Atout France and Air France-KLM are urging Canadian travel advisors to embrace flexibility and empathy when booking travel in a climate marred by restrictions and quarantine measures brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The call to action from both organizations comes as Europe – France, for one – reopens its borders to international tourists.
“It’s possible to travel to France today in a safe way. I think we’ve put all the measures in place to make sure there’s no harm to travellers,” Mélanie Paul-Hus, director for Canada at Atout France, told Canadian trade journalists in a video conference on July 8th. “But we know the pandemic is a risk and can evolve quickly.”
Atout France is the organization responsible for promoting France as a tourism destination.
Paul-Hus said that flexible travel options, combined with a mutual sense of understanding of the coronavirus’ unpredictable nature, will be key to travel’s recovery.
“Being transparent and honest will be the future of selling travel,” Paul-Hus said. “I’m not saying people lied before. I’m saying we were maybe evasive about the small text and not clear about what happens ‘if, if, if.’”
Customer service will drive tourism’s reboot, she said.
“I think we need this rigour in the industry now of lining up all the possibilities that could happen so customers buy something they understand,” said Paul-Hus.
The travel industry faces many challenges due to COVID-19, and a shared understanding of the situation, said Paul-Hus, will guide the industry’s ability to move forward.
“It could be any one of us in a situation where we could need support,” said Paul-Hus. “In France, you can get the answers you want, if you need them. We might need to be patient sometimes, but I’m confident we’ll make sure we’re always honest and exposing risks, if there are any.”
Paul-Hus’ insight comes after the European Union Council lifted its non-essential travel restrictions on July 1st for residents of fifteen countries, including Canada.
France, being a member of the EU, is one region that Canadians can now visit within Europe’s Schengen Area, an area made up of 26 European countries.
Many of France’s tourist sites, such as the Louvre Museum in Paris, have reopened to visitors after months of lockdown in an effort to halt the spread of the coronavirus.
New local health and safety measures have also been introduced by the French government, the bulk of which can be viewed here.
“French tourists and Europeans have returned to recharge their batteries,” Paul-Hus said, noting that fairs and festivals are also set to resume in September.
Canada’s uptick in air travel
Air France-KLM is expanding its operations between Canada and Europe in July and August.
This includes adding flights and resuming service between Toronto and Paris for Air France, and flying out of Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary for KLM, for a total of 28 flights a week (or 37 per cent of the 75 weekly flights originally scheduled).
Since the EU reopened its borders, Air France has seen an “upside trajectory” in Canadian passengers flying to France, said Vincent Etchebehere, vice-president and general manager at Air France KLM Canada, who led last week’s press conference.
“We are quite positive and optimistic about the trend,” said Etchebehere, who will be leaving his post in Canada to become Air France’s Head of Sustainability and New Mobilities in Paris next month.
Taking over Etchebehere’s role in Canada on August 1st will be Catherine Guillemart-Dias, who is currently based in Atlanta.
Guillemart-Dias, who was also logged into the press conference, said leisure traffic, as well as friends and relatives with links to Europe, are currently driving Air France-KLM’s business within the Canadian market.
“We are carefully monitoring activity and ramping up the flights,” she said.
Yes, there are roadblocks
As travel advisors are well aware, Canadians are still bound to a federal non-essential travel ban, as well as a mandatory 14-day quarantine order upon returning to Canada.
Canadians can travel internationally if they choose to (just as long as they self-isolate for 14 days upon returning).
Etchebehere acknowledged the importance of respecting the rules as they stand.
“In this context of gradual recovery, it’s important to continue to adhere to and respect what experts and specific organizations are saying,” said Etchebehere, noting that Air France-KLM is guided by the recommendations outlined by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
Etchebehere called quarantine measures “a key roadblock” in re-starting travel, citing IATA’s call for governments to explore alternatives.
However, Etchebehere emphasized that the health and safety of customers is, and always has been, a top priority for Air France-KLM.
“The idea is not to say, ‘let’s lift all the rules’ – that would be totally irresponsible – [but] to continue to gradually lift what can be lifted without presenting any risk for our customers,” said Etchebehere.
Room for improvement
Etchebehere noted the “constraints” travel advisors have faced in recent months.
He also stressed that Air France-KLM is working towards enhancing its relationship with the trade amid the pandemic.
“Where we can still improve is in the level of communication to our travel partners,” he said. “Our objective is to send information at a reasonable volume and frequency, not to overwhelm our travel agency partners, but to convey specific, relevant information.”
Guillemart-Dias echoed Paul-Hus’ remarks about exercising empathy and flexibility, noting Air France-KLM’s flexible booking options, while also stressing the importance of communication within the trade.
“We need to continue working on communication, making sure we’re sending the most accurate information,” Guillemart-Dias said. “It’s really key.”
“Investigate what’s possible”
“The trade will have to be adaptable, agile and explore new opportunities during and after COVID,” said Etchebehere.
New ways of travelling will emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, he said, and “it’s important our trade partners are sensitive to new trends and adjust their offering.”
In the case of Canadians travelling to France, Paul-Hus said that travellers, today, should be prepared to cancel their trip if, for example, a sudden situation were to occur.
“On all sides, we need to be flexible,” she reiterated.
Paul-Hus believes Canadian agents are in a position to start selling trips to France. However: “They will have to adapt and reduce group numbers [based on] what’s going on,” she said.
Agents may be selling a different type of trip, too, at least in the beginning.
“Customers may want to stay longer in France, especially if they have to quarantine,” she said. “They’ll make it worth their while and maybe choose different activities – things they wouldn’t have done before.”
Advisors will need to be open to new ideas, such as building itineraries that allow clients to experience culture, but in a way that limits contact with others, suggested Paul-Hus.
Booking travel will become more sophisticated, she said, but there’s resources out there from suppliers and organizations, like Atout France, that can help make it happen.
“Investigate what’s possible,” advised Paul-Hus.
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