TORONTO — No one wants another lockdown, but a second wave of the pandemic is looming – and many say it’s happening already. Businesses that reopened their doors this summer may face closures again, and that includes travel agencies. Meanwhile Canada’s travel restrictions are nearing the seven-month mark.
Was it worth it to reopen? We checked in with retailers that reopened, and one that kept its doors firmly shut, to get their take.
Tripcentral.ca’s agency locations have been closed since mid-March, even after Ontario gave the go-ahead for storefronts to reopen a few months later. Despite its strength as an online brand, tripcentral.ca has also made a name for itself with its expansive, welcoming storefronts. But in the face of the pandemic and its impact on the travel industry, keeping the doors open just didn’t make sense, says tripcentral.ca President, Richard Vanderlubbe.
Vanderlubbe says he posted a blog on his site to keep clients in the loop. Telling clients that COVID-19 brought bookings in the travel industry to a near halt – ditto revenue streams – Vanderlubbe said having agents work from home was the only viable solution.
“It became apparent that our physical store locations, something we have been quite proud of, have overnight turned from assets to liabilities,” said Vanderlubbe. “The cost of these retail spaces, the associated occupancy costs, and required staffing levels make no sense for the current business environment. Recovery is far away and uncertain, and for this reason, it is more efficient for our agents to work from home.”
So many travel booking transactions are done via email and over the phone. And not just in these pandemic days. One reason retail travel’s home-based sector flourished over the past two decades is the ease of serving clients without an actual storefront.
Says Vanderlubbe: “Luckily for us, sales transacted by walk-in customers are a small fraction of our business.”
Tripcentral.ca adapted its business model so that clients could make appointments with specific agents – either one they know and has dealt with in the past or who have been referred by other customers – and the appointments can be done via phone call or video call with screen sharing. Vanderlubbe notes that a tripcentral.ca survey from 2019 showed that almost half of the company’s clients who booked in person would be willing to do a Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or FaceTime type of meeting with an agent.
Vanderlubbe says he knows that many clients will still do a double-take when they see that the storefronts are out of operation. “We have many local customers that drive by our locations, and it will be odd to see them shuttered or for lease,” he said. “Know that all our customer information is stored centrally and securely, and our agents working from home are doing so with the same access they had in our locations. Our locations were ‘rooms’ in a central house, and so there will be no difference in the service we deliver.”
TRANSAT DISTRIBUTION CANADA (TDC)
This week TDC’s General Manager Louise Fecteau confirmed that all Transat Travel – Voyages Transat agencies are now reopen.
Fecteau says she has been a strong advocate of agencies reopening in the past weeks and months.
“Of course, our franchises are entrepreneurs, so they take their own decisions as to operating their business,” says Fecteau. “But during the last weeks, we have heard testimonials from many agency owners which had reopened the doors of their agency, and had people working in there. And even with fewer business hours, they saw people coming in, they had some bookings.”
Most importantly, she says, “they were conveying the message to travellers that they were present to answer their questions regarding travel. If we ever want things to ‘get back to normal’, if I can use that expression, we need to be present physically in agencies. All players, agencies, suppliers, cruises and airlines are responsible to re-start that business together.”
Lockdowns impact just about every facet of every business, not just the travel industry. Despite that, a CTV poll conducted by Nanos Research showed that two-thirds of Canadians would be in favour of another lockdown in the face of a second wave of COVID-19. And that was back in July, when talk of a second wave was just starting.
We asked Fecteau about TDC’s plan if second wave numbers continue to climb. Would it re-close storefronts and have agents work from home again?
“Of course, we will comply with the guidelines issued by provincial governments, like we have always done, for our own corporate agencies, but out plan is to stay open as long as possible,” says Fecteau. “If we must close our doors, we will, but we will continue to have travel professionals working from home, like we have been doing since March. And of course, as a franchisor, we always stay on the lookout for the most recent guidelines to inform our franchises, so they can take the proper decisions for their own businesses.”
ON THE FRONT LINES WITH CAA NIAGARA TRAVEL
On the front lines, it’s business as usual – even though the new ‘usual’ reflects the work that agents have found themselves doing for almost seven months since Canada’s travel restrictions went into effect.
Lisa Boardman, Manager, Travel Product and Vendor Relationships at CAA Niagara Travel, says “we too are counting down the days when we can put COVID in the history books.”
CAA Niagara’s locations in St. Catharines, Welland, Grimsby and Thorold are open with limited service. Meanwhile the Niagara Falls branch is closed on Saturdays. “We see some walk-in traffic, and everyone has been wonderful and respectful of social distancing and wearing the recommended PPE,” says Boardman. “Most of the contact right now is via email or phone. Our Travel Consultants have been reaching out to clients throughout the pandemic to ensure they know CAA Niagara Travel will be here when the world is ready.”
Boardman says CAA Niagara Travel moved its entire travel team home during the March closure and moved everyone back when the government gave the green light. “Everything is going as best as can be expected considering the pandemic. Our Travel Consultants have spent the past months brushing up on training and servicing our clients who have been affected with cancelled or changed bookings and who might be looking to rebook.”
Like Fecteau, Boardman says her agency prioritized its storefront presence. “COVID-19 has undoubtedly posed some challenges, but we have found value in remaining open for our team and our clients.”
She adds that CAA Niagara’s groups department has been busy, and that bodes well for the future. “We run a group tours department, so there has been lots of planning to happen for the coming year in hopes of a strong rebound.”
Most of all Boardman says she’s staying focused on service, more important than ever during these times. “We remain optimistic of the future and committed to being here and ready to serve our clients with the care and service excellence our travel team has come to be known for.”