Yeah right. What a joke. Too little too late.
The comments posted on PAX’s Facebook page this week in reaction to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s pledge to extend supports for tourism businesses – if re-elected on Sept. 20 – captures the burn that many travel advisors are feeling this Federal Election 2021.
On Monday (Aug. 16), one day after calling a 36-day snap election – the shortest possible election period under federal law – Trudeau said the Liberals will extend emergency supports for businesses and tailor new ones for hardest-hit industries – tourism included.
This includes extending the Canada Recovery Hiring Program, which was set to expire in November, until March 31, 2022 and the promise of a "transition program" – 75 per cent wage and rent support – through winter for the tourism industry.
While beneficial to some businesses, promises like this likely come as an eye roll to Canadian travel agents and agencies, who have good reasons to be skeptical given the Liberal government’s shoddy track record in providing sector-specific support during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: The government’s Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB) programs, and involvement in negotiating commission protections with the airlines, helped many travel advisors keep the lights on.
But remember, this support was something agents, after months of advocacy work, had to fight for. And that commission, specifically, was revenue that people had already earned, so that really was about holding airlines accountable.
It’s nice to hear the Liberal leader say the word tourism out loud, but unless he has something special up his sleeve, it’s safe to assume that "Trudeau’s tourism” refers only to the inbound domestic sector (local municipalities, hotels, festivals, restaurants...etc.).
After all, it’s not like travel advisors who sell outbound experiences benefited from the $1.5 billion that was allotted to travel and tourism in the 2021 Budget (airports and regional tourism won the lion’s share).
Heck, even securing government funds on the provincial level has been a fiasco for agents in some parts (click here to read about what happened in Ontario).
Sectoral support for travel advisors is a critical election issue for our industry: the CRB (the only federal program that agents – independent ones, especially – have actually been eligible for) ends Oct. 23.
And the amount offered by this benefit, which advisors have called a “lifeline,” has already faced reductions.
Advisors have been "left out in the cold"
With no access to other supports – such as CEWS, CERS, CEB or HASCAP – “travel advisors have been left out in the cold,” The Travel Agent Next Door’s Judith Coates, co-founder of the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA), told PAX.
Worse, “less than half of all independent travel advisors” were able to apply for the RRRF (Regional Relief and Recovery Fund), Coates said, due to a technicality that required urban small businesses to be incorporated (most independent TAs are sole proprietors).
In other words: “If Trudeau's pledge of support follows along the lines of the support that we have received from the federal government to date, independent advisors have nothing to look forward to in the event of another Liberal government,” Coates said.
It also doesn’t help that Canada’s non-essential travel and cruise advisories are still active, which doesn’t bode well for restoring the market’s confidence in travelling again.
“We’re ready to declare bankruptcy and our businesses are failing,” Coates said. “In 2022, there will be a huge demand for travel advisors who won’t be there.”
Coates is baffled that the Liberal government doesn’t recognize the contributions of travel agents and agencies, which generated $2.4 billion in revenue in 2019 (up from up 6.4 per cent from the previous year), according to Statistics Canada.
“They only recognize tourism businesses that attract foreign travellers,” she said.
The Liberals "should already be launching something"
Jakki Prince, “Chief Epic Officer” at Ontario-based Prince Adventures Travel, an affiliate at Travel Professionals International (TPI), is one of many travel advisors who has been working full time since the pandemic began for “zero or very low compensation.”
“With many independent advisors working from home, with few or zero employees, a wage and rent subsidy will still exclude people like me,” Prince told PAX. “Direct access to grant money is what is needed.”
The expertise of a travel advisor, especially in today’s volatile climate, has never been more important, Prince added.
“The Liberal government should already be launching something,” she said, “not making it an election promise for the future.”
An industry facing collapse
Travel advisor Kim Machan of Essence of Romance Travel isn’t buying Trudeau’s promise either, especially after 18 months of “begging” for sector-specific support.
“I’m sorry to say, that under a Trudeau government, I strongly believe that we will be left out to dry,” Machan told PAX. “The travel industry is likely going to suffer a collapse as many cannot hang on much longer if we don’t start earning revenue.”
This reflects Machan’s own situation and a reality faced by her colleagues – some of whom have been travel advisors for upwards of 25 years.
“Experienced and knowledgeable advisors with 20-plus years of experience will leave,” she said. “Those are the people passing their knowledge on to us, which we pass on to younger generations. That will all be lost.”
“The Trudeau government is going to allow this collapse.”
“Another lost season”
Dave Heron, founder and general manager of Alberta-based Pace Setter Travel & Tours Inc., also took Trudeau’s tourism pledge with a grain of salt.
“When the writ was announced on Aug. 15, political groundhogs emerged from their dens, and upon seeing their shadows, we were pretty much guaranteed six more weeks of grandstanding and campaign promises,” Heron told PAX.
He noted how 2021, for many, is “another lost season” with revenues not expected to impact the balance sheets until the end of 2022.
“The promise of extended rent and wage supports, as well as tweaking the Canada Recovery Hiring Program may make for great campaign rhetoric,” Heron said. “However, if support by means of offsetting a ‘portion’ of extra employer costs, if and when employers rehire or increase employee hours, is what the program entails, then many in our industry will see little benefit.”
Agencies, suppliers, hoteliers and others have been “hemorrhaging red ink” for the past 18 months, accumulating a fair amount of debt, he added.
“As such, [they] are not going to be in a position to rehire or increase staff hours on the promise that ‘some’ of it will be funnelled back to them,” Heron said.
“There has to be cash on hand to pay these increased costs up front before incurring any more costs, and for many, that cash won’t start to flow until early next year.”
Travel advisors are being encouraged by ACITA, and the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA) to call their MP, and other candidates, to ask what their party is doing for the travel industry (and for travel agencies and independent agents in particular).
Click here for more details on ACTA’s call to action.
Stay tuned for more of PAX’s 2021 federal election coverage.