TORONTO — The year 2022 has kicked off with yet another round of headaches for travel agents, after airlines and tour operators were forced to cancel some flights and temporarily suspend some sun destinations in the wake of omicron, the Level 3 advisory and decreased demand.
While every cancellation poses challenges for travel agents, destination wedding bookings are particularly taxing as they often involve a multitude of coordinated elements that include multiple passengers and suppliers. The stress in rebooking these weddings in the face of such sweeping cancellations, during a global pandemic now entering its third year, has left many destination wedding specialists feeling down and discouraged, says Liz Scull, General Manager, Canada of Destination Wedding & Honeymoons Specialists Association (DWHSA).
“I see agents are disheartened like I have never seen before, and for the first time some are considering giving up after a long career in the travel industry,” says Scull. “It’s just been hit after hit. The reaction to the cancellation of flights has been almost accepted as part of the norm.”
Though Scull says the fallout from these cancellations has so far been minimal, as most pre-omicron wedding bookings were made for mid- to late 2022, destination wedding specialists have not been entirely immune.
Laurie Keith, President of Romantic Planet Vacations in Hamilton, ON, tells Travelweek that she has been impacted by the cancellations, both in terms of destination wedding groups and honeymooners. We asked Keith how she’s managing these cancellations and what this means for forward bookings in 2022.
Were you at all surprised by the news of the cancellations?
“To me, these decisions by our tour operator partners are completely understandable because we, too, are getting many client cancellation requests. Since the omicron variant and reinstated travel advisory by the federal government on Dec. 15, consumer confidence in travel is back to an all-time low and our office is processing cancellation requests on a daily basis. Lately, it seems that if the client isn’t cancelling, it’s the tour operator who is.”
How are you helping the clients who’ve been impacted by these cancellations?
“As our team of travel advisors announce the bad news to our affected clients, we are offering alternative solutions including changing the date, destination or tour operator. However, many of these clients have decided to ‘wait out the storm’ and will review their travel options when things improve. Our team is dedicated to this follow-up when COVID-19 numbers go down again.”
What support are you getting from tour operators and airlines at this time to make the cancellation process easier for you and your clients?
“Support has been difficult as the tour operators continue to struggle with staff shortages and extended hold times. But the auto-cancel and auto-refund has made the process much easier. When we went through this in 2020 and 2021, there was certainly more confusion and lengthy processes, which were unfortunately passed down to the client. Auto-cancellation and auto-refunds this time allows us all more flexibility and thus, better and more timely solutions for our clients.”
What logistics are involved when dealing with local suppliers in the event of such cancellations?
“Logistically, the wedding planners at destination have been incredibly accommodating. Most will allow the wedding deposits to be applied to a future wedding or event, and some resorts are refunding this back to the wedding couples. I think what is great about working with the tourism and hospitality industry is that we’re all solution-based problem solvers. We all want what’s best for the client and know that travel will be back and that with proper customer service levels, those affected clients will return.”
How upset are your clients as a result of these cancellations, and how are you helping them minimize their stress?
“One of our primary roles in booking destination weddings is to mitigate the stress that wedding couples typically experience when planning such an important event. We’ve always been well versed in their emotional journey and especially with the impact this pandemic has had on them. It’s important to always be present and in constant communication with the couple and their guests.
“It’s also important to ensure they are presented with all options when changes or cancellations are announced. Can they change their date, their destination or their resort? What are the cancellation and refund policies, etc.? For this reason, it’s invaluable to have a strong relationship with the group coordinator at our tour operator partners, and to get these answers as soon as possible so the clients are not left wondering or given the chance to think of worst-case scenarios. They feel much better when they can make informed decisions and when they know we are on their side, thinking two steps ahead of them and negotiating resolutions on their behalf.”
This pandemic has shown that anything can happen at a moment’s notice. What advice are you giving clients on how to plan and book a destination wedding at this time?
“We’ve continued to book and serve destination weddings throughout the pandemic and have noticed that most of our late Spring, Summer and early Fall weddings travelled. However, most of our Winter destination weddings have been affected by cancellations, advisories or concerns about the pandemic waves. For this reason, we have been recommending new wedding couples to look at dates between April and October. This has been helpful in mitigating future cancellations and also allows a higher chance of finding wedding space that is otherwise often booked up by our travelling American neighbours.
“Secondly, we are recommending and selling insurance at a record rate. This certainly helps mitigate the problems when changes or cancellations occur at a moment’s notice, and it also gives clients some reassurance in their booking decisions.
“We also emphasize the need for clients to be flexible in this new era of travel. Those who are booking destination weddings now and who have been booking during the pandemic tend to know that they have to be. Though the news of flight cancellations is impacting our clients, they remain hopeful and flexible for the most part. They don’t often give up on their destination wedding plans. It goes along with our pandemic motto: “Your wedding isn’t being cancelled, it’s only being postponed.”