Friday, 11 September 2020

Looking Back

Like everyone else, I know where I was when I heard the news. On the morning of September 11, 2001, shortly after 8 am, I was getting ready for work.  It wasn’t just an ordinary day – it was more than that. It was an exciting day as it was officially the first day that I was the owner of my travel agency. 

On the other hand, I can’t say the same for Coronavirus.  It was on my radar (albeit in the background only) as I had clients who had been or were to travel to Asia and the virus had already been making its mark in that corner of the globe. Even though I knew of Covid-19, I truly had no idea the impact it would have or still be making so many months later. 

9/11 was an unforgettable tragedy that left 2,977 people dead and that event forever changed the travel industry.  As of this morning (11 Sept 2020), Covid has killed over 900,000 and counting globally. Every life is precious, every loss is devastating and yet, I can’t help but draw comparisons and differences to these 2 catastrophic events.

With 9/11 the impact was instant and gut wrenching and it unfolded before our very eyes.  We sat glued to the TV and saw the footage of those planes crashing into the towers, we saw the explosions, we saw the towers collapse, the smoke, the ash, the people fleeing the buildings. Later, we saw dazed people searching for their loved ones, signs and pictures of the missing.  We saw the tears and perhaps we even shed them. We saw the first responders using their training they hoped they would never need, we heard the wail of sirens and we saw everyday people become heros.

 A 3rd plane had hit the Pentagon, and a 4th had crashed into a field in Pennsylvania.  Even if you knew no one on those planes or in those towers, you could feel the horror and anguish unfolding in front of you. US airports began to close, airspace shut down.  Flights were diverted – many to Canada where the passengers and crew were welcomed with kindness and  compassion.  If we hadn’t heard it before, the word ‘Al-Qaeda’ became common in nearly every household.

In 2001 there was somewhere between 36,000 to 40,000 flights taking off each and every day in the USA. All these planes were grounded and no flights were allowed into US airspace. Many Canadian and global flights were also grounded.  

A short 2 days later, on September 13th, air traffic resumed. Airport security was stricter, screening had new benchmarks and as time went on, we saw many new safety and security regulations be added and enforced.

Travel and Tourism was hard hit. Demand dropped due to fear and the winter (traditionally high season) of 2001 was a washout. The years that immediately followed saw many companies involved in travel – wholesale, retail or aviation, being sold, consolidated or closed. It was not the best of times but we persevered.  9/11 was not the only blow to the Travel and Tourism sector.

SARS quickly followed it – a big issue especially in Canada for the 2002-03 winter season although some what more of a regionalized issue in the east. In 2008 there was a global financial crisis, then along came the H1N1 Swine Flu, followed by Ebola, MERS and the Zika scare. In the midst of all this, Iceland’s Eyjafjallaj√∂kull volcano erupted shutting down European airspace for several days and affecting approximately 10 million passengers.

Despite it all, the industry survived, coming back stronger as people’s desire and need to travel, both for business and pleasure, outweighed the issues of cramped seating, higher prices, surcharges for fuel, currency fluctuations, extra baggage costs, and the inconvenient security screening procedures. Whatever came our way did not deter the wanderlust.

And then, along came COVID-19.

COVID crept up on us. A strange flu in Wuhan that was hugely contagious and was spreading to other countries. Not all countries reacted the same way. Some responded immediately instituting various travel protocols, warning citizens to return home, and advising social distancing, the wearing of masks and washing of hands.

Once again, we watched this unfold on TV news coverage.  The tragic scenes of those on respirators, sobbing relatives, exhausted front-line health care workers, bodies being loaded into vans. But the impact – while initially shocking – was different. As tragic as these scenes were and still are, as horrific as the news is, unless we know someone, unless we are personally impacted, we often seem to be somewhat removed from the reality and truth of it all.

Many of us wear masks, we keep 6 feet apart in our attempt to social distance, but we are also more casual about it all. Sure, maybe we are not going to wild parties, or political rallies, or crowded beaches but many of us seem to have relaxed somewhat.

We do meet friends on patios or head to the cottage with a few friends for weekend fun. We visit family without wearing masks, schools have re-opened.  We are human and as such, we need human connection and interaction and so, we assess the risk and decide for ourselves what we are comfortable with and what we’re not.

