TORONTO — Thousands of travel agents and industry professionals tuned into Travelweek’s latest Future of Travel virtual conference, a sign that engagement and optimism remain high despite heading into the pandemic’s second summer.
Airing yesterday, May 19 as a webcast and on Facebook, ‘Future of Travel: Sunnier Days Ahead,’ the fourth instalment in the hugely successful virtual conference series, featured an esteemed panel of keynote speakers from across the industry, all of whom addressed key issues concerning travel agents amid the pandemic, from refunds and commission protections, to the Canada-U.S. border and domestic tourism.
A recording of ‘Future of Travel: Sunnier Days Ahead’ is available here.
On the timing of the conference, broadcast just prior to the all-important summer season, Devin Kinasz, publisher of Travelweek, said it was a chance for agents to rally together and gain some key insights that will hopefully tee them up for future success.
“No one could have predicted that we’d be entering our second COVID summer and that our beloved industry would still be dealing with travel restrictions, border closures and lockdowns after 15 very long months,” said Kinasz. “But as challenging as this time is for everyone, we’re so grateful to be given the chance to spark some optimism and bring the industry together through our virtual conferences. They’re a much-needed reminder that we’re all in this together and that we’re all working collectively towards a common goal – the safe resumption of travel.”
Throughout the two-hour broadcast, viewers were able to chat online and share feedback. Joanne S. said the conference was “very informative, by far the best two hours I’ve spent on a webinar,” while Ocean Phi Long Le said “listening to these Q&A presentation makes me excited for travel in 2022 and beyond!” Ethel Davey added a shoutout to the “great lineup”, saying “they all give us hope,” and Junelle Walsh thanked Travelweek for “arranging this very informative event, it has re-ignited my passion.”
The broadcast also included several prizes being awarded to pre-registered agents as well as important updates from top suppliers such as WestJet, WestJet Vacations, Globus family of brands, Bahia Principe, Royal Caribbean, Amtrak Railbookers, Grenada, Disney Parks, Myrtle Beach and more.
Here are some takeaways from yesterday’s keynote speakers:
Joseph Adamo, Chief Sales & Marketing Officer, Transat and President of Transat Distribution Canada
When asked by Travelweek’s editor, Kathryn Folliott, how he foresees Transat’s resumption of flights rolling out (Transat recently extended its suspension of operations through to July 29, 2021), Adamo said it will be a “very limited restart” with some domestic routes and a handful of international routes that skew towards the VFR market. After the initial first few weeks of the restart, Transat will then “layer on a bit of everything, a bit of transborder, sun markets and transatlantic.”
Adamo also provided an update on Transat’s refunds, which were announced last month alongside the protection of agent commissions. A few weeks into the refund process, Adamo said “it’s going very well,” with an expected high opt-in rate from full-service agents.
“They are on the ball, they are really running with it and doing right by their customers and getting those requests in to us,” he said. “My one message to agents is thank you, and while we do have until Aug. 26 – that’s our opt-in window period – I do encourage you to get them in early because they will be processed on a first come, first serve basis.”
Nino Montagnese, Vice President, Air Canada Vacations
Like Transat, Air Canada and Air Canada Vacations are also providing refunds to eligible passengers and protecting agent commissions. According to Montagnese, ACV has seen approximately 40% of customers request refunds, while the other 60% are sitting on their future travel credits.
“Air Canada and ACV were at the forefront of being able to pay commissions to our partners, it was never a question of not being able to protect commissions,” he said. “As you know the bulk of our business comes from our trade partners and the feedback from the trade as well as consumers has been very positive.”
When asked about forward bookings for fall/winter 2022, Montagnese said there’s “absolutely a sense of optimism,” with consumers starting to use their future travel credits. He also noted that prior to Ontario’s latest lockdown, Q4 was well ahead of 2019 and that the company is seeing pent-up demand for Q1 2022.
As for this summer, with Canada’s travel restrictions still in place, Montagnese said ACV is focusing on the latter part of the season (“so far it looks good”) and that the company will “begin flying towards the middle to end of June as planned.”
Marsha Walden, CEO, Destination Canada
Walden encouraged all Canadians to travel within Canada this year, saying it’s going to be “very critical” to have a strong summer since Canada’s tourism industry is very much seasonal.
“If Canadians just take two-thirds of what they would normally spend on their annual vacation budget in Canada this year, that would make an enormous difference to how our industry fares, it would add 150,000 more jobs,” she said. “As summer progresses we’re really hopeful Canadians will take this opportunity to travel their country.”
On the issue of vaccination passports and whether she’s in favour of them, Walden added that Destination Canada, in general, is supportive of anything that gets travel back on its feet quickly.
“I think it’s very likely that Canada will have a regime in place like that, I don’t know any details, of course, but we’ll see something come down the pipe over the course of the next few months,” she said. “I understand that our politicians are working very hard to find a way to harmonize this with other G7 nations. It will speed processing, be highly reliable and I think ultimately digitization of these kinds of credentials will help make the travel experience much more seamless and enjoyable.”
Walden did note, however, that there also needs to be a “mechanism of rapid testing or shorter quarantines” that will also allow non-vaccinated people to enter Canada for leisure or essential travel reasons.”
Gustavo Segura, Minister of Tourism, Costa Rica
When Costa Rica first reopened its borders on Aug. 1, 2020, it required travellers to present proof of a negative PCR test as well as travel insurance. Between August and October 2020, the country welcomed 15,000 visitors, none of whom reported any cases of COVID-19 while in destination. Since then, Costa Rica has dropped the proof of testing requirement and welcomed some 400,000 international travellers; less than 0.5% reported a positive case.
