OCHO RIOS — On a WestJet flight from Toronto to Montego Bay on Saturday, a flight attendant told passengers over the intercom that if they had any questions, “just turn to the person next to you — they’re probably a travel agent.”
With that pronouncement, there was an eruption of cheers and applause from The Travel Agent Next Door agents on board, who were heading to the 6th annual TTAND conference at Moon Palace Resort in Ocho Rios.
This year’s theme is ‘Agent ExtraordinIRIE’ — irie is the Jamaican word for nice, good or pleasing. And for many agents, it’s the first time they’ve travelled abroad since ‘the before times’ and the first conference they’ve attended in person during the pandemic started.
“They’re really excited to be out of the country. They’re excited about the opportunity to spend time with the other agents,” said Flemming Friisdahl, Founder and President of TTAND. “I’ve talked to people that have known each other for the last year and a half, two years, and have never met [in person].”
And while the 230 attendees (including 33 suppliers) have been asked to refrain from hugging and to maintain their physical distance during the conference, the energy of a live conference is palpable.
More cheers erupted during the Travel Agent Think Tank on Tuesday, with the news that Manulife is covering cruises again. “You can now book a cruise or river cruise and you’re covered with Manulife,” Friisdahl told the cheering crowd of agents. “That’s a big, big thing.”
TTAND is also offering a solution for immediate passenger booking recovery — and a long-term strategy for the new normal — with the Priority Protection Passport, which features COVID-19+ medical assurance coverage for travellers. This covers pre-existing conditions, has no age restrictions and provides emergency medical evacuation flights for travellers hospitalized for COVID-19 while abroad.
Friisdahl says this offering won’t compete with coverage from insurance companies like Manulife; rather, it’s meant to complement a traveller’s existing medical insurance. And for agents, he says it will help to boost consumer confidence (with consumers more likely to book travel through agents offering this program).
And while there’s plenty of excitement, there are a lot of questions and concerns after a year and half of changes and restrictions.
During the think tank, some agents expressed concern about staying on top of the latest COVID protocols, for fear of giving clients outdated information. Some want more simplified information from suppliers about consumer protections. Some are worried about backlash from anti-vaxxers. And some are wondering how to charge service fees without alienating their clients.
“I think a lot of agents know that they should be charging those fees, but they’re reluctant because they’ve never done it before and they’re afraid to lose clients,” said Friisdahl. “You don’t want to charge 100 bucks and then lose three times the amount of commission by charging that fee.”
But, he added, as more agents charge those fees, the more acceptable it will become in the industry as a whole. With the TTAND model, agents are free to charge (or not charge) service fees. But with so many agents losing their commissions during the pandemic, some see a service fee, or a “planning fee,” as a way to protect themselves in future.
While around 220 agents left TTAND during the pandemic (and many left the travel industry altogether), the host agency added another 400 agents, for a current total of 933. And while it’s lost some suppliers, it has also gained some, including Royal Irish Tours, and it launched in Quebec with three agents. To support agents during this time, TTAND is also offering reduced annual fees by 50% until April 2022.