 2022, she had a Sunwing wedding group of 38 guests – 17 of whom booked with her – at Sandos Playacar Beach Resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Since Canada’s mandatory pre-arrival PCR testing rule was still in place at the time for fully vaccinated travellers (this rule was later amended on Feb. 28, 2022 to include rapid antigen tests, and then dropped altogether on April 1, 2022), the entire group was tested at the resort a couple of days before their departure home to Canada.
Their results came back a day before checkout. The sister of the groom was the first to discover that she had tested positive for COVID-19. Shortly after, her boyfriend also tested positive. Within the hour, another four group members reported a positive result. All six of the affected guests were clients of Kearns.
Luckily for the six, Kearns was not only accessible but also engaging, attentive and, above all, caring. She was in constant contact with the group from the start, providing guidance and reassurance when they needed it the most.
“I had the wedding couple put themselves and all six affected guests on a WhatsApp thread so that we could share information and keep track of everyone’s situation. This eventually grew to include family members who wanted to stay in touch and play fun games to entertain the six who were in quarantine. Although having many people on the thread made it harder for me to manage the situation, I knew it was important for the group to be able to communicate with each other at all times,” says Kearns.
As the industry well remembers, COVID was rampant in early 2022, and if tour op reps had a single symptom they couldn’t be on property, “which has been a challenge since the pandemic,” says Kearns. So she directed the bride via video chat to the resort’s Tour Operator desk and instructed her to comb through the books for Sunwing’s contact information. Once they found the right numbers, they immediately notified both Sunwing/Nexus and the resort’s Front Desk to tell them that the affected guests would not be able to board their airport transfer or take their flight home.
“This ended up being the right thing to do since they did not get marked as being a no show,” says Kearns. “This also helped me advocate for a return flight home on their behalf, including a transfer to the airport.”
In another example of thinking ahead, Kearns had previously instructed all guests to download the Sunwing app prior to their trip. The app’s chat box would eventually serve as an additional direct link to a Sunwing/Nexus Representative while in destination.
RAVE RESORT REVIEWS
According to Kearns, the team at Sandos Playacar was “outstanding,” handling the entire situation with ease, patience and kindness. When the group first received their positive test results, the resort allowed them to spend their final night in their rooms, with room service, rather than moving them to its quarantine section, to minimize disruption. In addition, at that time Sandos Playacar was offering to cover five nights for those who tested positive for COVID-19 during their stay, to defray the cost of quarantine. Any subsequent nights should a guest remain positive would be offered at a special rate.
All six of Kearns’ sick clients stayed a total of 10 days in quarantine.
“From checking out of their booked rooms to their quarantine rooms, to room service and the care that was given during the duration of their stay, the six guests have said that if they had to quarantine, this was the way to do it!” says Kearns. “The father of the bride even made friends with his concierge, who kept bringing all six of them fresh garlic with every meal to cater to their Italian upbringing!”
THE MANULIFE FACTOR
In the weeks leading up to the trip, Kearns had several ‘what if’ conversations with the group, laying out all possible scenarios in a post-pandemic world.
“If I could have 30 groups like this every year, I’d be delighted!” she says. “They questioned, but they also listened. And when I advised that they needed to be appropriately covered in the event of COVID-19, they got onboard.”
Each of the 17 guests that Kearns had booked for the trip purchased the COVID-19 rider from Manulife, through a referral card she had sent them. This, she says, proved to be extremely beneficial as it helped pay for the sick guests’ airport transfers, return flights and extra hotel nights not already covered by Sandos Playacar. Manulife, she says, guided each of them through the process directly.
Not only did Kearns have Sandos Playacar and Manulife in her corner, she also had the good fortune of working with her Sunwing reps in Canada, behind the scenes, to help manage the situation. With them handling the logistics in Canada, Kearns also had her group cover their bases while in destination by reaching out to Sunwing via multiple platforms – via phone, the Sunwing app’s chat box, and eventually via Sunwing Cares on Sunwing’s website, which is used primarily to start a claim. She instructed each group pairing to start a Sunwing Cares thread, after which they were all eventually combined onto one thread.
“Between my connections at home and their Sunwing Cares rep, we were able to get everyone home without having to pay out of pocket for their transfer or flights,” says Kearns. “Nonna had a massive lasagna waiting for them when they arrived home – during a snow storm, no less!”
In the aftermath of the trip, when everyone was back in Canada and recovering, Kearns had the opportunity to have a one-on-one call with her Sunwing rep. She asked her if she had any tips should a similar situation occur again with another client.
“I was delighted to hear that she told me she wouldn’t change a thing that I did,” says Kearns. “Was it a headache? Did I lose sleep? Oh yeah! But this was a fabulous group and they turned a stressful situation into a best-case scenario, and ended up bonding together across two families because of it.”