How one travel agency adapted to offer COVID-19 testing
Normand Schafer

How one travel agency adapted to offer COVID-19 testing

TORONTO — You can say it was a lightbulb moment for Normand Schafer.

After reading an article last year about Kim Gorres, who started offering COVID-19 testing out of her Travel Leaders agency in New Richmond, Wisconsin, Schafer was immediately inspired to do the same thing.  The 25-plus-year travel industry veteran and President of Far and Away Adventures in Victoria, B.C. knew that the key to navigating the pandemic was to adapt, and that there was no better time than the present to act following an onslaught of cancellations and rebookings.

“I thought about the various opportunities during the pandemic and recognized that there was a lot of confusion and changes in travel testing. I thought there would be a lot of regulations in this space but felt that it would be an ongoing need for years to come,” Schafer tells Travelweek.

With many destinations now requiring mandatory pre-arrival COVID-19 testing for entry, including the United States, Schafer set off on what he describes as a long and onerous journey to get the idea off the ground. As someone with very little understanding of the medical field or how it operated, “it was like sprinting up a mountain,” he says. But Schafer credits his entrepreneurial spirit for never giving up. He spent the first few weeks researching various regulations and processes involved in offering COVID-19 testing services, specifically for travellers. He also travelled to Hawaii where he experienced firsthand the different testing protocols, including conducting his own PCR test with virtual assistance from a medical professional upon his return home to Canada.

How one travel agency adapted to offer COVID-19 testingSchafer eventually successfully secured a partner lab, Calgary-based Equity Health Services, which he says was the most difficult part of the process, and also completed specialized training through the lab. And since every province in Canada has differing regulations regarding PCR and antigen testing, he also needed to work with British Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons to ensure that all provincial protocols were being followed to a tee.

After all boxes were checked, his agency finally announced in mid-August 2021 that it was ready to offer COVID-19 antigen and PCR testing to both clients and the general public. Bookings are made and pre-paid online at www.TravelTestingCanada.com.

When asked how opening day was, Schafer says he felt a bit like a deer caught in the headlights.

“There was a large learning curve involved with explaining to people how to conduct a rapid antigen test but after a few days it was fairly repetitive and it became second nature,” he says.

At first, traffic for COVID-19 testing was extremely slow. But as Schafer and his team approached pharmacies, hotels and marinas for referrals it began to pick up, especially when other local testing sites became overwhelmed by demand, including one location that was forced to shut down for two weeks due to equipment failure. Luckily for Schafer, all those customers were referred to his agency instead.

But even luckier still was an unexpected outcome of Schafer’s new business model: the ‘testing’ clients soon became travel clients.

“Last week, one of our testing clients asked us to assist with travel arrangements to Europe this coming summer. Other people have expressed an interest in one of our specialties – Deluxe freighter cruises from Tahiti,” he says. “A large portion of our new sales is coming from business resulting from travel testing because these individuals are the ones who are most comfortable travelling at this time.”

Though Schafer is quick to note that sales levels are nowhere near what they were prior to the pandemic, he can say with confidence that both sales and inquiries have increased since the agency started offering testing services. And now that his team is currently only offering rapid antigen testing, and switched from instructing clients to do nasal swabs on site in the office and sending samples to the lab, to simply providing them with a take-home test kit that includes telemedicine assistance, the process has become even simpler.

“With people taking their test kits home, it is extremely easy to do and still gives us an opportunity to talk to lots of potential clients, after a year and a half of having no office traffic,” he says. “We have had to make multiple brochure orders in our office because they keep running out. People are starting to once again think and plan for travel and the leads we generate from travel testing are invaluable.”

Schafer says his agency will continue to book COVID-19 travel testing appointments for as long as it’s required, and has even reached out to other Travel Leaders Network agencies in areas where testing demand has been high. In January 2022, three other agencies had a soft launch and there are plans to add more.

How one travel agency adapted to offer COVID-19 testing

“One of the greatest opportunities lies in travel agencies being located in remote communities, smaller cities or areas where there is little to no travel testing nearby. We are hearing about travellers having to drive up to eight hours in order to access a travel test,” says Schafer.

It’s this sense of purpose, of providing an essential service to his community, that Schafer finds most rewarding. Calling it a “great blessing” to be busy again, he says his office receives calls every day from clients thanking his team for helping to save their upcoming trip or making it possible to see friends and family again. This outpouring of gratitude has also resulted in a 100% five-star rating on his agency’s travel testing Google Review page.

“The gratitude expressed by others makes this one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in my 25-plus year career in the industry,” he says.

As for what advice he would give to other agencies on how to adapt to the pandemic, Schafer says to be open to possibilities.

“Find new ways of doing business and ways that you can reach out to make a difference in the lives of people who are struggling during the pandemic,” he says. “As you look for ways to lift people and give them hope, you will not only find new opportunities but also ways that you can turn difficult experiences into rewarding ones.”