Travel advisors in Ontario are yet again facing roadblocks in accessing provincial grant money that was supposed to help small businesses weather the COVID-19 pandemic.
The “Ontario Small Business Support Grant” was launched to support small businesses that were ordered to close or subject to “significant” restrictions because of provincial shutdown orders.
Applications opened in mid-January and the grant offered between $10,000 and $20,000.
But for many travel advisors and retail agencies, accessing this much-needed support has been nothing short of a headache.
According to the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA), the grant has been a “fiasco” from the get-go: the program’s FAQ stated that travel agents were excluded from applying, but some agents did anyways under the category of "Personal Services," ACITA says.
Some independent travel advisors who saw the FAQ telephoned a call centre and were told they would not qualify because their businesses, technically, were not forced to close due to COVID-19 (because they work from home and, therefore, could still operate).
Left in limbo
Nonetheless, several advisors and agencies applied for the funds and, in the end, some were approved and some were not.
Some agents who did qualify received the first instalment of a $10k grant, but apparently this wasn’t supposed to happen.
Shortly after applications were approved, select agents received a letter from the Ontario government, last spring, asking for verification of the funds in the form of an audit.
At the time, this left many advisors in limbo because agencies then couldn’t apply for the Ontario Tourism and Travel Small Business Support Grant (a separate program) if they were already approved for the first grant.
Approved but not approved
Applications for the Ontario Small Business Support Grant closed on April 7, 2021, but the worry of having to return misdirected grant money, following the audit, has hung in the air well into summer.
Until last week, on Aug. 13, many travel agents received a letter from the “Ontario Small Business Supports Grant Team,” stating that the audit was complete, that their travel business was, in fact, not eligible for the money and that a second payment wouldn’t be issued.
The letter also states that despite the misdirected funds, the money wouldn’t be recalled by the province (which is good news).
“Under normal circumstances, the government would collect payments that it had made to ineligible businesses,” reads the letter, which PAX has viewed. “But these are not normal circumstances. We understand that small businesses are facing acute challenges due to the pandemic. And we believe that businesses that the audit has found were ineligible applied to the program in good faith.”
“The government has therefore decided that it would be unreasonable to collect payments made to ineligible businesses.”
The letter also notes that Ontario will not consider any changes to applications or conduct any further reviews about eligibility.
It’s unknown as to how many travel agents and agencies were denied the grant, received a portion of the grant or received a full $20K payout (although ACITA confirms they know advisors who fall into all three categories).
ACITA’s Nancy Wilson of TravelOnly told PAX that the application process for the funds has been “extremely frustrating,” indicating that travel advisors deserve better treatment from provincial officials.
“Our businesses were shut down through no fault or control of our own, and to have given this support to some but not others is, in my opinion, appalling,” Wilson said. “I am happy for those that got it in full, happy for those that got the first payment and won’t receive a second payment.”
“Though, it is quite a slap in the face to them and utterly discouraging for those that received none.”
Despite ACITA’s efforts to address these concerns, it has been “negligible on the part of the Ontario government to make these decisions, but not address them with us,” Wilson said.
“The blows keep coming”
Virginia Frew, owner of Ontario-based Marlin Travel Port Perry, was one of the lucky ones – her retail travel agency qualified for the small business grant and received a first payment.
Explaining the process to PAX, Frew said it was “automatic that whatever you got the first time, that amount would be given again."
But that second payment isn't coming now. Frew, like many, received the letter stating that her travel business was ineligible for support, which was “heartbreaking,” she said.
“We have all been bleeding, waiting for it,” Frew told PAX.
She acknowledged that the first payment “was a gift” that she is extremely grateful for.
“However, to deny a second payment after saying it was automatic, then to pour salt in the wound and say we didn’t qualify?” she said. “...The blows keep coming.”
Good news, bad news
ACITA’s Judith Coates recently had a phone call with the Investment and Development Office at Ontario’s Ministry of Tourism to discuss the barriers independent advisors have faced in accessing Ontario's grant programs.
The takeaway from that conversation, Coates told PAX, is that the province is working to ensure “these problems don't happen again” thanks to ACITA’s hard work in advocating on behalf of the sector and bringing the issues to light.
The “bad news,” Coates learned, is that the small business grant application has closed, all the money has been paid out, and “there is no more funding left.”
ACITA was then advised to continuing advocating for sector-specific support from the federal government – a response that highlights “the most frustrating part” about advocacy these days.
“Each government likes to point fingers at the other government,” Coates said.
She was then advised to tell ACITA members to “focus their attention on selling travel in Ontario.”
“That was very disheartening to hear,” Coates told PAX. “As you probably know, any commission that we earn from selling resorts, packages or tours in Ontario, or even in all of Canada, does not compare to what we earn on cruises, FITs and luxury vacations to international locations.”
You can also follow ACITA on Twitter here.