Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
It’s hard to say when Canadians will be able to travel again.
The arrival of the novel coronavirus in Canada has, very quickly, altered the way we experience the world.
With a nationwide ban on non-essential travel combined with mandatory measures to practice social distancing and to self-isolate upon returning from travel, it’s safe to say that travel, as we once knew it, has come to a temporary halt.
The number of COVID-19 cases worldwide has reached 2 million, according to Johns Hopkins University, with Canadian cases surpassing 25,000.
In his daily press briefings from Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has taken to suggesting that COVID-19 measures could be in place for "months."
His grimmest outlook yet was shared last Thursday.
Speaking on when Canadians could expect life to return to the way they knew it before the pandemic set in, Trudeau said it wouldn’t be until a vaccine was available.
“Normality as it was before will not come back full-on until we get a vaccine for this…That will be a very long way off,” Trudeau told reporters.
“We will have to remain vigilant for at least a year,” he then added in French.
A whole year.
With the cancellation of concerts, sporting events, festivals and major gatherings from now through summer, one could predict that COVID-19 measures could potentially ease up by fall.
And even that’s being very optimistic.
New modelling data released by Canada’s federal health officials suggests that the first wave COVID-19 could end at some point this summer, but further “wavelets” are possible in the months that follow.
Really, predicting an end date for a pandemic that has no vaccine or proven treatment can be a fool’s game – it’s human behaviour that will ultimately determine how and when this will all end.
But for travel professionals, forecasting how COVID-19 will impact the travel industry – arguably one of the hardest hit sectors – is invaluable, if not an essential exercise to prepare for the market’s return.
If there was ever a time to lay the groundwork for strategies in reengaging travel customers, it’s now.
Because people will travel again, and when restrictions are lifted, the market will start moving, sooner than some may think, industry insiders say.
“People are feeling as though their freedoms being halted right now,” says Calgary-based travel advisor Tannis Dyrland of The Travel Agent Next Door. “As soon as people have the ability to have some freedom, they’ll take advantage of it.”
If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic will make people realize that time is precious and, as a result, they’ll want to travel more, Dyrland says.
“I think people [now] are realizing that you don’t put things off,” she says. “We’re in a time where we’re not allowed to hug or visit loved ones. Moving forward, people will no longer have bucket lists. They’ll have ‘do it’ lists.”
Which demo will travel first?
It’s safe to assume that there will be some good post-pandemic deals to be had once travel is back in full swing.
Prices for future travel are already low in some sectors as suppliers offer incentives for customers to go with credits over refunds.
“The deal seekers will be out first,” predicts Loren Christie, a regular travel contributor on CTV.
However, the first wave of post-pandemic travel will likely unfold closer to the border, Christie suspects, with people opting for road trips and domestic trips instead of international escapes.
“People will go to places where they know they can get home if they need to,” Christie says. “We’re lucky in Canada. The great outdoors will be calling people’s names.”
The COVID-19 virus, though contagious amongst all age groups, has hit seniors the hardest and that particular demographic may stay put once the pandemic cools down, others say.
“I believe those who are at the lowest risk today will travel first,” says Nolan Burris, a talent development consultant for Signature Travel Network.
Millennials (especially singles) will be the first out, Burris predicts, followed by younger families and then Gen X couples.
“Baby boomers and seniors may wait the longest [to travel again],” he says.
Dyrland thinks solo travellers “who have been isolated by themselves” will be first to pack their bags, followed by families.
“Many families had planned spring break escapes or summer vacations and those, of course, were cancelled,” says Dyrland. “They’ll be looking forward to taking advantage of those again.”
As for where Canadians will travel internationally, drives across the U.S. border and flights to sun destinations down south, such as the Caribbean, will happen first, our panel predicts.
READ MORE: Air Canada, Air Transat, Sunwing suspend flights until at least June
“[Sun destinations] have, generally, been the least impacted by the crisis, which reduces the fear factor,” Burris says, noting that tropical resorts will also need to update their procedures around sanitization.
Christie predicts that some Canadians may even head to South America once the restrictions are lifted.
Destinations like Ecuador and Peru, for example, have “managed their situations well,” Christie says.
