It was a bubbly night of stories and celebration as the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA) held a virtual birthday bash Tuesday (June 28) to mark its second year of fighting for fairness on behalf of home-based and independent travel pros.
The upbeat virtual gathering on Zoom, MC’d by Spoiled Agent’s Kelly Schmitt, drew more than 320 attendees – a mix of travel advisors and almost 40 suppliers wearing blue and white (ACITA's official colours) – and revealed more than 40 prizes, from swag bags to Amazon and VISA gift cards to loyalty points to even a pair of free air tickets courtesy of Air Canada.
A rousing round of trivia was also played, which unveiled fun and interesting facts about ACITA’s work.
ACITA was created in June 2020 by Beyond the Beach's Brenda Slater, The Travel Agent Next Door’s Judith Coates and TravelOnly’s Nancy Wilson over a shared concern that independent travel advisors were falling through the cracks as the travel industry fought for its survival.
Throughout the pandemic, the volunteer-led group helped with big industry wins, from ensuring that independent contractors (ICs) could access federal aid programs (like the CERB) to securing commission protections for agents as airlines grappled with refund requests to helping politicians understand agents’ sector-specific needs.
With fearless determination, the grassroots group has since amassed a 2,000-plus membership base on a private Facebook group, where advisors have been urged to contact their local MPs to schedule meetings so they could explain why they've needed help.
The dialogue between ACITA, its members and Canada’s politicians have led to impactful campaigns that, for instance, resulted in the words “independent travel advisor” being spoken in the House of Commons for the very first time.
The group was also responsible for a series of successful federal petitions that called for the easing of travel restrictions, such as Canada’s now-defunct pre-departure PCR testing rule.
“It’s great to reminisce how far we’ve come and celebrate all that we, collectively, have done for our industry,” Coates told attendees last night.
The ladies, over time, have also had big help behind the scenes.
Advisors who were “instrumental” in past successes include Kristin Hoogendoorn, Jamie Scott, Terry Declare, Mandy Armstrong, Cathy Cordy, Caitlin Lajeunesse, Mike Sanderson and Pamela Pereira.
There’s also the contributions of ACITA’s current executive team, which includes Heather Kearns, Sarah Boville, Lynda Dennis, Arlene Gibbons, Michelle Gaudet and Bronwen Hill.
The stuff you can control
One of the most common questions ACITA receives is how the group came to be.
The ball got rolling during those first few (and very challenging) months of the pandemic.
At that time, Coates was having regular meetings with the founder of The Travel Agent Next Door (her host agency), Flemming Friisdahl, who’d often tell her: “Don’t sweat about the stuff you can’t control.”
Friisdahl told Coates that if she wanted to see changes in government policies (around accessing federal aid, for example), she would have to contact her local MP.
So that’s exactly what Coates did.
She secured a Zoom meeting with MP Bruce Stanton (now retired) of Simcoe North, ON, and put out an invitation on several travel advisor Facebook groups she belonged to for others to join in on the call.
Among those who RSVP’d were Brenda Slater and Nancy Wilson (who Coates didn’t know previously), and following that meeting with MP Stanton, the ladies, together, created a Facebook group strictly for Canadian independent travel advisors.
And so, the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA) was born, and as home-based agents from across the country joined the group in droves, the team urged its members to contact their MPs as well so that their unique needs were heard.
“Almost 300 of you got meetings with your MPs,” Coates told participants last night. “We’re really proud of you for jumping into action and doing what was under your control.”
The group's correspondence during that first year of COVID was strictly virtual, and Coates, Slater and Wilson didn’t actually meet each other, in person, until September 2021 – more than one later.
To date, ACITA has conducted more than 350 meetings with MPs, MPPs, senators, policy advisors and federal and provincial ministers, giving independent travel advisors a loud and sounding voice in politics.
And the wins have been significant.
As Slater outlined last night, one of the first missions of ACITA was to ensure independent advisors could access federal aid, like CERB and shortly after, the CRB, “which was a big lifesaver for most of us,” she said.
Then, as airlines faced thousands of refund requests in 2020 and 2021, there was the issue of protecting commissions.
That “threw us for a loop,” Slater said. “Airlines were asking for [federal money], and at the same time, they were asking advisors to hand back all the commissions we had earned the year previous.”
After a successful meeting with Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, ACITA eventually received direct word from the government – before it was announced publicly at a press conference in spring 2021 – that airlines utilizing the Large Employer Emergency Financing Facility (LEEFF) would be required to protect commissions.
“It benefitted everybody,” Slater said. “Not just independent contractors, but bricks and mortars as well.”
While many barriers to travel have been removed in recent months, ACITA maintains that “we’re not done,” Slater said, noting how the group will continue advocating for the removal of quarantine for unvaccinated travellers.
But with Ottawa no longer providing pandemic support, what is ACITA’s long-term plan?
Driven by the notion that “we can’t go through something like this again,” the group is now focused on strengthening relationships between independent travel advisors and suppliers, Wilson said.
“We believe our industry needs to make changes,” Wilson explained, saying that suppliers need to show “a little more appreciation” for independent advisors, who, according to ACITA’s research, produce between 70 and 90 per cent of sales in some lanes.
“That’s a huge amount coming from travel advisors. That’s why we need to have solid relationship with suppliers,” she said.
The goal over time, said Wilson, is to find innovative solutions “to reflect those mutually beneficial and respectful partnerships.”
Most memorable moments
It’s been an eventful two years of highs and lows (after all, not all advocacy efforts pan out).
But focusing on the positives, each of the ladies of ACITA, last night, shared their most memorable moments over the years since taking up the advocacy torch.
For Coates, that moment was on Travel Agent Day in May 2021 when PAX, in collaboration with ACITA, released a montage video featuring 25 politicians, including MPs, one Senator and even Minister Alghabra, wishing agents a happy travel agent day.
That video, pasted here, “brought tears” to Coates’ eyes.
“It was really rewarding to hear them acknowledge us,” she said.
For Wilson, it was receiving that call from Minister Alghabra’s office, announcing that commission protections would be included in Ottawa’s financing agreement with airlines.
As for Slater, hearing the words “independent travel advisors” spoken in the House of Commons for the first time “was massive for us.”
“That was something we said,” Slater said, “That was our term and nobody else ever really called us that until we started calling ourselves that.”
Slater also marvelled at the community ACITA has built. “There are so many great people,” she said. “It’s a massive thing to know that we have so much support, regardless of who we work for.”
As for those more than 40 door prizes unveiled last night (some suppliers donated more than one item), a "Wheel of Names" draw will be recorded Thursday morning (June 30) and the video will be posted on ACITA’s public Facebook page and private page.
Some good loot was presented last night, so if you were in attendance, be sure to watch the draw.
The group closed the party by recognizing all the travel advisors who are still standing "after two sometimes very painful and difficult years."
Singer Carrie Underwood's "The Champion" played in the background, saluting those who have made it this far.
Really, ACITA is a shining example of how community wins over competition.
As board member Arlene Gibbons said to wrap up the night:
“We are not competitors, we are one community. If anything has come from the pandemic, it’s that we are one. We work together.”