Judith Coates

LOOKING BACK: Service fees, and agency competition, got a major pandemic pivot, says agent Judith Coates

TORONTO — The pandemic made Judith Coates a household name with the Canadian travel trade – and now she’s sharing her industry memories as part of Travelweek’s 50th anniversary series.

Coates co-founded ACITA (Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors) in June 2020, as the pandemic hit the retail travel sector hard.

Whiskey on the rocks at The Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland, 2022

She and ACITA’s co-founders Brenda Slater and Nancy Wilson spent months, and ultimately years, organizing Zoom calls with MPs and speaking to the media, to help get the word out about the unique challenges facing independent agents as the sector scrambled for financial assistance from the federal government.

In July 2022 Coates announced she was stepping down from her leadership role with ACITA to focus on serving her clients and growing her travel agency business, Wired for Travel.

Coates’ career as a travel advisor spans the better part of 30 years. “I started in the industry in the early 1990s and I remember having to write tickets before we were automated – and I remember how many spoiled tickets I had because of all my errors!” she tells Travelweek.

By the mid-1990s, airlines were reducing and then in some cases eliminating commissions. Many tour operators reduced commissions too.

It was a turning point for the industry, and for travel advisors like Coates.

“Our agency began to implement service fees, but I was one of the die-hards who thought the idea was ridiculous, clients would refuse to pay, and I’d never be able to justify a fee,” she says.

As was the case for many agents who swore they’d never charge a service fee, the pandemic changed everything.

“The COVID shut-downs changed all that,” says Coates. “Yes, I had already been charging fees to issue air tickets, but after COVID, clients realized (and more importantly I realized) the value that a professional travel advisor brings to their clientele.

“Once travel began rolling again in early 2022 I completely changed my business model and have been charging up front, healthy planning fees ever since.  It weeds out the price-shoppers, lets my clients know that I am confident in my expertise, and most importantly, shows that I value my knowledge, experience and professionalism.”

Coates in Meteora, Greece in 2023

While the pandemic has no doubt been the biggest dip in the ups and downs of a 30-year travel advisor career, Coates says other moments still stand out: “I also remember Y2K and how we were so worried that we would lose all our data when the clock changed on January 1, 2020. Wow, that seems like a lifetime ago!”

Ultimately though, the pandemic was the game-changer, bar none. Especially for independent agents, says Coates.

At the beautiful Treasury buiding at Petra in Jordan, 2022

“I think one of the things that stands out in my history of the travel industry is that independent travel advisors emerged from the pandemic proud, confident, knowing that we can withstand any storm,” she says.

“More importantly, the dividing walls of ‘my agency’ and ‘your agency’ were broken down and we became a unified voice. I realized that on my own I may just be one insignificant travel advisor, but when we join together, our collective voice is powerful and we’re a force to be reckoned with.

“It’s not about competition anymore, it’s about community.”

Want to take part in Travelweek’s 50th anniversary celebrations with your own industry memories? Email kfolliott@travelweek.ca or cindys@travelweek.ca. Images are welcome! Plus, try your luck with our contest, ‘It Happened This Week’, featuring a new headline (and a new chance to win!) every Wednesday from Travelweek’s 50 years of travel industry news coverage.

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