TORONTO — “$140? You’re kidding!” said Christine James in disbelief while on a recent flight to Fort Lauderdale.
To James, VP of TL Network Canada, $140 was an exorbitant amount of money to spend on an antigen test needed to enter the United States. But the woman she sat next to on her flight insisted that that was the amount she paid and that it was, indeed, for an antigen test (often called a rapid test) and not for the more expensive PCR test that Canadians have become accustomed to during the pandemic.
James herself had paid only $40 for her rapid test two nights prior. But that’s the advantage of booking with a travel advisor, says James, who later learned that her seatmate had booked her trip on her own. A good advisor can tell you the most up-to-date travel requirements and provide expert advice, including where to go to get the most affordable COVID-19 test (Costco, her advisors tell her, offers its members antigen testing for just $17).
“If there’s one positive thing to come out of COVID is that people need travel advisors more so than ever,” says James. “You just can’t go anywhere without one, there’s too much involved now when doing it on your own. You absolutely need a travel advisor.”
James, who hosted a media briefing yesterday, Nov. 9, prior to the start of TL Network Canada’s Fall Regional Event in Toronto West, the first in the company’s three-city series, says that travel advisors are finally being regarded as the experts that they are during the pandemic, which has caused travel to become much more complicated with constantly changing restrictions and requirements. And advisors have risen to the challenge, staying informed and engaged throughout these 18 months. For TL Network Canada’s in-person Fall Regionals alone, 190 advisors had registered for yesterday’s Toronto West session, while close to 100 have registered for both Vancouver and Edmonton next week.
“Zoom is great, I’m glad we have Zoom, but it’s nothing like interacting face to face and people are so moved by it because it’s been so long since we’ve actually interacted,” says James. “You’re probably going to get the best service that you’re ever going to get in life now because anybody who’s back to work is so happy to be back to work.”
“We’re going to have a really strong 2022”
Heading into the winter season, James notes that the travel industry is in a far better position than it was in last year. With borders reopening, flights resuming and the majority of eligible Canadians now fully vaccinated, TL Network Canada is reporting an uptick in bookings this winter.
“We’re returning to pre-pandemic booking trends, which is phenomenal,” says James, adding that the majority of bookings coming in now is new business, as opposed to clients redeeming credits and vouchers. “Europe is looking really, really healthy – we’re actually doing better for Europe future bookings than the U.S. So we’re going to have a really strong 2022 overall for Europe, international and for winter as well.”
As far as new trends go, James says she’s noticing much shorter booking windows, “within two months,” due to fluctuations in travel regulations and protocols. This, she says, is hugely beneficial to both agents and travellers as it allows agents to get paid sooner and travellers to get out into the world faster.
Also on trend is upselling; more and more clients are choosing to upgrade their flights and accommodations after accumulating additional spending money throughout the pandemic.
“For the people who are redeeming their credit vouchers, very few are redeeming for the same value that they were originally booked for,” says James. “They’re either upgrading from one to two, or three to four stars – everybody is upgrading.”
When asked whether she’s concerned about inflated prices for travel, James says she isn’t too worried.
“I think air prices will definitely go up in 2022 but I don’t think that’s going to be a big enough deterrent when people have money in the bank,” she says. “Yes, prices are higher, maybe you’re paying an extra $1,000 but it’s $1,000 that they didn’t spend in the last two years.”
40 new members, 22 new partners
The industry’s recovery is evident in more than just booking numbers, says James. There’s been plenty of activity in terms of membership and suppliers, too. Pre-COVID, TL Network Canada welcomed 28 new member agencies. In 2020, the year the pandemic started, the company held its ground with 21 new members. Year to date in 2021, 40 new members have joined, which brings TL’s total membership number to over 700, a significant increase from the 600 it had in 2019.
As far as suppliers go, James says the company has been very busy signing up 22 new partners since fall 2019, including Virgin Voyages and The Haven Collection. She notes that destinations in particular have shown interest in outreach; TL Network has added seven new destinations to its supplier list including Ireland, Thailand, Los Cabos, Palm Beaches and Korea.
“I’ve got more destinations approaching me and saying they want to engage with our members and that they want to spend money on marketing. They’re anxious to participate in our events to reach our members directly,” says James.
New features for Agent Profiler
From the onset of the pandemic, James says TL Network Canada was focused on how it could support its advisors through travel’s biggest crisis. This meant finding solutions that would help them both financially and logistically. First, the company deferred its billing cycle, which is usually June 1 of every year, to after September. It also waived dues for three months, essentially giving members a free quarter.
“I thought we were going to see a drop off but our renewal rate turned out to be 94%,” says James.
In addition to financial support, the company introduced several new features to its popular Agent Profiler, a free benefit for members that provides clients direct access to hundreds of travel advisors across Canada. The program now allows ICs to enter their physical location as opposed to their home office location. Members can also add their years of experience and ‘Book with Confidence’ certification to their profile, set up video appointments with their clients, as well as pause leads in the event they’re on vacation, redirecting them to a fellow agent if need be.
According to James, Agent Profiler is just as effective now than it was before the pandemic, delivering 4,944 leads in 2021 year to date, nearly as much as the 5,194 leads it generated in 2019. Noting how there are only 661 published profiles, this amounts to “a lot of leads” per profile.
“People are looking for advisors, they’re connecting with advisors and they’re booking trips. These are all valid leads that we’ve been able to deliver,” she says.