Vision Travel’s new ASCENT program targets independent travel advisors

If 2020 was the year of COVID-19, it was also the year of the travel agent

TORONTO — What do you say about a year that delivered the worst possible situation to the travel industry, but also brought travel agents and the work they do into the spotlight, and showed them at their very best?

A year where few travel retailers escaped the pandemic’s wrath on their business, to the point that many agents lost their livelihoods, or were forced to take on second and even third jobs to make ends meet.

A year where, despite the incredible challenges brought on by COVID-19, some 75% of Canadian travel agents said they were committed to staying in the travel industry and continuing their work as a travel agent.

And a year where retail travel organizations stepped up like never before to lobby on agents’ behalf – just as other agents founded advocacy groups, launched petitions and so much more.

Just yesterday, a new commission protection petition initiated by ACITA co-founders Judith Coates, Brenda Slater and Nancy Wilson was posted for online signatures. The petition can be read and signed here (and more details are at the bottom of this article).

Agents are also waiting to hear more details and a timeline for the federal government’s announcement yesterday that all passengers on flights entering Canada will be required to show proof of a negative PCR test taken no more than three days before arrival.

With no further immediate details from the government, the travel industry’s retailers and suppliers were left to deal with clients who are in destination and not sure what will be required of them upon arrival. The announcement “leaves more questions than answers,” says Coates.

The government was expected to release more details about the new requirement later today.

In the meantime, here’s a look back at the year in the retail travel industry.


If 2020 was the year of COVID-19, it was also the year of the travel agent.

In those chaotic first weeks Canada’s 14,000 agents helped thousands of Canadian travellers get back home.

The WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11. On March 13 – just as thousands of Canadians prepared to board planes that weekend for March Break – Canadians were told to avoid all non-essential travel.

And three days later, on March 16, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Canadians: “Let me be clear: if you are abroad, it is time to come back home.”

For most travel agents, those first days were a blur. The phones never stopped ringing and the emails flew as panicked clients contacted their travel agents for help. Some weren’t even clients.

Susan Doherty, Branch Manager at Maritime Travel in Toronto’s Financial District, said that by March 15, the Sunday, she had been working almost 48 hours, both on her agency’s branch clients and assisting Maritime Travel’s emergency travel centre which had more than 1,500 calls that weekend.

Earlier this year Doherty shared with us one story in particular from those chaotic days of mid-March 2020 that stood out.

She had clients on a two-week cruise to South America. The ship was denied docking at the end port of Lima, and at every port going north. At one point her clients were told they would be denied passage through the Panama Canal. “I think at that news the clients really started to worry and their calm in the face of all the obstacles was slipping. Our email exchange for that day was just me reassuring them that we would get them home and that I was only an email away if they needed anything,” she said.

Ultimately Doherty was able to secure the last seats on the flight back to Toronto. She says her clients emailed her the next day “and they said that it was like having a guardian angel watching over them … that just having daily contact with someone at home, who they felt confident in and who was monitoring their situation with calm and understanding was not only reassuring but reinforced their belief that booking with a travel advisor would be the only way they would book in future (yeah! there’s a future for us!!). They said that any traveller, regardless of where they go, should use a travel professional.”


Travel agents not only made miracles happen in those first weeks of the pandemic, they also spent countless hours on the phone, on hold, to help their clients navigate the constantly changing updates and policies for cancellations, refunds and future travel credits. Suppliers did their best amid unprecedented circumstances.

In the April 2020 edition of Travelweek’s COVID-19 Travel Agent Survey, a strong majority of agents, 76%, said that for the most part they felt suppliers had done a good job managing the COVID-19 crisis and assisting travel agent partners.

Many suppliers stepped up to dispute credit card chargebacks on behalf of agents. Some suppliers, especially cruise lines, also protected agent commission. “I am so thankful for all that protected our commission and chargebacks!” said one agent. Another agent added: “I appreciate the fact that we’re all in this together and none of us was ready for the full impact of the cancellations.”

Others had concrete feedback for suppliers amid the COVID-19 pandemic. One agent recommended a separate agent phone line, “so we don’t have to sit on hold for 4 hours. Another said: “Most suppliers have done a great job. There have been a couple that have been extremely difficult to deal with and you have no idea what their policies are unless you are on the Facebook group.”


As much as retailers and suppliers have been working together to find the best solutions in extremely challenging times, the thorny issue of refunds vs. future travel credits caused tension with many clients, and agents were caught in the middle.

“The suppliers for the most part have done a good job and [are] being flexible, but consumer confidence is very low, especially in Canada as the ‘voucher’ option has not been well received. They will need to do more, offer more, when things start up again,” said one agent.

