TORONTO — The challenges travel agents face today are quite different from those at the beginning of the pandemic. In those early days and weeks last March, much of their focus and energy revolved around the three R’s: Repatriation, Refunds and Rebookings. But now, a full year later, those challenges have presumably – and hopefully – subsided, for the most part.
As the travel industry heads into year two of the pandemic, longstanding issues remain, namely border closures, government-mandated quarantines and ever-changing entry requirements from country to country. But we wanted to know, how are these industry-wide concerns impacting front-line agents on the ground, on a day-to-day basis? What challenges are they up against now, as bookings start to trickle in after a year-long hiatus from travel?
“The biggest challenge we will have is managing the rising demand for travel when there is still uncertainty regarding timing of border reopenings, quarantine restrictions and vaccination requirements,” says Ian Elliott, VP Sales and Marketing, TravelOnly. “Clients booking into the last quarter of 2021 and into 2022 have many unanswered questions about what the travel landscape will look like. This means our clients are hesitant to commit. Fortunately, many of our supplier partners have flexible payment and cancellation policies, which are helping with future bookings.”
In the short term, Elliott thinks the fallout from potential airline refunds will pose an even more significant challenge for agents. The federal government first announced in November 2020 a bailout package for Canada’s airlines with the condition that airlines provide refunds to passengers, a move that could trigger up to $200 million in commission recalls for travel agents. Discussions between the federal government and airlines are said to be in the final stages.
“Although we support this effort for our clients,” says Elliott, “this will have a devastating effect on travel advisors and their agencies without guaranteed protection of commissions on the refunds.”
Michelle Suggett, VP Retail at Flight Centre Travel Group, tells Travelweek that the biggest challenge for agents is now two-fold.
“The first is keeping up with the ongoing changes and updates with COVID-19 requirements, both for travellers returning home and for various destinations,” she says, adding that Flight Centre has set up a communication task force to monitor changes and relay information to agents as soon as they’re made available.
“The second part has proved even more challenging and that is COVID-fatigue,” added Suggett. “It started with assisting thousands of clients to get home as borders were closing and flights were being cancelled, followed by working through hundreds of thousands of rebookings and cancellations over the past several months. With the worst behind us and the best in front of us, we need to make sure our people find time to catch their breath and recharge as we get ready for the expected spike in demand. We are encouraging our people to use their holidays and our in-house wellness consultant is providing health challenges and tips to keep them motivated and focused on their mental health.”
Despite the challenges, both Elliott and Suggett say that agents are feeling optimistic and showing resolve and resiliency. “They love this industry and they recognize that we are on a precipice of a rebound in travel that hasn’t been seen before,” says Elliott. “The powerful desire to travel post-Covid, coupled with the renewed understanding of the value of travel advisors, will help our businesses for many years to come.”
We asked travel agents what the biggest challenge they’re currently facing heading into year two of the pandemic. To read what they had to say, click here.