If you’re an independent travel advisor facing a mountain of commission recalls, and you feel like no one is fighting for protections on your behalf, you need to read this.
Since June, the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA) has been lobbying politicians and policy officials – live on camera, via Zoom – for financial aid and political support with a goal of restarting the travel industry in a safe and responsible way.
The grassroots initiative is led by Judith Coates of The Travel Agent Next Door (TTAND), Brenda Slater of Beyond the Beach and Nancy Wilson of TravelOnly – three longtime travel advisors from three different companies.
The trio lobbies on behalf of Canada’s some 12,000 independent, self-employed and home-based travel agents, rallying professionals on a Facebook page that boasts 1,500 members (and counting).
Here, they encourage members to contact their local member of Parliament (MP) and schedule a 30-minute virtual meeting via Zoom.
If a meeting is scheduled, advisors use the opportunity to personally explain, to their federal representative, the unique challenges self-employed agents are facing amid the pandemic.
Coates, Slater and Wilson join each session to support their members and present a slide show that outlines the hard facts about being an independent travel agent during the coronavirus crisis.
MPs are given an opportunity to ask questions and each meeting concludes with a call to action to give travel agents a voice in the House of Commons.
ACITA provides each politician with a pre-written letter of support, addressed to Canada’s policymakers, such as Canada’s Transport Minister of Transport Marc Garneau.
MPs are encouraged to mail that letter, personally, to influence the players in Ottawa.
The group also, as reference, provides a YouTube link of Bill Shorten, a Federal Member for Maribyrnong, in Australia, who recently spoke in length about the unique challenges travel agents are facing throughout the COVID-19 crisis.
Theses efforts are paying off. Since starting their advocacy work, ACITA has, so far, met with more than 90 MPs and policy advisors using the Zoom platform.
The group has even begun to receive federal support from politicians who now see why travel advisors need urgent help.
But what, exactly, is said during these video calls with MPs?
PAX sat in on a recent meeting between ACITA members, MP David Yurdiga, who represents Fort McMurray-Cold Lake in Alberta, to learn more.
“We’re not all in the same boat”
Coates began the Nov. 18 meeting with a breakdown of ACITA’s membership base, pointing to the fact that 85 per cent of independent agents are female and that many are the sole earner in their household.
“Each of us are small business owners,” Coates told MP Yurdiga. “[The pandemic] has been devastating for families.”
She said that, in Ontario alone, there has been 167 brick and mortar travel agency closures since March, and that only 30 per cent will be left by the time COVID-19 is over.
She outlined the many virtues of travel – how it connects people to culture and heritage, unites families, and its mental health benefits, for example.
But the tone quickly changed as Coates began to share ACITA’s future outlook of the travel industry.
She explained how, in March, agents worked tirelessly to repatriate Canadians back home as their businesses tanked due to one cancellation after the other.
While the travel industry may be in the same storm, “we’re not all in the same boat,” Coates said.
With this, she told MP Yurdiga to remember the number 139.
“From the time a client comes into our office to confirm a booking to the date when we are paid for the work on that file, it’s a minimum of 139 days,” said Coates, reminding Yurdiga that self-employed agents typically work on commission.
“This is our reality.”
Still, agents have continued to serve clients, assisting them with insurance claims, processing Future Travel Credits, and rebooking travel for 2021 and 2022.
Agents are working for free with the support of the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB), which provides financial aid to self-employed individuals who are not entitled to Employment Insurance (EI) benefits.
However: “We’re very concerned that the 26 weeks [offered by] the Recovery Benefit is not going to be enough time for us,” said Coates.
Urgent call to action
The group clarified that it supports consumer refunds for cancelled travel.
However: “What the public does not realize is that [airlines] have asked us to pay back commission we earned, in some cases back in 2019, saying that, ‘Unless you pay it back, your client will not get a refund," said Coates.
“We’re at a negative cash flow.”