“Between March and June 2020 the country was able to develop very strict protocols of COVID prevention,” said Segura. “Tourism is one of the most important engines for our local economy, making up 8.2% of the country’s gross domestic product and providing more than 600,000 direct and indirect work positions. For this reason, it is very important that we protect the industry because it’s crucial to social progress.”
Citing Costa Rica’s wide-open spaces, incredible biodiversity, abundance of outdoor activities and “very strong” healthcare system as all reasons for Canadians to consider a visit, Segura provided some much needed travel inspiration for those looking for more meaningful travel experiences.
“Costa Rica is a year-round destination that truly inspires the traveller to reconnect with nature, reconnect with yourself and one’s community and discover what is most essential in life,” he said. “As we say in Costa Rica, ‘pura vida,’ which means full of life and that summarizes our approach to living.”
Brad Ford, President, Insight Vacations and Luxury Gold
After confirming that operations have resumed (“It started in Egypt and Australia and we recently started our local journeys in the United States”), Ford said he is “cautiously optimistic” about Europe this summer and that he has seen “the mood shift over the last six weeks as our own vaccination efforts begin to give more consumers optimism and confidence.”
He also noted that there will be a limited supply of product across the travel industry at first, as the world gradually reopens. This, he said, could lead to increased pricing.
“Anyone who’s taken a trip to the grocery store or ordered groceries online to be delivered will know that the price of goods and services has certainly gone up over the past 14 months,” he said. “We anticipate that we can expect higher prices, of course, for all of our goods and services in destination.”
To help the brands “get around this whole conversation,” Ford said parent company The Travel Corporation has slowly introduced dynamic pricing, which allows guests to book early to ensure better prices and a better selection of product.
“As you get further down the line the selection will start to diminish and, of course, the yield and demand will be increased,” he added. “It gives a bit more of a sense of urgency for everyone to get on 2022 and 2023 trips now.”
Chris Thompson, CEO, Brand USA
Noting that Canada is the United States’ #1 market (over 20 million Canadians visited in 2019 and spent over US$20 billion), Thompson said it’s a “high priority” on both sides to reopen the border, something that’s entirely dependent on “geo-political conversations” taking place between the two governments.
“As we look towards markets that have the potential to return to some semblance of normal, meaning borders opening and travel back and forth resuming, Canada is certainly in the earliest phase of any consideration that we may have,” he said.
Thompson implored all travel agents to work on rebuilding consumer confidence and to attend Brand USA’s training day for the travel trade on June 24, taking place virtually in the organization’s global marketplace.
“There’s not going to be any better source for consumer confidence than the travel trade – our tour operators, wholesalers and travel agents that will facilitate travel to the United States,” he said. “As we begin welcoming our friends and visitors to the north back, there’s going to be a lot of questions that has to do with travel policy. The reach and relevance that the travel trade has with their clients is going to be a critical role in our ability to be able to welcome people back once we have a safe environment.”
More information about the June 24 training day will be made available here: https://www.thebrandusa.com/brand-usa-global-marketplace.
Elaine Carnegie, President, Canlink Travel Representatives
“Pretty much all of our properties have reopened,” said Carnegie, who added that forward bookings are looking really good, with some hotels already full on certain dates. “I can tell you that most of our hotels are doing really well for the summer and fall, mostly because of U.S. clients but Canadians are definitely booking for later in the year and, of course, for next year and into 2023.”
When asked whether she thinks travellers will be more inclined to book with travel agents now, considering the volume of new protocols to keep track of and travel preferences to keep in mind, Carnegie said “definitely,” adding that the term “white-glove experience” has been redefined because of the pandemic.
‘No longer does it mean ‘super fancy’ and ‘all dressed up,’ but what it really means from a client’s perspective when staying at a luxury hotel is that the white-glove experience is now a personalized and customized experience,” she said. “For travel agents, there’s an opportunity for them to personalize their quotes to each client and deliver exactly what their client wants.”
Canlink represents some of the world’s most luxurious hotels and resorts, including: Hermitage Bay and Carlisle Bay (Antigua); O2 Beach Club & Spa, Sea Breeze Beach House and South Beach Hotel (Barbados), Spice Island Beach Resort (Grenada); Grace Bay Club (Turks & Caicos); Jamaica Inn, The Tryall Club and Round Hill Hotel and Villas (Jamaica); Anse Chastanet Resort and Jade Mountain (St. Lucia); and One Aldwych (England).
Zeina Gedeon, CEO, TPI
TPI’s Gedeon said she’s amazed by just how much upselling she’s seen in recent weeks, particularly from groups, weddings and cruisers. In fact, while TPI would typically see one around-the-world cruise booking a year, it’s now seeing 3-5 of these cruises being booked each week.
“It’s just crazy to see and it’s fantastic for our advisors,” said Gedeon. “For fall, early winter 2021, we’re seeing a lot of bookings for 2022 and far out into 2023 and what’s extraordinary is that it’s 3x what we normally would do.”
Travelweek’s Folliott, who noted that the travel industry has had a harder time than most adapting to new protocols and restrictions (“there’s no curbside pickup for travel,” she said), then asked Gedeon what her three must-do tips are for agents to navigate their way out of the crisis. The first is to stay connected to customers (“everyone’s going to book again and you don’t want them to forget you”), second is to charge a service fee (“we are professionals, act like it and charge like it”), and third is to work on their business (“make sure you’re set up for success and figure out what you want to do as you move forward”).
To watch a recording of ‘Future of Travel: Sunnier Days Ahead,’ click here.