Will your agency be ready to reopen? Industry experts weigh in on what needs to be done

This story originally ran in the June 25, 2020 issue of Travelweek magazine. To get Travelweek delivered to your agency for free, subscribe here.

TORONTO — Much has been said in recent weeks about health and safety in the travel industry, with airlines, cruise lines, tour operators and hotels implementing new protocols designed specifically to protect customers from COVID-19. But what about travel agencies?

With ACTA’s newly launched Reopening Tool Kit for travel agencies, those on the other side of travel have also been given official guidelines on how to protect themselves.

The tool kit, which will be regularly updated on ACTA’s website as new information about the pandemic becomes available, includes a detailed checklist of recommended safety measures for both an agency’s staff members and its customers. These include everything from plexiglass screens and no cash payments, to hand sanitizing stations, physical distancing and the use of telephone/video conferencing whenever possible to limit in-person interaction.

Many of these same measures have been implemented at ACTA’s own office/travel agency, says President Wendy Paradis. Protective shields have been installed at desks, high-touch surfaces are regularly cleaned throughout the day, and walk-ins have been restricted to allow for ample time to sanitize between each visit.

“We have been working hard to ensure that the safety of our team and clients are the top priority and because of this some things will look a bit different in and around our office,” she says. “As we reopen our location we want everyone to feel comfortable and confident when they enter our travel agency.”

Paradis is aware that these measures will come at a cost for travel agencies to conduct in-person selling, and that each agency will need to determine the ROI at this time. But she also notes that there are still options for agencies that do not implement ACTA’s recommended protocols.

“Travel agencies, their team members and their clients have learned to be very flexible during this very unusual crisis. Thankfully, there are many effective ways to engage with travel clients including telephone, email and social media, and many of our members talk about how they’ve become exceptional at hosting live video consultations with their best clients,” she says. “Many of our travel agency members plan to remain open or reopen their physical locations, depending on where their travel agency is located in Canada, while others are planning to continue in a virtual environment at least throughout the summer.”

Whichever way travel agencies choose to operate moving forward, one thing’s for sure: business will not be conducted in the same way prior to COVID-19. Whether in-store or at-home working remotely, guidelines are needed to avoid confusion, increase confidence among consumers and create a level playing field so that conditions are fair for everyone, says Philip Mondor, CEO of Tourism HR Canada.

“Some guidelines focus on industry-wide strategies such as repositioning marketing strategies aimed at new markets, while other strategies have an operational focus, with guidance on retrofitting spaces to comply with safe distancing requirements, adjusting HR policies that accommodate new working realities, and protocols to ensure increased sanitation,” he says. “As more is learned about COVID-19, government and health authorities are routinely making changes to recommended practices.”

Mondor notes that recommended practices in Canada contain differences and inconsistencies across the board, and how they will be applied will vary from business to business. When asked whether one set of national standardized guidelines are needed, he says this may be an impractical outcome.

“There are, however, some core principles specific to health and safety guidelines that appear to be consistent. Good hand hygiene, avoiding contact with others and diligent sanitation of frequently touched surfaces are recommended in nearly all guidance material,” he says.

Paradis also agrees, saying that some national guidelines are good. But since the impact of COVID-19 varies across Canada, some provinces are regulating the travel industry with their own guidelines and requirements.

“Health and safety protocols need to be flexible and align to this ever-evolving situation,” she says.

In addition to looking to industry associations like ACTA for guidance, Mondor recommends that travel agencies review business continuity plans and develop policies reflecting new practices prior to reopening. He also suggests things like required signage and personal protective equipment (PPE), as well as reviewing and overhauling HR plans, taking into consideration the changes to work and business context.

“Think about possible controls or alternatives to work that reduce risk and help ensure business continuity such as work-from-home practices, staggering work hours and reducing the number of staff on site to meet physical distancing requirements, avoiding non-essential travel and educating staff on the signs and symptoms of COVID-19. Also think about vulnerable employees and those at risk of serious infection and how they can better be supported,” he adds.

Once agencies reopen their doors, it’s not enough to simply rely on these new measures to ensure the safety of staff and guests. Mondor says to also look for red flags, be vigilant in daily monitoring and come up with protocols should an outbreak occur.

For example, staff who are unwell should not go to work and be supported in a way that they do not feel like they’re expected to come into the office.

If an employee tests positive for COVID-19, businesses will need to immediately contact local health authorities for guidance on protocols to follow. The same requirement applies for customers with COVID-19 who were in contact with staff.

Moreover, businesses should have a plan in place in the event an employee with COVID-19 needs to self-isolate for a period of time. Quarantine measures may also be required for employees who come in close contact with a confirmed case. In both cases, impacted employees may be required to test for COVID-19 before returning to work.

According to Mondor and Paradis, health and sanitation practices will likely continue long after the pandemic is over.

“I believe that once there is a vaccine that some of the safety measures will dissipate, like plexiglass screens, for example,” says Paradis. “However, I do believe that many of the enhanced cleaning and sanitizing will remain in place.”

Mondor adds: “Physical distancing will continue to be enforced for some time, perhaps for as many as 18-24 months. Various articles suggest that these measures will persist until a vaccine is readily available, but I think many practices will be enduring. These are necessary to help rebuild consumer confidence and will be expected by workers, suppliers and governments.”

Though the business of selling travel may look a bit different in the future, with the right guidelines and safety protocols in place there’ll be plenty to be optimistic about for travel agencies and the travel industry at large.

“Many communities, especially outside of large cities, rely on tourism as the economic anchor, to help preserve culture and heritage and as one of the largest job creators,” concludes Mondor. “Currently there are major investments being made in enhanced safety and health measures and in new and adaptive business models, which will help ensure the sector will be stronger and more resilient.”