Close to 10 months later, things haven’t started up again, and on Nov. 8 Transport Minister Marc Garneau announced that the federal government was initiating talks with Canada’s airlines to discuss a financial assistance package.

It was great news for the industry, but it came with a caveat: any bailout would be contingent on refunds. “Before we spend one penny of taxpayer money on airlines, we will ensure Canadians get their refunds,” said Garneau.

Mass refunds could potentially trigger up to $200 million in commission recalls for Canadian travel agents, and the fallout could decimate a sector that has already faced almost 10 months of very low booking levels.

Travel agents and retail travel associations took action, fast.


ACTA is lobbying the federal government to include travel agent commissions as part of any aid package given to the travel industry – either by stipulating that the aid must cover all commissions and that they must not be recalled – or by direct compensation to travel agents and travel agencies.

Later in November ACTA presented Ottawa with a 6-point plan to support travel agencies, including commission protection and inclusion in any airline aid package as well as increasing CEWS to 85%, amendments to CERS to 90; an extension to CRB to June 30, 2021; a proposed travel industry subsidy; and a plan for the government to work with the industry to develop clear criteria for re-opening borders and future travel advisories when it is safe to do so, including a travel incentive program

ACTA has been extremely active from the get-go during the pandemic, working on agents’ behalf to get their voice heard at the federal level. The industry needs to continue to support ACTA and its work, says Richard Vanderlubbe, President of “The ACTA staff have worked double time fighting for us and we are being listened to more now than the entirety of the combined decades I’ve been involved in industry affairs,” he said.

Says ACTA President Wendy Paradis: “If ever there was a time to prove the true worth and value of a travel agent, 2020 was it. Travel agents scrambled and worked around the clock to bring their clients home. At the same time, they were dealing with processing thousands of cancellations.  Some have reported spending 8 hours or more on hold with suppliers to assist their clients.”

Amid the chaos, says Paradis, agents were advocating on their clients’ behalf for refunds or future travel vouchers, “and being in the middle of angry clients and overwhelmed travel suppliers explaining each supplier’s ever evolving policy about cancellations, refunds, FTVs etc. This work went on for months and continues today. Yet travel agents are not paid for any of this.”

The pandemic has had a catastrophic impact on the entire travel industry including travel agents, airlines, airports, tour operators just to name a few, says Paradis. And the threat of mass commission recalls remains a huge threat to travel agents.

“ACTA has advocated all year long to make sure travel agents are included and are eligible for any and all assistance. Our industry is one of the hardest hit and recovery will be slow….and travel agents are the unsung heroes of our industry this year – and every year!”


Heidi Hurst with HeidiWay Travel in Calgary, launched a Commission Recall Petition earlier this month. At last count the petition, which closed Dec. 30, had thousands of signatures.

Faced with high stakes for the industry, Hurst says she had no choice but to take action.

“This is one thing I felt like I could do,” Hurst told Travelweek. “I just want to say ‘don’t forget about us’. We put in the hours already. We deserve the payment for it. Refunds are important. And we deserve to be paid for our work.”

Meanwhile a new organization, the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA), was formed in June 2020 by independent  travel agents Judith Coates, Brenda Slater and Nancy Wilson. The 3 agents have hosted many, many Zoom calls with MPs to drive home the importance of commission protection.

Just yesterday, Dec. 30, a new commission protection petition initiated by ACITA was posted for online signatures.

The petition reads: “We, the undersigned, citizens and residents of Canada, call upon the Minister of Transport to ensure that bailout subsidies and loans to Airlines will be conditional upon the protection of travel advisor commissions paid for services rendered to airlines and their subsidiary tour companies.”

The petition will be posted until the morning of Jan. 29, 2021 and can be read and signed here.

ACITA is urging all travel professionals to not only sign the petition, but to share it to their business and personal social media pages. “The wording is very consumer friendly and is quick to point out that as Travel Professionals we support the option of Consumer refunds,” says ACITA’s Coates.

The timing of the Petition is strategic, in that it is open for signatures until Jan. 29, at which time the House of Commons will resume its winter sitting.

Coates says ACITA has been pleased with the number of travel advisors and agency owners who have scheduled meetings with their MP (115+ to date) so that they can explain how devastating recalled commissions will be to Canada’s travel agents, an impact that could hit $200 million.

“We go through a 10-minute Presentation Deck and then invite the MP to ask questions or give suggestions,” says Coates.

“Time after time we see their jaw drop when we come to the part in the presentation where we tell them how many notices of commission recalls travel advisors have already received, or had taken out of their BSP Account, and how many thousands of dollars the travel advisors in their riding will have to pay back to travel suppliers if the government does not stipulate some form of protection along with consumer refunds.”

Get travel news right to your inbox!