Frank DeMarinis, CEO of H.I.S. Red Label Vacations, which operates redtag.ca, itravel2000.com, The Travel Experts and TravelBrands, also expects family travel, such as family reunions, to take off once the pandemic ends.
“Each sector of the business will be different,” says DeMarinis, who isn’t writing off Canada’s elderly population entirely, citing that “many seniors are still booking cruises today for sailings in 2021 and 2022.”
As for when the travel industry will recover from the economic damage caused by COVID-19, DeMarinis says it could take years.
“Once all restrictions are lifted, it will take the industry up to 36 months to fully recover from the downturn,” he says.
“I hope we don’t lose any carriers”
As social distancing measures continue into spring and summer—peak times for travel and spending—the airline industry alone stands to lose more than $250 billion USD, risking some 25 million jobs, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
Canadian airlines are indeed still operating, focusing on limited domestic routes, shipping cargo and health supplies and repatriating Canadians that are abroad.
System capacity, however, has been reduced greatly.
Air Canada, for example, has grounded more than 175 of its airplanes, cutting its capacity by nearly 80 per cent, going from serving 105 international cities to just five.
What will Canadian aviation look like in a post-COVID-19 world?
“Of course, I hope we don’t lose any carriers,” says Burris. “Competition is critical.”
Still, Burris points out that airlines, since the start of the pandemic, have been “among the most resistant” to policy changes.
“That could contribute to failure for some,” he says.
Aviation’s maximum capacity success model combined with a reluctance to relax refund policies when travellers had no choice “will have a lasting effect,” he predicts.
“The trust factor has been eroded,” Burris says. “They’ll need to overcompensate to repair it. While it’s true that airlines were in an impossible situation, many made it worse with their inflexibility.”
DeMarinis adds that consumer confidence will play an “enormous factor” in how well the airline industry performs after COVID-19.
In terms of public safety, the pandemic may push governments and airports to act more swiftly in adapting measures for when and if an outbreak were to ever occur again.
READ MORE: Get the latest facts on COVID-19
“If there’s an inkling of this brewing again, I think government officials and airlines will be quicker to react,” says Christie, suggesting that checking people’s temperatures at airports could become the new norm.
“It may not be all the time, but airports will err on the side of caution as opposed to not,” he says.
The sanitation methods airports and airlines are currently deploying may, too, become common practice, Dyrland suggests, as it is what customers have come to expect.
“People are more aware of it,” Dyrland says, noting that consumers will likely hold hotels and resorts to those same standards as well.
Non-cruisers will be the hardest to convince
Cruise ships received a considerable amount of negative media attention in the days leading up to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) decision to declare the novel coronavirus a global pandemic.
In the face of growing COVID-19 cases combined global border closures and itinerary suspensions, many ships, now, are sitting idle, losing thousands, if not up to $1 million dollars, monthly.
Ming Tappin, a cruise coach and PAX’s resident cruise writer, is optimistic that cruising – though taking a huge financial hit – will rebound in due time.
“The large cruise lines will rebound due to their ability to secure funding,” Tappin says, referring to Carnival offering new shares and Royal Caribbean Cruises tapping into loans.
New ships that were set to launch this year and next will “most likely still proceed” as long as the shipyards pull through, Tappin says. However, orders that have been placed further out “might be scaled back as the industry goes into recovery mode.”
Tappin says smaller cruise companies and niche operators may not survive the pandemic if their ships are being tied up for months and do not have strong bookings going forward.
“I won’t speculate on who but every downturn claims its victims,” says Tappin.
READ MORE: Royal Caribbean expands Cruise with Confidence policy
Shattering the stigma associated with COVID-19 and cruising will be an uphill battle for travel advisors in the months and years ahead, Tappin says.
“Advisors will need to soothe the fears created by COVID-19 onboard ships,” she says. “It’s important for them to acknowledge what happened, but to also exude confidence that cruise lines will continue to deliver a great vacation experience.”
Experienced cruisers, says Tappin, will be the first to sail once travel resumes.
