TORONTO — Always on the front lines, always ready to help their clients, agents have shown unbelievable levels of resilience over the past 16 months.
Now with the light at the end of the tunnel getting brighter, there is hope. More than a third (34%) of agents in Travelweek’s 2021 Agent Survey say they’re optimistic about the future of the travel industry. Another 52% say they’re cautiously optimistic.
An overwhelming 95% say there will be significant pent-up demand as restrictions continue to ease.
And 93% say the pandemic has shown travellers, once again, the value of working with a travel agent.
Especially now as bookings ramp up, and with suppliers just now starting to bring back staff, travel agents are indispensable.
“The travel advisory is still in place but the phone is ringing off the hook and someone in the office is ALWAYS on hold. I do understand that airlines, tour companies and cruise lines are short-staffed but it can wear you down eventually! I think the public is finding this too – that is why so many are now turning to travel agents,” says Lesley Keyter, CEO and founder of Calgary’s The Travel Lady Agency.
Travelweek’s 2021 Agent Survey garnered responses from 1,084 travel agents across Canada. Here’s a look at the findings …
WHAT’S SELLING: WINTER SUN & CRUISES
Now more than ever, travel agents know their clients.
Asked what will be the first destinations to recover when bookings come back in earnest, half of agents (50%) in Travelweek’s 2021 Agent Survey said Mexico and the Caribbean.
And that’s exactly what’s starting to sell well in these hopeful early days: winter sun getaways, especially for the later months of winter 2021-2022.
“South all-inclusive is really busy, and so is cruising,” says travel agent Scott Penney, based in Dartmouth, NS. “Things are definitely looking up.”
The U.S. came in at 9%, although interest in travel south of the border will no doubt pick up in the coming weeks when restrictions at the Canada-U.S. border could start to ease on July 21.
Also increasingly on travellers’ radars: Europe, named by 8.5% of agents as the destination most likely to see an uptick. The EU’s Digital COVID Certificate went into effect July 1 and much of Europe has reopened for fully vaccinated Canadian travellers.
Cruising came in at 11%, and cruise bookings have increased exponentially in recent weeks, no doubt boosted by the positive coverage of major cruise lines resuming sailings after more than a year.
With many agencies heavily invested in cruise bookings, 42.5% of respondents said they’re extremely concerned about the impact of Canada’s cruise ship ban, in effect so far through February 2022, on their business. Another 42% said cruise bookings are only part of their booking mix, while 15% said they were focusing on non-cruise product.
68% OF AGENTS PROMOTING CANADA
This is the second summer in a row that many Canadian travellers are staying close to home and planning domestic vacations. One in five respondents (20%) in Travelweek’s 2021 Agent Survey said Canadian destinations will be the first to take off. And more than two-thirds (68%) of agents say they’ll be promoting Canadian travel for summer 2021.
Louise Fecteau, General Manager, Transat Distribution Canada (TDC), says Canada product is selling well through the TDC network of agencies. “We continue to have a preferred relationship with [RV company] CanaDream. This product is selling well again this year as many Canadians are travelling within Canada,” she says.
Also generating interest when it comes to Canada product, says Fecteau: private homes and cottages, resorts, hotels and houseboats. “Those options are popular again this summer due to demand for domestic travel. Customers are always best served by dealing with a travel professional, who will guide them towards the best product for their situation, no matter where they want to travel.”
MORE BOOKINGS, BUT THE WINDOW IS LONG
Generating revenue is critical to the retail travel industry’s survival right now. The problem? The advisory against all non-essential travel is still in effect after close to 16 months. All the eased restrictions in the world, including the elimination of quarantine for fully-vaccinated returning Canadians and permanent residents, won’t nudge the majority of Canadians to travel as long as the travel ban is in place.
And while agents welcome the uptick in forward bookings, they won’t see revenue from those bookings until much later, since most suppliers don’t pay commission until the traveller makes their final payment, usually months after the trip is first booked.
Some 41% of agents surveyed said the majority of their new bookings are for 2022 and beyond. Even more concerning, 43.3% of agents said they’re barely getting any new bookings. Close to 8% said they’re getting 2021 bookings, and another 8% said they’re getting inquiries, but few bookings.
It’s a key reason why industry groups including ACTA and the Coalition of Hardest Hit Businesses (CHHB) have been lobbying so hard for months for sector-specific support for travel and tourism, as federal support programs including CEWS, CERS and CRB now begin to wind down.
FRUSTRATIONS, FEES & FLEXIBLE POLICIES
Asked about their biggest frustrations with suppliers during the pandemic – from changing dates (17%), unclear policies and lack of communication (15%), to lack of support including commission protection (30%) – many agents added in their own response: ‘all of the above’. Other responses included: “Taking too long to credit clients”; “Long hold times”; “Suppliers who have promised refunds but have not refunded the client yet”.
