Journey brokers, squeezed by Covid-19 restrictions, adapt to a modified trade

In a normal year, the Toronto travel agency Leila Lavaee was busy preparing individual travel routes for their clients in distant destinations like Jordan, France and the Galapagos Islands.

But now, with growing COVID-19 restrictions and a surge in cases around the world restricting international travel, Lavaee says she had to get creative. Instead of the wonders of ancient Petra, the culture of the Louvre or the islands full of sea turtles, this year she offers her customers more local experiences – like an RV trip through Canada, a spa vacation and a boating vacation on the Rideau Canal.

“I’ve kind of turned my business around in terms of what can be done locally,” Lavaee said.

Other travel agencies, whose bookings have plummeted this year, are delving into their role as information providers or exploring other less-traveled destinations in hopes of boosting business as the pandemic forces the industry to adapt to a new reality.

Richard Vanderlubbe, the president of Trip Central, a travel agent with more than two dozen offices across Canada, said he expected bookings to drop by around 90 percent for the winter season, reflecting the magnitude of the challenges Canada’s more than 12,000 are facing Facing travel agencies.

“We are usually very busy this time of year,” said Vanderlubbe, whose company specializes in vacation trips to sun-kissed destinations. “Now we have a skeleton crew.”

Travel agencies have faced stiff competition in recent years as online services like Expedia and Booking.com offer consumers an easy way to save on fees by planning their own trips. However, the pandemic has presented the industry with new business challenges. According to the research company IBISWorld, total sales are expected to decrease by 33 percent in 2020.

According to the Office de la Protection du Consommateur in Quebec, which is responsible for the certification of travel agents in the province, the number of travel agents in Quebec fell for the first time in 2020 from 12,953 in February to 11,339 in December.

With the Canadian aviation sector waiting for federal government help, virtually every business that depends on travel, from taxi drivers to hotels, has been hit by the lack of demand. In early December, an industry group representing more than 100 airports across the country asked the federal government for urgent financial support, and some are running out of options to cut costs.

Due to low demand, airlines have reduced capacity by up to 85 percent this winter, giving travelers less flexibility with dates and destinations, Vanderlubbe said. Previously popular routes to destinations like Cancun and Montego Bay are now running on a reduced schedule, and flights between Canadian cities and other countries have been canceled altogether.

Given that countries are enforcing different entry requirements and new airline guidelines that complicate the process of international flight, travel agents see themselves as guides for their customers in a confusing and rapidly changing landscape.

Lavaee has published information on airline and travel guidelines in a weekly newsletter that it distributes to its network. Some of the materials she shared with her contacts during the pandemic addressed issues related to health care for Canadians abroad and visa issues for people planning to go away for an extended period, she said.

Vacations are taking longer to book, with regulations changing rapidly in different travel destinations and more problems related to insurance and cancellation policies that need to be clarified with customers before they leave, Vanderlubbe said.

Some countries like Antigua and Barbuda require proof of a negative COVID-19 test prior to arrival, while others like Grenada require travelers to be quarantined for a period of time after they land. Wendy Paradis, president of the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies, said complying with these regulations can be one of the benefits of hiring a travel agent.

“During the pandemic, travel agents will have access to up-to-date information as global travel advice and guidelines continue to evolve,” said Paradis. “They save you hours of research.”

However, given the pandemic causing many consumers to cut their budgets, it remains to be seen whether travelers will appreciate the guidance of travel agents enough to book through them rather than online.

Some travel agents focus on more remote locations in hopes of selling customers over the holidays where they can avoid being too exposed to other people. Rocky Racco, CEO of Toronto-based travel agency TTI Travel, said his company has recently focused on planning trips to destinations like Slovenia, Malta and the Azores, where it is easier for customers to adhere to social distancing guidelines .

The demand for different types of accommodation such as houses or private villas has increased since the pandemic began, Racco said. That trend was reflected in an Expedia report on Nov. 16 that found that alternative property types such as private houses, cottages, houseboats, and tree houses have become increasingly popular over the past year.

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But for the majority of people who are not yet ready to go on vacation, travel agents are simply trying to keep in touch through newsletters and other means in the hopes that demand for travel will rise again once pandemic restrictions wear off.

“Something I am promoting, even if you are not ready to travel right now, start planning,” Lavaee said. “Because all the flexibility, all the great deals and deals that are out there right now may not exist if you decide to do something over the summer.”

This Canadian press report was first published on December 27, 2020.

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