MISSISSAUGA — WestJet and WestJet Vacations hammered home one key message at yesterday’s Travel Trade Expo in Toronto – that they love and value travel agents.
Back in person for the first time since 2019, the companies’ hugely popular, multi-city Travel Trade Expos kicked off yesterday, Sept. 12, at The International Centre in Toronto with over 350 travel agents, all of whom received high praise from members of the executive teams and learned about new agent-friendly promotions and resources. Another 275 agents are expected at the Calgary show on Sept. 14, and 300 more in Vancouver on Sept. 15.
Though the venue may change from city to city, the gratitude shown towards agents will remain the same, says Chuck Crowder, Vice-President, Sales & Distribution, WestJet Vacations and Contact Centres.
“We never would have been able to get through this summer without travel agents,” he told Travelweek. “I do realize the stress that travel put on them because, obviously, we’re trying to build back our business and it was just change after change after change. But we’re in a place now where we’ve learned so much and we know how to really schedule appropriately.”
WestJet Vacations’ Director Dave Cecco also reiterated Crowder’s sentiments, telling Travelweek that despite the “nonstop changes and adjustments” to flight schedules, operations and product lineups, travel agents remain unwavering in their support.
“Thank you for still being here and for still supporting us. We all had to work together to overcome this because it was so new for all of us. When you think about what everyone had to do to get through Covid, it’s quite emotional. So we’re just really grateful to agents for being there with us – and for us – as our strong partners,” says Cecco.
To read more of our interview with Crowder, including key touchpoints like airport delays, ArriveCAN and the new Airline Passenger Protection Regulations, scroll down.
Yesterday’s Expo, which included presentations from WestJet, WestJet Vacations and key sponsors as well as a trade show featuring 67 suppliers, highlighted several agent innovations and promotions that garnered major applause from the audience. Here are nine key takeaways from WestJet and WestJet Vacations:
- New Live Chat function: To help alleviate long call centre hold times, WestJet Vacations launched Live Chat on Sept. 12, allowing agents to live chat with a company agent who can assist them with several tasks and functions. These include applying WestJet Dollars; adding, removing or editing WestJet Rewards; adding, removing or editing a phone number or email; requesting e-docs or invoices; making same-day schedule changes for an alternative flight, based on availability in the same cabin class; and making requests for reservations, special services and hotel preferences like bed configuration, location, adjoining rooms and accessibility requirements. Agents should note that Live Chat does not handle any payments and additional collection refunds due to privacy compliancy.
- Bonus commission. As a token of gratitude for travel agents, WestJet Vacations is offering a bonus 2% commission on all bookings made between Sept. 12-30, 2022, for travel from Sept. 12, 2022 to Aug. 8, 2023. The offer is valid for all destinations and is eligible for all trade bookings. Bonus commissions will automatically be confirmed on agents’ invoices at the time of booking.
- Travel agent air discount. WestJet announced a special Expo Air Offer for travel agents that includes 30% off Basic and Econo fares, to any region, if booked by Sept. 18, 2022, for travel by May 31, 2023. There are no blackout dates apply. WestJet also has an Everyday Offer featuring discounted rates on Business, Premium and Econo fares for travel agents and one companion.
- The return of Amsterdam. WestJet has just received airport slots to return to Amsterdam, where it previously offered seasonal service, on a year-round basis. Plus, with partner KLM, WestJet passengers will be able to travel beyond Amsterdam via easy connections. More information is expected within the next week.
- New pamphlet: Hot off the press is WestJet Vacations’ new mini 24-page pamphlet. Rackable and client facing with space in the back for agents’ contact details, the pamphlet doubles as a quick reference guide featuring the tour operator’s winter schedule, flights at a glance, hotel collections including adults-only, and a QR code that takes clients directly to the company’s travel protection plan.