While frustrations often run high, agents are also quick to empathize, and to praise the suppliers who have their back, especially in situations where consumers have been pursuing credit card chargebacks, an oft-cited frustration where clients are concerned (30%). “Suppliers are also in a very difficult situation with no government guidance,” said one agent. Others agreed: “Most suppliers have been very good”; “Our suppliers have been quite helpful”; “Our suppliers have been amazing throughout the situation”.
Many agents also have praise for the incredibly flexible booking policies available with suppliers right now. “The tour operators have some amazing offers with so much flexibility, which is fantastic. It’s something we’ve really needed – so maybe a silver lining if there is one from COVID,” says Penney. “These offers are really attractive to clients as it’s no risk for them – a win-win for everyone.”
Lois Barbour with Travel Time – TPI in St. John’s, NL, says flexibility is the main request she’s hearing from clients.
That’s led to more receptiveness to service fees, Barbour adds. “[Clients] want to make sure they will not be stuck with credits or non-refundable portions should they change their minds about travelling. It is also important that [clients] understand, and they do, the reasons why we need to charge professional fees for the time spent on their planning, research, and booking.”
Service fees are on the minds of many agents coming out of the pandemic, with 13.5% saying that bringing in a fee schedule is their top priority for the months ahead. Half (49.6%) say their top priority is making sure they know the entry requirements for their clients’ destinations.
CONSUMER OPTIMISM ON THE RISE
While many Canadians still aren’t ready to commit to a trip, consumer optimism is leaps and bounds ahead of where it was just a few months ago, and that’s a crucial first step in the travel industry’s recovery.
More Canadians have travel in their sights, say respondents in Travelweek’s 2021 Agent Survey. That dovetails with findings from the just-released Travelweek’s 2021 Consumer Survey.
More than half of agents surveyed (52.6%) say clients are more receptive to their travel marketing efforts now compared to six months ago. And 56.7% of agents say they’re comfortable promoting travel right now, and that number is doubt climbing by the week.
“I’m getting more and more inquiries every day, [including] from clients who only two months ago would not even think about the possibility of travel, so that’s a very encouraging sign,” says Penney.
Barbour agrees. “For our local clients we are seeing still a good degree of caution, just like throughout the pandemic. Travel was indeed at a standstill here in our ‘bubble’, so even for travellers to look ahead with optimism it is a big deal,” she says.
That said, the easing of quarantine restrictions, while the travel ban is still in place, has caused confusion.
“We originally had lots of travellers and groups booked for this fall,” says Barbour. “Many were moved from earlier dates and last year. But as we get closer, although some are planning to travel as planned, more are choosing to postpone or cancel. The uncertainty around changes in the regulations, and just an overall comfort level not being there, is what many clients are telling us.”
Asked what travel trends they foresee coming out of the pandemic, 29% of respondents in Travelweek’s 2021 Agent Survey said more travel insurance purchases, 25% said more stringent health protocols in destination, 18% said shorter booking windows, and 17% said smaller group sizes.
PROOF OF VACCINATION: LOTS OF QUESTIONS, FEW ANSWERS
With the quarantine now eliminated for fully vaccinated returning travellers, and with the EU’s Digital COVID Certificate now in effect, agents are getting a lot of questions from clients about proof of vaccination.
Last month Prime Minister Trudeau said Canada’s 2-track system would include, first, proof of vaccination uploaded through the ArriveCAN app, and second, for fall 2021, a national system coordinating provincial health records.
Asked how they feel about proof of vaccination for international travel, 42% of respondents in Travelweek’s 2021 Agent Survey said they’re fully in favour, and 37% said that, while the issue is complicated, proof of vaccination is the best way to restart travel. Some 16% said they disagree with the concept but will abide by the regulation in order to travel. And 5% said they strongly disagree and won’t travel if proof of vaccination is required.
Consumer polls, including Travelweek’s 2021 Consumer Survey, have shown that two-thirds or more of Canadians are in favour of proof of vaccination for international travel.
But with lack of specifics from the federal government, confusion reigns, especially when it comes to the ArriveCAN app, say agents.
“The main problem with vaccination passports is that we don’t know what they will be or how they will work. The ArriveCAN app was supposed to be updated [on July 5] so that vaccination certificates could be uploaded. It seems you have to go through the whole rigmarole of entering dates of travel, passport information, etc. so there’s no way of testing this, which does not make our job any easier,” says The Travel Lady Agency’s Keyter.
She adds: “We have had a number of phone calls from people asking about entry/exit requirements for a number of different destinations and how they can get a paper certificate. Some of our more senior clients are not that comfortable with using their phones. The public is definitely confused.”
To check out coverage of Travelweek’s 2021 Consumer Survey click here.