So, the big question is, are we ready to travel?  Perhaps some are while others may not be.  As an industry, 1 in every 10 jobs around the globe are related to Travel and Tourism.  That said, we do hope travel bounces back quickly but realistically, it’s going to be a slow recovery.  This industry was the first (and hardest) to be hit and we will be the last to recover.  But make no mistake…We Will Recover!

Even if you’re not ready at this moment to travel, we encourage you to keep the dream alive!  So many tour operators, airlines and travel providers have stepped up to provide safer travel options.  From small “travel bubbles” with a limited number of travellers, to flexibly changes to $99 low risk deposits, they are doing all they can to make travel possible in the future.

For those of us in Travel and Tourism it has been a devastating year. For the airlines, the cruise lines, the tour operators, hotels, transportation companies, the theme parks and attractions, the destinations, and travel agencies who represent them all – it has been brutal. There have been massive layoffs many with no recall dates on the horizon, a continued workload for months on end with no compensation all to ensure clients make it home safe and sound, refunds get processed, ever changing credits are tracked. To my industry friends and colleagues, I tip my hat to you and understand the incredible stress that has been our lives for many, many months. No one can possibly understand unless they too have lived this reality.  Travel isn’t what we do – it’s who we are.

So, as I reflect on the tragedy that was 19 years ago, I can’t help but also give some serious contemplation to the time we are living in right now. Let’s be considerate of the people around us. If we are going to travel, go to the bank, or buy groceries, please, please, do your part by to physically distancing, and continuing to follow health recommendations. 

When the time comes and you’re ready to travel again, please book with an ACTA certified travel consultant.  Find one in your area:

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

We Are Here For You

I feel exhausted; both emotionally and mentally - uncertain, grateful, fearful, anxious, and hopeful.  Yes, all of these emotions have been swirling around and come in waves.   If there’s one thing I have learned from the rapid spread of the Corona-19 virus is that this job is not for the faint of heart.  For the nay-sayers who feel our job description has been replaced by impersonal online giants or that we’ve gone the way of the dinosaur, I’m here to say otherwise.  My role as a Travel Agent/Consultant/Advisor (use whichever term you prefer – I will answer to any) is more important than ever in these difficult days. I know my undeniable value and thankfully so many of my amazing clients do as well.  In the span of a couple weeks we have seen the world take an unprecedented turn our industry has not experienced since 9/11.  Even that isn’t a true statement as this is undeniably more impactful and far reaching.  We’ve never before seen this.

Everyone has heard the stories or seen on social media about the unimaginably long hold times to try and reach the airlines, tour operators and online travel agencies like Expedia or  Endless stories circulate about the hold times for hours on end only to be disconnected.  Travellers scheduled to be departing for fun-filled destinations in a matter of days were unable to get through and unleashed their fury when there were unable to speak with anyone to process their cancellations, refunds or future travel credits.

Que the Travel Consultants and immediately we were in springing into action by prioritizing those clients with the most immediate travel plans and those who need to return home.  Sure, we might be traditional and Mom and Pop storefronts but we were reaching out to clients (not sitting back waiting for them to call us).  It was the agents advising clients of the options for refunds, credits or rescheduling.  This is a service and human connection not a single online travel provider is able to duplicate. 

The impact of the pandemic is hard hitting and immediate for everyone in the industry and I suspect it will be for many months to come.  Just how long is the question.  For my own agency, it isn’t just the half a million dollars worth of travel that has been cancelled in a matter of days (sales that originally took months to build throughout the sales cycle) , nor the 20+ hour days that we dedicated to getting our clients home safely, the sleepless nights, the late night text messages from clients and their concerned families, DMs and facebook conversations (on personal accounts not just work) but also the fear of how the future looks for travel in general and for my agency, my staff and myself.  I feel a personal obligation toward clients to ensure that each and every one who are currently in destinations from Scotland to Mexico to Thailand and Peru, know that we are here for them, ready and able to assist in repatriation back to Canadian soil.  There is the concern for our team members who may be facing lays offs in light of the growing economic impact and immediate loss of revenue. The uncertainty of my own financial stability also weighs heavy.  Despite all of that, we work diligently to assist in this time of crisis with little regard for the extra work load for no additional pay. 

We had many people contacting us who hadn’t even booked with us in the first place but needed help.  Some we were able to assist while others because of the very nature of the privacy policies in place, we were unable to access their reservations.  That doesn’t mean we didn’t want to help or that we wouldn’t have lent a hand in their time of need.  We have been here, doing what we can, as quickly as possible and doing a damn fine job of it!