This point comes after Minister Garneau, on Nov. 8, announced that a government bailout of the aviation industry would hinge on airlines issuing refunds to customers.
“We need to have assurances from the government that when bailout agreements are made, there will be a condition that travel agent commissions will be protected,” said Coates.
The protections must go beyond the airlines, (“We don’t make much commission from air tickets,” she said), and extend to subsidiaries, too, that sell tour packages as “those are being recalled as well.”
“We know the airline bailout agreements are happening soon,” said Coates. “There’s an urgent need for those bailouts to be conditional on commission protection.”
She used the analogy of a customer buying a car, knowing their sales person received commission for their work and then, a year later, receiving a recall notice, and being told by the dealership that they can’t get their car serviced unless the salesperson pays back the commission they earned a year ago.
“We’re the only industry where that is being allowed to happen,” Coates told MP Yurdiga.
Safely restarting travel
Wilson outlined ways Canada could restart travel in a safe and responsible way, such as by introducing rapid testing at airports to ease the country’s 14-day quarantine order and by establishing reciprocal travel agreements with countries.
Wilson said that agents are, indeed, fielding requests to book travel.
“What’s holding [customers] back is that they can’t afford to take two weeks of vacation time from work to take that one-week holiday,” she said.
Using rapid tests to ease quarantine times, and safely reopen Canada’s borders, “would go a long way in restoring consumer confidence in travel,” said Wilson.
Alberta is currently offering rapid testing to international travellers at Coutts land border crossing and Calgary International Airport.
The pilot project has been utilized by more than 2,000 travellers since it launched in early November, reports say, signalling hope for Canada’s struggling travel industry.
ACITA says the project, now, must expand to other provinces.
“We’re concerned about the 26-week time frame of this project,” said Wilson. “It will be wrapping up at the end of March, into April. That’s our busy season, so we’ll have lost all that travel time.”
“The sooner we can start generating revenue, the sooner we will no longer need the support benefits being provided by government.”
“We’re the ones that do all the work for [companies] on the frontline,” noted Coates. “[Airlines] would never ask one of their own call centre people to pay back their salary for cancelled flights and trips.”
Working for free
MP Yurdiga asked the group if there was a way for commissions to be insured if, for instance, an airline went bankrupt.
Slater explained how travel is regulated provincially, while stressing that the group doesn’t want to see airlines go under.
“They’re asking us to work on the same file, five times, for free,” Slater explained, “which we’re happy to do for customers…but in the meantime, it’s the only industry where you do the work multiple times, and be expected to do it for free.”
The situation will get worse as more brick and mortar agencies close, said Slater.
“Who’s going to deal with all the refunds and clients that dealt with travel agents?” she said. “It’s a bit of a pickle, to put it lightly.”
Slater pointed out how travel agents are, in fact, using money they received from government support to pay back the airlines.
“We’re pretty sure the government didn’t intend that $1,800 per month, [the amount the CRB pays], to go back to the same people they’re currently planning on bailing out,” said Slater.
“Honour the commissions that have been paid”
MP Yurdiga said that legislation protecting commissions would be “a good idea, from my perspective.”
Coates noted how most independent agents have not been able to tap into the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA) loan because of the $40,000 in deferrable expenses it requires.
“We don’t pay salaries and, for the most part, we don’t pay rent,” she said. “We don’t have $40,000 in deferrable expenses.”
“I see your point there,” responded MP Yurdiga.
This is one reason why many home-based agents are still working, added Slater.
“We don’t have the large overhead that other agency owners would have,” she said.
After hearing everything, MP Yurdiga agreed that if the government provides airlines with a bailout package, there should be a clause that protects travel agent commissions.
“I would hate to be in your situation. You’re in a bad place right now,” MP Yurdiga told the group. “There should be conditions that everyone, as part of the industry, gets their fair share.”
“Honour the commissions that have been paid,” he said. “From my perspective, that’s the easiest route to go.”
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