We asked 3 veteran agents 3 questions on how they’re handling the pandemic
By: Cindy Sosroutomo
TORONTO — In a world filled with so much uncertainty, experience wins out when it comes to facing and overcoming challenges.
Across the travel industry, retail agents are drawing on their wealth of knowledge and seeking advice from others more experienced on how to navigate through the pandemic. With so many struggling to stay afloat, there has never been a greater need for collaboration, cooperation and support within the agent community.
Travelweek recently went 3 for 3 with three veteran travel agents, meaning we asked them the same three questions about how they’re surviving amidst the industry’s most challenging time. Collectively, they boast over 120 years of experience in the travel industry; they’ve successfully seen their way through several crises, like SARS, 9/11, the Great Recession of 2008, Zika and more. And now, with COVID-19 bringing the travel industry to its lowest lows, they’re once again relying on their experience to get them through to the other side.
Here’s what they had to say:
1. The start of the pandemic for agents was largely about repatriation, rebookings and refunds. What is the biggest challenge that you’re now faced with, and how are you working your way through it?
Joe Scott, President, Year Round Travel Inc., Toronto, ON, 38 years of experience:
At this juncture, the biggest challenge is to maintain our business until such a time when people feel safe to travel again. Even when that occurs, they will be booking into 2021 and 2022, and as we all know commissions are only realized once a booking has travelled. To become profitable again there has to be a certain level of confidence from the travelling public. It’s all well and good to say 20%-30% of previous travellers are ready to start planning to travel again but our business is capacity-driven.
I decided to do something to help ourselves as well as those who are struggling financially by creating a not-for-profit, web-based platform where industry workers can market travel-themed t-shirts to their clients, friends and relatives to generate some immediate supplementary income for themselves. The site also lends an opportunity to give to our courageous frontline healthcare workers. Year Round Travel used the site with our clients and made over $1,000 in commissions. For more information go to www.tiwgai.com.
Tony Santelli, Co-Founder, Funtastique Travel, Laval, QC, 45+ years of experience:
The biggest challenge facing independent advisors and full-time advisors working in brick & mortar agencies are, how do we get our clients to begin travelling again and what do we do in the meantime? I, for one, contacted all my clients and told them to stay safe for the time being. We should continue to keep in touch with our clients and let them know about the latest news, openings, restrictions and so on.
Since retiring as Director of Studies from Collège April-Fortier in December 2019, my plan was to focus more on selling travel by attracting new customers, often by referral, but COVID-19 put a temporary hold on this plan. I am, however, working on a business presence on Facebook, which will help increase the numbers once we are ready to travel.
Gary Rams, Adventure Travel Specialist associated with Crowfoot Travel Solutions, Calgary, AB, 32 years of experience:
My biggest challenge is staying in front of my clients. I am trying to keep my name out there, however, I understand every person is in a different position. Some people may not be able to travel for some time because they lost their jobs, while others will want to do their bucket list now because they were able to save. This is why it’s important to get to know our clients.
2. Tour operators have stepped up these past few months with everything from flexible rebooking/cancellation policies to even upfront commissions. In your opinion, what more can they do to make your job easier?
SCOTT: Tour operators have, for the most part, been really great. Kudos to Collette for coming up with advanced commissions – very creative and very helpful! On another note, I personally don’t think commission recalls are fair to retail agencies since we’ve already earned the money and, in most cases, gone above and beyond for clients during COVID-19. It would be helpful if tour operators realize this and not be billing these funds back to the agencies.
Tour operators could also engage in ongoing marketing campaigns that focus primarily on the fact that now COVID-19 insurance is available, and that safety and clean protocols are in place in destinations, which will be key to assisting the retail community. They should continue to offer incentives to motivate travellers and maintain flexible cancellation terms currently on offer. In the end, it’s all about gaining the confidence of the travelling public.
SANTELLI: When the question of refunds vs. credits became the topic of the day in the spring, I had written to Minister of Transport Marc Garneau to suggest what I thought was a creative idea: to have Air Canada and WestJet refund all tickets and give the travel credits to the federal government, which they would then use to pay Amex/HRG who handle the federal government account. As for tour operators and all other suppliers, they should follow the lead of cruise lines, and that is to protect commissions, even though some cancellations may occur.
RAMS: A lot of people spent money on tickets and packages and were not happy with a voucher. They do not want to go that way again. It all comes down to flexibility; if it is simple for the client then it is simple for the travel advisor. After nine months, this should be easy. I have had clients buy tickets just this month and flights were cancelled within a week and they are stuck with a ticket they may not use.
3. What advice do you have for younger or less experienced travel agents during this time?
SCOTT: For sure the business model may have to change to accommodate to our new reality but one thing I’ve learned over the years is that together we are strong, versatile, adaptable and creative. We all adapted when airlines went to a ‘zero commission’ policy, we survived the advent of the Internet, and we saw the emergence of ‘host agencies’ after 9-11 when hundreds of retail businesses closed their doors.
My advice to younger agents is to be creative and educate yourselves in all the new protocols that will inevitably be put in place. Most importantly, stay in touch with and take care of your clients. Offer them the very best service advice because once the world starts travelling again they’re going to need you more than ever.
SANTELLI: I joined Skal International back in 1984 and was president of the Montreal club in 1993. The reason I joined is that the club allows us to connect with members around the world. I have often contacted my fellow Skalleagues who own destination management companies, tour companies, motorcoach companies and more, and dealt with them to create unique and very competitive itineraries for individual and group clients, ensuring a much higher profit (selling price minus the cost price). Too many travel advisors complain about dwindling commissions. Yes, they can offset it by charging service fees but they can also increase their profit by working smart. Don’t always look for the easy sale by selling the brochure of the day. Instead, take the time and trouble to email a contact anywhere in the world and build that trip à la carte.
RAMS: Use this time for a personal reboot. Think of what you want to be an expert at and what will make you stand out, whether it be Weddings, Soft Adventure, Beach Vacations or Europe. Take the courses, get involved with suppliers, some of which have put together some great webinars and conferences. I have been on at least four virtual conferences for Soft Adventure in the last few months and have met many suppliers I would not have been able to meet before. Now is the time to keep costs in line and plan for the future. Clients will be relying on you when this really starts up – I truly believe our best days are ahead.