If there was one person who could truly be called an icon of the travel industry, it was Gordon ‘Butch’ Stewart.
TORONTO — In any crisis, it helps to know you’re not alone.
Hearing what agents around the world have gone through as the pandemic upends travel across the globe gave attendees at last week’s ACTA Summit new insights, perspective and comfort as the travel restrictions here in Canada drag into their ninth month.
On Nov. 13 ACTA President Wendy Paradis hosted a Discussion Panel Session: The Impact of COVID-19 on Travel Agencies and Travel Agents Around the World, featuring representatives from retail travel agent associations in the U.S., Europe and beyond, as just one of many sessions in the two-day virtual conference event.
Otto de Vries, CEO, Association of Southern African Travel Agents (ASATA), Eric Drésin, Secretary General, European Travel Agents’ and Tour Operators’ Association (ECTAA), Mark Meader, Senior VP, Industry Affairs and Education for ASTA in the U.S., and New Zealand’s Andrew Bowman, Director, World Travel Agents Associations Alliance (WTAAA), all took part in the panel.
Just like in Canada, the impact of the pandemic on agents in other parts of the world is beyond measure. “The impact has been huge. It’s been completely devastating,” said Europe’s Drésin. “After the first wave we experienced a bit of a recovery but then there was another outbreak leading to an uncoordinated response… September and October have been very difficult and lockdowns are once again in place in many countries.”
THE IMPACT IN THE U.S.
His words were echoed by ASTA’s Meader. “The impact has been tremendous if not catastrophic,” said Meader.
One positive note in the U.S., where there are far fewer restrictions for travel, is that air ticket sales in September 2020 hit a high point, but they were still 85% below September 2019, said Meader. Leisure travel is returning faster than corporate travel, he added.
Meanwhile U.S. travel agencies are struggling. An ASTA survey showed that 65% of ASTA agencies have had to lay off up to half their staff. Some 95% of agents said their income was down at least 75%. And 75% of ASTA members say they will be out of business in less than six months if the current conditions remain the same.
The $2 trillion financial aid package put together by the U.S. government in the early weeks of the pandemic “was great, but those programs have long since run dry,” said Meader.
He said ASTA is focused on getting cruising started again, and the resumption of travel overall. ASTA is also focused on the issues of travel agent compensation and commission protection.
“THE EVER-CONTINUING SAGA THAT IS REFUNDS”
WTAAA’s Bowman, based in New Zealand, said agent frustration at the lack of support from government is running high.
New Zealand did exceptionally well with containing COVID-19, and travel corridors have been a much talked-about solution. “But this cannot be the solution,” said Bowman. “We need something much more global in approach.” He said WTAAA continues to lobby government for support.
Meanwhile, ASATA’s de Vries in South Africa says he’s focused on working with IATA and the airlines “on the ever-continuing saga that is refunds.” ASATA is also working with its travel agent members to help them reopen their businesses.
BEST PRACTICES & POSITIVE ACTION
There’s a lot of doom and gloom out there but it’s important to share information about best practices and positive action too, said ACTA’s Paradis.
De Vries emphasized the adage ‘never waste a good crisis’, and said he encouraging ASATA’s members to take a long, hard look at their business models. “What kind of business do you want to present to your clients going forward?” he asked.
ASTA’s Meader says he takes heart from survey results showing that 46% of travellers say their first large discretionary purchase post-COVID-19 will be travel.
In Europe, Drésin says he appreciates how the coronavirus crisis has led to a double-down on the importance of sustainable tourism.
And in New Zealand, Bowman says the end is in sight. “Our government took very quick action in locking down very quickly,” he said. “We’re right on the cusp of being able to take that next step. And if we take the right steps, we can get back to as-near-as-normal as possible.”
Paradis ended the panel discussion with more positivity: “I’m encouraged by how well our industry has worked together,” she said. “We’ve worked hard to ensure we’re doing everything possible to keep travellers safe and to mitigate the risks. I’m very hopeful.”