TORONTO — Airlines, tour operators, retail travel execs taking part in the ACTA 2021 Canadian Travel Industry Summit offered an optimistic and, at the same time, realistic look at the way forward, after more than a year and a half of the pandemic.
The 2021 edition kicked off yesterday with a keynote session from Lucie Guillemette, Executive Vice President and COO, Air Canada, and President, ACV.
“Our industry is in recovery mode,” said Guillemette, adding that “while it’s not a straight up trajectory, signs of recovery are all around us.”
While still flying a fraction of the number of passengers that it would have carried in 2019, Air Canada welcomed over 75,000 customers on its strongest day in August, she noted. “And you can only imagine how pleased we were.”
Having Canada’s borders open to fully vaccinated travellers – the new policies came into effect Sept. 7 for all international travellers – is a big step forward, says Guillemette. “That might not help Canadian agents with their domestic point of sale focus [but] it does go a long way to instilling in people’s minds that things are getting back to normal,” she said. “The message is clear. It’s now okay to travel.”
Travellers heading out in the near future say they will travel next for leisure purposes, according to Air Canada’s stats. Business travel outbound from Canada is still soft – lagging behind the U.S., as Guillemette notes – with only 29% of Canadians planning travel for business purposes. “But some sectors and SME businesses have shown signs of resiliency throughout the pandemic,” she said.
In June 2021 Air Canada announced services to 50 Canadian airports. Then in July, the airline announced its summer schedule. As for international travel, “we’re already observing healthy demand signals for Europe into 2022.” Air Canada’s international schedule, released in July, included the resumption of 17 routes and 11 destinations, including a return to Vienna, Dublin, Zurich, and new services to Doha and Cairo.
To winter sun destinations, Guillemette says Air Canada is optimistic about its recovery to those markets, based on early bookings for the remainder of 2021 and early 2022, both for Air Canada and ACV. “In some instances, we’ve seen demand for sun that is above 2019 or pre-pandemic levels.”
Among other initiatives, this month Air Canada relaunched its Travel Ready hub on its website. Says Guillemette: “I cannot emphasize enough how useful we believe this tool will be for our customer and agents. It puts in one place a great deal of information about testing, vaccine requirements, needed documents, helpful travel advice about things like checking times, and even details about where we flying as well.”
Also at the ACTA Summit, a panel discussion hosted by ACTA President Wendy Paradis, ‘A Look at 2022 Travel Trends, Challenges & Opportunities’, included insights from TPI CEO Zeina Gedeon; American Express Global Business TravelCanada’s VP and General Manager, Patrick Doyle; Transat’s Chief Distribution Officer (and President, TDC), Joe Adamo; and TL Network Canada VP, Christine James.
Adamo says that TDC retail locations started to get busy over the summer, with advance bookings for 2022 and 2023. But it’s not all next year and beyond. Last-minute getaways are ticking up too: “A lot of pure leisure bookings, very near in. We are taking 30 day in bookings like I’ve never seen before.”
Paradis noted that there’s a concern that strong forward bookings could be misleading, since many Canadians are still cancelling travel plans amid pandemic concerns. James says TL Network Canada hasn’t seen too many cancellations: “There is concern about drop-off, but we haven’t seen that drop-off yet.” Gedeon said TPI’s strongest message to its advisors is to make sure supplier T&Cs offer maximum flexibility.
Adamo stressed the need for commissions to be paid upon final payment, at a minimum, as opposed to upon departure. The need for upfront commission payment, as agents hit the 18-month mark with no real revenue, has become a key issue during the pandemic.
With wait times for supplier call centres still sky high, Adamo also urged agents to resist the urge to make a phone call to a supplier if something can be done online instead. At the same time, said Adamo, “we as an industry need to do better with putting the right online tools into the hands of agents,” to help them do their jobs and avoid hours-long wait times on the phone.
Gedeon noted that she’s hearing from TPI advisors enduring call wait times of six hours or more.
It’s a topic that CATO chair Brett Walker addressed as well, during his keynote session, ‘Restarting and Rebuilding Your Relationship with Tour Operators’.
“Book it through the site, book it through the portal,” said Walker, addressing the issue of unwieldy call centre hold times that have been the bane of travel agents throughout the pandemic. The phone should be seen as a last resort, he added, while acknowledging that “tour operators need to do a much better job at handling the volume of calls.”
Walker also touched on the silver lining of the pandemic: “This is a time that the services of a travel professional will be critical. Consumers know that, and the industry knows that.”
Service fees also came up. “If you weren’t a believer [in professional fees] before [the pandemic], I hope you’re a believer now,” said Adamo. “You need to charge for your time for your services, full stop. And you need to charge the right amount. I’m not talking $20 or $25. You need to charge a legitimate fee for your services.” Agents also shouldn’t have any clients travelling without proper insurance, he added.
Another panel discussion at yesterday’s ACTA Summit, ‘Setting Your Standards through Professional Fees’, dealt exclusively with the importance of travel advisors making sure they see their own value, and charge for it, with service fees.
Flemming Friisdahl, founder and owner, The Travel Agent Next Door, moderated the panel which included Chelsey Wheatley with CAA Atlantic, TTAND advisor Becky Kershaw, and Ottawa-based travel advisor Norm Payne. The panellists were forthcoming about what they charge, and why.
“Professional fees are something I’ve championed since day one,” said Payne. “I’ve always instinctively felt that travel agents should be charging a fee.”
The ACTA Summit also included a presentation by Jennifer Hendry, Senior Research Associate, Conference Board of Canada, who cited Canadians’ growing reserves of discretionary income for post-pandemic travel spending, and pent-up travel demand.
The vast majority – 89% – of Canadians say they miss travel, said Hendry. The stats also show the highest travel intentions in over a year, however only 1 in 10 of those say they plan to travel outside of Canada. Confusion over travel requirements, from testing to accepted vaccines, will continue to suppress demand. Travellers right now “are reticent,” she said, adding “they need your assurances … to help close the deal.”