TORONTO — It’s one thing to know that travel agent associations are lobbying the government on agents’ behalf. It’s another to hear it and see it in action.
Travelweek covered a Zoom call hosted by members of the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA) as they talked airlines, refunds and commission recalls with MP James Bezan, who represents the riding of Selkirk – Interlake – Eastman, MB.
It was one of many, many Zoom calls that travel agents Judith Coates, Brenda Slater and Nancy Wilson, all founding members of ACITA, have hosted recently as talk of the federal government’s airline bailout plan, contingent on the airlines offering refunds to all passengers whose travel plans were cancelled as a result of COVID-19, ramps up.
While refunds, and the commission recalls that go with them, have been a source of frustration for agents since the start of the pandemic, agent concerns shifted into high gear in late October after WestJet, and then WestJet Vacations, announced they would offer refunds as an alternative to credits. The move came a few months after Transat announced it was cancelling its USA & South program from Western Canada, also triggering a wave of refunds and commission recalls. Meanwhile Air Canada has refunded more than $1 billion in refundable tickets since the start of 2020.
As the federal government’s talks with the airlines continue, ACITA members are initiating more virtual meetings with MPs across Canada, “and we are stressing that there needs to be a further stipulation that they must also protect agents/agency commissions earned before the bailouts are granted,” Coates told Travelweek in late October.
“70% OF US WON’T BE IN BUSINESS”
Last week’s Zoom meeting with MP Bezan was hosted by Coates and kickstarted by Manitoba travel agent Syndi Prokopich, who has lived and worked in Bezan’s riding for many years. More than 20 other independent agents were on the call as well.
Coates has no doubt made her Zoom presentation many times over by now, but that didn’t make it any less impactful.
She told Bezan that ACITA represents 12,000+ independent travel advisors from 50+ host agencies across Canada. “We’re small business owners, sole proprietors, and the majority of us, 85%, are female,” said Coates.
The situation for travel agents is dire, she told Bezan: “As you know the travel industry was one of the first to shut down [in March as a result of the pandemic] and it will be among the last to recover.”
Coates said ACITA estimates that if the situation gets much worse, and especially if airlines get the go-ahead for a bailout with no contingency plan for travel agents and their commissions, then “probably 70% of us won’t be in business. We can’t afford to pay that money back.”
“139: REMEMBER THAT NUMBER’’
Coates walked Bezan through the booking process, explaining that travel agents don’t get paid their commission until weeks or even months after a trip is booked.
“From the time you confirm the booking, to when the client goes on the trip, that’s usually 75 to 300 days,” she told him.
“When the traveller departs, in a lot of cases we haven’t been paid yet. Suppliers typically pay out the commission when the final payment is made, or after the traveller has departed,” she added. “139 to 317 days is the average window from when a customer makes a booking to when we receive any commission. So 139 days – that’s the average minimum number of days for us to receive any revenue. And it can be up to 300 days.”
Coates told Bezan that independent agents are concerned that the 26 weeks allocated for the CRB won’t be sufficient, and ACITA is lobbying for an extension beyond the 26-week mark.
And when it comes to refunds, and a potential airline bailout by the federal government that’s contingent on refunds being offered, Coates told Bezan: “We’re happy for our clients. We know they’re having a hard time just like we are. But when companies like WestJet and WestJet Vacations are saying ‘you must pay back your commission’, that means we’re looking at negative cash flow.”
QUESTIONS, AND ANSWERS
Bezan jumped in with a question: “What happens if you don’t pay the commission back?” he asked.
“Then our client will not get their refund. So we look like the bad guys,” answered Slater.
Airlines have been severely impacted by the pandemic, and financial assistance for Canada’s carriers from the federal government is much-needed and will follow aviation industry bailouts in other countries.
And getting refunds into the hands of out-of-pocket consumers is also a positive.
But what about travel agents? “We don’t believe it’s fair that airlines are talking about these huge amounts of bailout money and meanwhile they’re asking us, the little guys, to pay back the money we’ve made,” said Coates. “We’re on this roller coaster ride, not knowing what’s going to happen.”
Bezan quickly grasped the situation. “The airlines are critical infrastructure and you guys are a big part of that,” he said.
Bezan added: “If they force a bunch of travel agents of business, that’s going to hurt them long-term.”
“ADDING INSULT TO INJURY”
Bezan told Coates and the Zoom call group to keep up their letter-writing campaign. “I urge you to continue your letter-writing campaign, otherwise it’s out of sight, out of mind,” he said.
He asked about the cruise lines. “The cruise lines have been wonderful,” said Slater. “They’re giving us our commission on the refunded files, and also paying it when clients rebook. We are extremely grateful to the cruise industry. They have been extremely supportive.”
But for other suppliers, “having to pay back the commission is insult added to injury,” said Slater. “Yes, it is,” said Bezan.
ACITA told Bezan they’re looking for assurances from the federal government that any bailouts of Canada’s airlines will only be given with the stipulation that travel agent commissions are protected.
Canada’s largest retail travel association, ACTA, has also been actively lobbying the federal government to include travel agent commissions as part of any aid package given to the travel industry – either by stipulating that the aid must cover all commissions and that they must not be recalled – or by direct compensation to travel agents and travel agencies.
It’s an issue that agents have rallied behind as the industry heads into the ninth month of travel restrictions in the wake of the pandemic.
“YOU CAN COUNT ON MY SUPPORT”
Bezan told the ACITA members on the Zoom call that he has their back. “You guys are the entrepreneurs on the main streets. You can count on my support.”
He said he’s also advocating for more COVID-19 testing at Canada’s airports. “Rapid testing would be a game changer,” he said. “It would allow people to travel with confidence. And it would help you guys get up and running.”
Facing the long Canadian winter with no chance for a break becomes a mental health issue, he added. “It’s going to be a cold, dark and lonely winter,” he said. “A lot of people are talking, saying it’s time to go south. People want to get away.”
Meanwhile agents just want fair support from the federal government and the industry, said Slater.
“We want our clients to get their refunds. We just don’t want it to be at our expense.”