- COVID WestJet dollars and commissions extended: Originally set to expire at the end of September 2022, COVID WestJet dollars have been extended until Dec. 31, 2022. In addition, WestJet Vacations is paying commissions on the full value of the rebooked package booked until Dec. 31, 2022 where COVID WestJet dollars are being redeemed.
- Swoop flights: As previously reported, WestJet Vacations is now offering Swoop flights as part of vacation packages, available to book exclusively through travel agents. According to Shannon Cunningham, Manager at WestJet Vacations, these Swoop flights include Jamaica, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Las Vegas. Plus, new this winter are Toronto-Varadero flights with Swoop as part of a WestJet Vacations package, “which offers really great, attractive pricing,” said Cunningham. Swoop flights combined with a WestJet Vacations package include one carry on and are commissionable to travel agents at the same rate.
- Destination lounges & private transfers: In addition to Club MoBay in Montego Bay, WestJet Vacations has added other destination lounges in Antigua, Barbados and Punta Cana, and is currently working on adding more in Mexico. They are all commissionable and available for agents to book. Agents can also book private transfers to the majority of WestJet Vacations’ destinations, or even book a shared direct transfer. Premium in-destination lounges as well as private and shared transfers are all self-bookable via SIREV/REVNET.
- Instant savings: Clients can save up to $400 on select seven-night packages to sun destinations in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, the Caribbean and Hawaii, if booking between Sept. 12-30, 2022, for travel between Sept. 12, 2022 to April 30, 2023.
SHIFTING FOCUS: WESTJET’S ROUTE NETWORK
Speaking to travel agents directly, Crowder said that in an effort to remain its competitive advantage, WestJet will be shifting its footprint out of eastern Canada to focus more on its hubs out west.
“This doesn’t mean we’re abandoning the east – we’re actually going to grow the east, especially in the leisure market where it makes sense,” he said. “But we’re going to shift more of our flying and really build out what that complex looks like west of Winnipeg.”
This, he added, involves moving all of WestJet’s 787s to focus in the West as a way to control costs.
“We have a fleet of seven but when you spread those across Canada, we also have to have crew bases, maintenance, spare parts – that adds complexity and cost that we don’t want to do,” said Crowder.
WestJet’s approach will also see the airline shift its Q400 flying from the east to concentrate in the west, and even reduce the number of Q400s that it currently flies because “based on the way we’re building out the complex, we will need larger aircraft to fill that up and we know we can drive that demand,” he added.
THE RETURN OF LEISURE & SUN
What’s really been spearheading WestJet’s recovery is the leisure market, which according to Crowder has been the segment that has bounced back the fastest and strongest in the last year, even surpassing 2019 levels in many cases. In comparison, Corporate, though showing signs of recovery, is not rebounding as quickly as WestJet expected. It will most likely take another two years for Corporate to fully recover, said Crowder.
To meet increasing demand for leisure travel, WestJet will be building out its network not only in the east but also in the west, with new destinations, new service and more point-to-point flying.
“What you will see is, flights like inter-province will go away, but what we will be doing is adding more east-west flying,” said Crowder. “So think Ottawa to Calgary, to Vancouver, or out of Montreal versus the triangle between Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.”
Last month, WestJet unveiled its winter sun program for 2022-23, which includes the return of 17 sun and leisure routes that it did not serve last winter.
“We have 45% more ASMs (Available Seat Miles) to leisure and sun destinations, which are booking quickly,” he added. “We always say book early because capacity in hotels are filling up.”
Crowder also told advisors to expect an increase in trans-border flying, which ties in with WestJet’s alliance with Delta, first announced back in October 2020.
“We’re adding more codeshare service and more connectivity to their hubs and beyond, and we’re constantly adding more loyalty benefits, reciprocity and earning opportunities within WestJet rewards on Delta flights,” said Crowder.
