TORONTO — When news first broke about Ontario’s new Tourism & Travel Small Business Support Grant, Marianne Vogel was excited, knowing that the one-time payment would help pay her bills following 16 months of seeing no income at all.
But Vogel, based in Dundas, Ontario and owner of Just for You Travel & Consulting, hit a roadblock fairly early on in the application process, turning her initial excitement into major skepticism.
“The website was extremely difficult to manoeuvre and I ended up calling on the phone because the site was forever down,” she tells Travelweek. “The website also did not want to accept my CRA business number so I called CRA and the grant people there said the CRA and the grant program were not gelling well and that it had a glitch. It was very frustrating.”
Vogel’s experience is not unique. Travelweek heard from several travel agents who came across similar complications when applying for the grant, first announced on May 14 by Lisa MacLeod, Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries. Launched to support struggling small tourism and travel businesses that have been hit hard by the pandemic, the grant would essentially provide one-time payments of $10,000 to $20,000 at a time when these businesses need it the most. To be eligible, businesses must apply by June 25, have fewer than 100 employees and prove a minimum 20% revenue drop between 2019 and 2020.
Vogel, who lost 90% of her 2020 income due to commission recalls, was approved immediately after she eventually figured out how to apply, but was told her payment would take a full four weeks to be delivered. Already skeptical, she felt even more jittery when she was questioned about how she would use the money.
“They threatened to take it back, said we could be disqualified at any time and have to refund it, which is scary. They questioned me on what I am doing with [the money] and why I feel I deserve it, so I am leery to spend too much of it in case I have to pay it back,” she says.
Though her application experience was less than perfect, Vogel did achieve the end goal of approval, which is more than what can be said for Judith Coates, an advisor with The Travel Agent Next Door in Orillia, Ontario and co-founder of the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA). Coates, who was “elated” at first about the grant, especially after learning that travel agents had been disqualified from the previous Ontario Small Business Grant, got all the way to the end of the application process only to later discover when checking her status that it had been denied.
“I got an email two weeks later telling me that my application had been denied but there was no reason given,” she tells Travelweek.
Though she remains in the dark as to why her application wasn’t approved, Coates does highlight two potential stumbling blocks other Independent Travel Advisors may come across when applying. The first is a business account requirement, which she says many Independents don’t have (“we don’t receive funds from customers or pay funds out to suppliers, our host agencies do that so there really is no need for one”), and the second is a TICO Registration number, which for Independent Travel Advisors belongs to their host agency. This means that only one Independent Travel Advisor at one host agency can apply for the grant.
“When I applied, it accepted the TICO number I provided, which belongs to my host agency and is the number I am required to put on all my marketing material, in compliance with TICO regulations. But many other advisors got stopped at that point in the application, getting the message that the TICO number had already been used so they weren’t able to continue,” says Coates. “I don’t think the Ontario government realized that we don’t have our own individual TICO number. I don’t think they did it on purpose, it was just an oversight in their planning.”
This doesn’t mean, however, that applicants are out of luck or should give up at this point in the application process. As Coates notes, for one thing, it gives Independent Travel Advisors the incentive to get a business account if they don’t already have one.
“Because we are a small business, my belief is we should have a business account and that the commissions we earn should go into that and then we pay ourselves into our personal account – that just makes business sense to me. We operate as a business so we should have a business account,” she says, adding that a basic business account costs approximately $6/month and is considered a business expense.
As for the TICO number, Coates says Independent Travel Advisors can get around this requirement by using the certificate number that was given to them when passing the TICO exam.
But the onus to get around this “glitch” should be on the Ontario government, she adds, which should be fairly easy to do considering TICO is a government agency and that it has an up-to-date list of all Independent Travel Advisors in Ontario.
“Every host agency has to supply a list annually to TICO of all the Independent Travel Advisors that are covered under their TICO licence and that list is updated annually,” says Coates. “The government can just go to TICO and ask for the list, then check all the agents against that list.”
Still, Coates and her team at ACITA are doing what they can to highlight the issue and alert the government on how Independent Travel Advisors are falling through the cracks. ACITA is urging all its members to request a meeting with their MPP and has also launched a letter writing campaign addressed to the various Ministers responsible for the grant ahead of the June 25 deadline.
“We’ve got a few indications that they’ll try to do something but nothing’s really happened,” said Coates. “I feel they probably will extend the deadline because according to Minister MacLeod, who recently spoke at a town hall meeting, the government has not received many applications for the grant. This is really telling and I think that’s a direct result of Independent Travel Advisors not being able to get through.”
To read the full article, including ACTA’s response, click here for Travelweek’s June 17 edition.
For more information about the Ontario Tourism & Travel Small Business Support Grant and to apply click here.