But here’s the thing. We continue to do everything we can for our clients, regardless of our own losses (and don’t think for a single moment that they aren’t staggering figures) but arguably most importantly, we’re answering our phones.   You can reach us!  You can’t say that about an online travel agency!

There is a common misconception out there that travel agents are just for those who can “afford it”.  It’s thought that our fees can be avoided by taking advantage of online options like the big dogs such Travelocity or FlightHub or by going directly to the airlines.  The fact of the matter is that it is more likely we don’t have any fees associated at all because in many cases we are paid a commission that comes directly from the supplier (airline, cruiseline or tour operator for example).  There are some products or fare levels that do not pay us commission and to those, yes, we add a fee, for which we are unapologetic because with that comes experience, knowledge, guidance, personal connections and a responsibility to YOU – our valued client.  
Frankly, we are middlemen (actually mostly women) that provide customized personal service that the giants like Expedia simply can not.  Have you ever heard of an online provider calling with a genuine interest in how your trip went? Hint, call-bots just don’t do that.  We provide all of this and more at little to no added cost to you.  Seems almost too good to be true, but it isn’t!
As travel agents, we are trained in the art of crisis management.  Goodness knows we’ve seen more than enough of it!  From SARS, Ebola, 9/11, Zika, H1N1....we’ve handled everything that gets thrown our way.  More often is the phone calls from destinations with emergencies on a much smaller scale such as a broken bone, a missed connection, or a lost passport but the point is that we go above and beyond for our clients.  This is simply the standards that we all adhere to.
Now, how about this one?  Picture having booked a $10,000 vacation.  Wham! Coronavirus hits and you make the tough decision to cancel. You first call the cruise line to inquire about your options. After a long hold, they tell you to call the big-market online wholesaler because that’s who you booked it through.  So, you call the number provided. Three hours of terrible music later there’s a click and then nothing. You’ve just been cut off. You finally get through after repeated attempts and the person on the phone — someone who you have never spoken to before — informs you that there is no insurance on the package so it’s non-refundable. You opted out of the insurance because there wasn’t someone personally explaining its importance. It’s easier to click no when you don’t fully understand what it is all about.
In all these ramblings... (yes, I’m well aware I’m off in many directions but at this point it’s really more for my own mental health)... there are a few major points I’d like to highlight in all of this.
1)     Find a travel consultant you are comfortable working with and use them.  Small fee or no or no fee at all, they have your back when the unforeseen and unthinkable may happen.
2)     Take travel insurance!! Of course no one could have predicted a pandemic, nor the death of family member, nor sickness of a child, a broken leg before you’re to leave on vacation, a gall bladder attack, the loss of a job or that your home may burn. This is precisely why you need insurance!  

During any crisis there is bound to be mass hysteria.  With that comes mass confusion and it’s so vital to have someone there to give you peace of mind, especially in times like these. Use an agent!  A real, live, trusted agent – they are worth their weight in gold.

In a do-it-yourself world that frequently leans more towards independence, automation and instant gratification, it could take an event like this outbreak to make us realize that customer service is still alive and well.  We're still out here ready to tackle these major travel issues with our clients' best interests in mind.  My fear is that the value of the travel consultant will be top of mind right now because of the uncertainty and unknown at the present time but how quickly we soon forget.  We've seen it before - agents "save the day" for someone but a year later that same person who needed "saving", is back clicking and mouse-ing around on the internet thinking they can do our job just as well as we can.  My hope is that the travellers learn from this and allow those who have the skills, knowledge and training to do what they do best.

As the days have progressed and the virus has reached every corner of the globe it’s become apparent that it’s more than just the travel industry being attacked.  The economic fallout is already apparent in the stock markets and current investments.  While some surge with additional demand and business such as the producers of hand sanitizer, don’t forget the others that are not so fortunate.  Remember our frontline health care workers putting on a brave face when danger is staring right back at them. Think of those airline crew who volunteered to rescue flights to bring Canadians home. Keep in mind the amazing people who are ensuring  that the food supply is still intact from the farmer to processors to the delivery folks and the people you see every time you go to the grocery store.  This pandemic has made superheroes out of everyone who is doing their part to fight this virus.