“…because they know that cruising is one of the safest, most comfortable and satisfactory methods of travel,” Tappin says. “They also understand that what happened was unprecedented and that cruise lines will always look after their guests and crew.”
Non-cruisers, however, will be the hardest to convince, she says.
“They already have many objections to cruising, from seasickness to fears of being bored, and now their image of cruising has been further marred by what they have seen on the news,” she says.
To that end, Tappin is quick to point out that cruise lines are the only travel operator that has to send mandatory illness reports to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) when more than two per cent of crew and guests are reported ill on board a sailing
“This is the main reason why cruise lines are in the news more often because no other travel segment is tracked,” she argues.
Other tourism spaces, such as airplanes, hotels and amusements parks, aren’t subjected to the same levels of reporting, Tappin says, calling it unfair to “point the finger” at cruise ships because “that’s where people always get sick.”
“Out of all modes of travel, cruise lines spend the most effort in creating a safe and sanitary environment,” Tappin says.
Once COVID-19 passes, Tappin expects that cruise lines will lower their prices and include added-value amenities, such as beverage packages, gratuities, and shipboard credits, to incentivize new bookings.
READ MORE: Carnival Corp. extends offer to use ships as temporary hospitals
She also expects bonus commission opportunities and other incentives (such as gift cards) and sail-free offers for travel advisors.
“Logistically, travellers may feel more comfortable in returning to river cruising first,” Tappin says, noting that river ships carry fewer guests (less than 200) and sail closer to shore.
However, most river cruises occur outside of North America, “which will make it a longer trip and bigger ticket item,” says Tappin.
So North American cruisers may, at first, consider sailing closer to home, she says.
READ MORE: Celebrity welcomes Apex in first-ever virtual ship delivery
In the interim, Tappin urges people to be kind to the cruise industry.
“The effects of COVID-19 were unprecedented and caught the whole world by surprise,” she says. “Nobody saw this coming, and cruise lines had to deal with a rapidly changing environment and face a reality never seen before in history.”
“We need to be compassionate and understanding that these were unfortunate and unforeseen events, and the cruise lines did the very best that they could,” she says.
What does the future hold for travel advisors?
Remote and virtual sales consulting is already changing the way travel advisors do business amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Almost everyone is working at home now, many for the first time,” says Burris. “It’s a completely different approach to interacting with clients.”
On that note, as more travel advisors get used to the idea of working from home, “a lot of bricks and mortar agencies will re-think the need for physical locations,” Burris says.
If anything, COVID-19 has shown the value in booking with a travel advisor.
“Travel advisors are seen as superheroes right now,” Burris says. “The stories of endless busy signals, hours-long hold-times, and overloaded websites of the do-it-yourself options abound... More travellers than ever are aware of just how valuable a travel advisor can be. The smart advisors will make sure that message never fades.”
Furthermore, Burris, a long-time fee advocate, says the pandemic will be “the reminder everyone needed about why fees matter so much.”
“Future travel credits (FTCs) and the commission that eventually comes with them are terrific, but fees generate revenue now,” he says.
Travel advisors have emerged from the pandemic as “industry-required people,” says Dyrland, and because of that, the level of service agents offer will have to be just as high, if not higher, when the pandemic ends.
That begins by offering customers travel insurance for every trip – a practice Dyrland suspects will become more common in the post-pandemic marketplace.
“If we’re not offering it, we’re doing a disservice,” says Dyrland, whose own agency includes insurance waivers in every quote, which customers can decline if they choose to.
Clarification on travel insurance and cancellation policies was a point of contention for some consumers as COVID-19 travel restrictions set in.
As a result, “consumers will become more informed” in their travel choices, Christie says, suspecting that more people will buy insurance moving forward.
“They’re going to start questioning what the cancellation terms are,” he says.
As for the trade community, the COVID-19 pandemic may as well be the ultimate test to see which suppliers supported travel agents during the tough times and which ones did not.
“Agents will be more selective in their choice of suppliers moving forward,” DeMarinis predicts.
As a travel advisor, Dyrland echoes that sentiment.
“We’re going to realize what suppliers supported us through this,” she says. “Which suppliers had our backs, worked with us and went to bat for us.”