What does the pent-up demand for travel look like right now?
Just ask travel advisor Sarah Boville, owner of Grimsby, ON-based Barefoot Travel.
The travel expert with TravelOnly says she has taken on more new clients in the past six months than she ever did in the five years that led up to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I feel like we’re respected now,” Boville told PAX at TravelOnly’s 2022 conference, “Stronger Than Ever,” earlier this month. “[More customers] are valuing us and want to work with us. That’s a change from before. They value our opinion.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit in March 2020, the value of using a travel professional was never more apparent as agent-less consumers were left to their own devices amid a storm of border closures, repatriation efforts, cancelled trips, grounded aircraft, refund requests and future travel credits.
More than two years later, following the lifting of pre-departure testing for vaccinated travellers and the federal vaccine mandate for air and train travel – travel-ready Canadians are eager to return to the skies once again.
And this time, it appears more travellers want to plan their adventures the right way by leaning on the expertise of a professional.
“They’re just not confident to book trips on their own,” Boville said of the clientele she has heard from lately, noting that she still sees some hesitancy in the market.
But more travellers are certainly seeing the value in seeking out professional advice. Now, roughly 40 per cent of the people who call Boville about her services ask what her service fee is.
“People are actually asking that question. I never had that before,” Boville said.
"We’re thriving in a way that we never have before"
It’s a telling sign of the direction some independent travel advisors are heading as the demand for travel returns in a completely transformed marketplace.
Frontline accounts like Boville’s dominated TravelOnly’s two-day conference on June 12 and 13 at Bellagio Boutique Event Venue in Vaughan, ON.
“Stronger Than Ever” marked TravelOnly’s first in-person event since 2019 and the conference’s final day included the host agency’s annual TADA gala.
“It feels like some kind of normalcy. We’re jumping back in and doing what we used to do,” Ann Luciani, TravelOnly’s owner and CFO, told PAX at the conference.
According to Ann’s son, Gregory, TravelOnly’s president and CEO, home-based travel advisors will be among the first industry group to recover from the pandemic because of low overheads and new technologies host agencies invested in before COVID hit.
“We’re thriving in a way that we never have before,” Gregory said. “We’re recruiting more agents and people are excited to be travelling again.”
The travel industry’s shutdown in 2020 and 2021 led some bricks and mortar agencies to close their doors, or scale back operations, which left some travel advisors without representation.
TravelOnly scooped up some who were in this boat and grew its network by 50 advisors during the pandemic, bringing its total agent count to roughly 700.
The host agency also used its downtime to upgrade its backend, adding new technology, like ClientLinq, and other user-friendly solutions that simplify the agent experience.
“Technology is the driver for most independent contractors. It’s what they need,” Gregory said.
New partnerships with luxury hotels and short-term rental companies, such as Haven, were also formed.
“The luxury market is never going to stop travelling,” Gregory said. “Even with inflation, we’re pretty bullish. It’s where we’re focusing our attention so we can compete with the Virtuosos of the world.”
One need not look any further than TravelOnly’s own sales activity to see this trend play out.
Luxury cruises, Alaska itineraries, and bookings at high-end resorts and small Caribbean islands, like Aruba, Turks and Caicos and Martinique, are in high demand these days, Gregory said.
“Clients are clamouring to travel"
The market’s pursuit for upgraded travel after more than two years of not spending money on vacations is something Pat Probert of Bob Family Travel sees every day.
“The amount of wealth changing hands over last several years and into the future is unprecedented,” Probert told PAX. “People are spending more and more constantly. We have clients doing three, four, even five trips.”
Probert, partner Mary de Almeida and the rest of his team are working around the clock as “clients are just clamouring to travel."
Here’s a glimpse at what that means: Bob Family Travel just completed a river cruise with Uniworld that involved 100 guests and they’re already filling up a ship that’s sailing the Nile in Egypt (the pair are, notably, Uniworld's number one advisors in North America).
And they’re heading to Vietnam this October with a full-ship charter.
With Regent Seven Seas, they have more than 250 people booked for Tahiti, Bora Bora and French Polynesia in 2024. And they’re even looking at chartering a Celebrity ship in the Galapagos in 2025.
“It’s probably the best time in history to become a travel agent,” Probert said. “Although it was a tough two years when the pandemic started, we planned out to 2022, 2023, 2024 and now are working on 2025 with bookings that include full-ship charters in different parts of the world.”
“We are seeing our best years now upon us, including this year, which will meet or beat 2019.”
Probert and de Almeida, who serve as mentors at TravelOnly, share their bookings with other agents in the network. In many cases, colleagues will join them on trips.
“They’re making commissions with a comma,” Probert said. “Some are making commissions with two digits and a comma.”
“If you work hard, and you take time to learn, you will make money in this business.”
TravelOnly’s Tammy Durocher also admits that “business is crazy” these days.
Durocher told PAX that her groups for 2023 are set and that she’s already working on 2024.
She said attending TravelOnly’s conference, which provides ample opportunities to connect with colleagues, brands and BDMs, “was exactly what I needed.”
“You get so much from talking and networking,” Durocher said.
She, too, is also teaming up with other TravelOnly agents on groups. “I don’t feel like I’m in competition,” she said. “There is more than enough business to go around.”
Amanda Beaver of Glow Travel is a shining example of this. She said she has three years’ worth of travel on the books right now.
“It’s exciting to see people who have been planning trips for two, three years finally travelling now,” Beaver said.
“Raise your voice and scream"
Suppliers, in particular, are seeing the travel boom unfold.
Cindy Girard, an account manager at Norwegian Cruise Line (this year’s platinum sponsor at TravelOnly’s conference), said “we are back in business – 150 per cent.”
“The corner is behind us,” she said, noting the uptick in travel that occurred once pre-departure testing was dropped. “We are back to where we used to be and we’re outpacing 2019.”
NCL is gearing up for the debut of a new ship, the 3,215-passenger Norwegian Prima, which boasts a 10-storey slide, two new infinity pools and two Oceanwalk glass bridges.
The ship’s godmother is pop star Katy Perry, which means “we’re going to be everywhere” as far as advertising is concerned, Girard said.
“I think the next two years are going to be absolutely amazing businesswise. We’re seeing the travel revenge happening. People want to go, they want to have fun,” Girard said.
Her advice to agents? “Raise your voice and scream how fantastic and knowledgeable you are. That is how you win clients.”
There’s also less travel advisors serving the market these days.
As Gregory Luciani pointed out, given that some agencies have gone out of business over the last two years, there’s a whole new market share that exists.
“There are more opportunities for travel advisors today than there was two years ago,” Gregory said.
And the industry, too, has “finally caught up” with embracing home-based agents as the norm, he said.
Suppliers, such as Air Canada Vacations (for example), have now created departments that are strictly dedicated to supporting independent contractors.
“We couldn’t be in a better position to move forward,” said Gregory.