WESTJET & SUNWING
It’s been six months since news broke that WestJet will be acquiring Sunwing Vacations and Sunwing Airlines, a deal that Crowder said will give travel agents more exciting opportunities to sell. Still under review by Transport Canada and yet to be approved by the federal government, WestJet has completed all regulatory filings and is expecting an answer from the feds by end of October, said Crowder.
“We do believe that this will get approved without any issues and then the hard work starts with integrating everything,” he added. “Sunwing is so strong in the east and we’re strong in the west. They’re the number one tour operator in Canada but they also have this airline with 18 aircraft that they’re good at operating. But while they’re really good at the land portion side of things, managing the aircraft isn’t their forte. So this merger will really bring about additional benefits, not only opportunities for you to sell, but for Canadians to get where they want to go.”
Crowder told agents that both airlines will operate as two separate brands “for quite a while” under one leadership group. “Until we get through that, there are a lot of things that have to happen to integrate them into the WestJet Group of Companies,” he said.
AIRPORT DELAYS, ARRIVECAN & MASKING
When asked by Travelweek whether WestJet is satisfied with the progress being made at Canada’s major airports, particularly Toronto Pearson, in terms of alleviating massive delays, Crowder said that the situation has vastly improved since the summer when delays were at its peak. With labour shortages largely to blame, airports have been bogged down by long lineups and flight disruptions for months now, unable to keep up with record travel demand following the easing of travel measures, including the lowering of Canada’s travel advisory.
“Pearson has done a great job at trying to fix everything, but it’s really been a joint effort,” said Crowder. “Everyone is committed – not only the airport but also CATSA (Canadian Air Transport Security Authority), Customs Border Patrol, US Customs Border Patrol and all the airlines – to fixing the issues here. We’ve seen significant improvements week over week.”
Crowder noted that runway construction at Toronto Pearson during the summer months compounded the issue, but the issue has levelled off heading into the all-important winter season, with “all airlines that fly out of Pearson being set up for success.”
As for Canada’s ArriveCAN app, which is mandatory for anyone entering Canada by air, land, rail or marine vessel through at least Sept. 30, Crowder, like many in the travel industry, believes it should be eliminated if it has outlived its purpose of facilitating COVID-19 contact tracing and monitoring vaccination statuses among air arrivals.
“WestJet’s stance is, if it drives value and does not hold up the process for us, then yes, it serves a purpose. But if it serves no purpose, knowing where we are today in the pandemic, we need to start getting rid of these issues.”
These issues also include mandatory masking at airports and in aircraft, added Crowder, which vary from airport to airport, province to province.
“At Pearson you have to wear a mask. But Calgary just got rid of their mask mandate in the airport, except when going through security or immigration,” he said. “So there are all these competing rule in each province, based on whether it’s federally controlled or provincially controlled. That confuses guests and makes it difficult to maneuver through the travel ecosystem.”
NEW APPR RULES NOW IN EFFECT
With broader rules under the Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR) now in effect, WestJet and all other airlines flying to, from and within Canada will certainly be impacted. As the new rules state, airlines must provide passengers with either a refund or rebooking in the event of a flight cancellation or a lengthy delay, due to a situation outside the airline’s control.
Is this fair to airlines? Certainly that’s up for debate, but Crowder did stress the importance of transparency for all players involved.
“We as an airline have to be very transparent with guests about why there may be a delay or cancellation as part of the rules. But the people who also service us, whether that be the caterers, Nav Canada or security, aren’t held to the same reporting protocol that airlines are,” he said.
When asked why he thinks airlines are held to a different standard, Crowder said they simply have become an easy target.
“Airlines are easy for the government to point to because we’re typically one of the longest parts of the journey and where people spend a lot of time. So I think it’s easy for the government to go down that path, to show that they’re supporting Canadians and consumer rights. But if you’re going to hold us to that standard, you should hold everyone else to the same standard because we can’t control what happens at, say, Nav Canada. If they’re short staffed and we can’t operate the flight, then our guests need to know that,” he added.