TORONTO — Katherine Robertson was only months into her new career as a home-based travel agent when the global travel industry came to a very abrupt halt.
She contracted with a host agency in summer 2019 to work on a team supporting a top producing agent, and was trained, set up and ready to start selling by October 2019.
“I learned quickly to define my niche – Mexico all-inclusives, Disney and family travel,” says Robertson. “I did as much training as I could fit in each day, joined Palace Pro Agents, became an AM Master Agent, a Hyatt Zilara and Hyatt Ziva Preferred Travel Agent, and graduated from the Disney College of Knowledge. My next plan was to learn all that I could about cruising. I was scheduled to attend Cruise360 in May 2020.”
It wasn’t long before she made some sales: “I had bookings right away! The best feeling was when I received that first commission cheque. I spent it taking my husband out for dinner.”
Then COVID hit. “There was a period of denial, disbelief, and eventually shock when the world completely shut down,” she says.
Like so many other agents across Canada, Robertson began processing the cancellations, credits and refunds, “twice the work for less than zero pay – we were losing money and working harder than ever.”
Her host agency offered plenty of support, “sharing any new information as it came in and reassuring us things would get back to normal. I was incredibly grateful.”
But as the months dragged on with no end to the pandemic in sight, Robertson faced a tough decision. Ultimately, she left the industry.
Asked if she would consider a return to retail travel when the industry stabilizes, she says she’s still undecided. “I was too new to have established a loyal clientele, and I’m really concerned that travel will still take another 2-3 years to fully return to normal,” she says. She bought out the remainder of her contract with her host agency. “Although it was a costly experience, I do not regret it. I met some incredible people and made some new friends along the way,” she adds.
Robertson may have only been in the industry for a few months, but the decision she faced is similar to what thousands of other Canadian travel agents, most with many, many years of experience and equity in this business, are struggling with after a year and a half of the pandemic.
Stay, or go?
Solvency concerns are especially acute for independent agents. They’ve been shut out of government loan programs, and now the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) – a lifeline for so many during the pandemic – is winding down.
With the Liberal party forming the new federal government, earlier this week ACTA President Wendy Paradis said efforts to secure continued financial aid for hardest hit sectors including the travel industry are ongoing, and stronger than ever.
With nearly two years of little to no revenue, “many travel agencies and independent travel agents are facing immediate challenges to their continued operations. There is an urgent need for continued wage, rent, and CRB-type financial support for hardest-hit tourism businesses so they can survive to see recovery,” says Paradis.
Thousands of independent travel agents across Canada have relied on the CRB for survival during the past 18 months, she adds.
“If independent travel agents are not included in the platform promise, government must introduce a new program that is like the CRB targeted to hardest-hit persons in the tourism sector,” says Paradis.
Currently the CRB is scheduled to end by Oct. 23.
Judith Coates, one of the co-founders of the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors, says ACITA conducted a poll within its membership of independent agents, and several different host agency groups. There were 340 responses and the results were devastating, says Coates: “51% said they will have to close after the CRB ends, 29% are barely hanging on, only because they’ve incurred significant personal debt, and 20% have taken on other jobs to make ends meet until their travel business bounces back.”
Travelweek checked in with several host agencies to find out what their message is for members in this increasingly difficult time.
To read the full article, with feedback from Nexion Travel Group-Canada President Mike Foster, TPI CEO Zeina Gedeon, Direct Travel’s VP, Host Services, North America, Joelle Goldman, Independent by Flight Centre’s Director of Acquisitions & Social Media, Heather Baker, and The Travel Agent Next Door’s CEO and founder Flemming Friisdahl, click here.