So much has changed in the way suppliers connect with travel advisors.
Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, when more travel agents began working from home – a trend that shows no signs of slowing down.
With a scaled-down workforce, suppliers, too, are evolving with the times, reducing face-to-face interactions and eliminating paper products in favour of digital solutions.
The travel industry is modernizing, and it’s a shift Sunwing is embracing with its newly-enhanced travel agent portal, Sunwingagents.ca, an online resource that’s been around for roughly five years.
“We’ve had to look at better ways to communicate,” Deana Murphy, vice-president of sales at Sunwing Travel Group, told PAX on Wednesday (April 20). “We’re not going to be doing door-to-door sales calls and we don’t have the same kind of hard copy collateral flooding into travel agencies.”
“So, it’s really important we make information as easy and accessible as possible.”
More accessible, personalized
Sunwingagents.ca’s facelift was announced earlier this month, marking the portal’s first major upgrade in at least three years.
The refreshed platform – the first of many phases that will be unveiled this year and beyond – shows several visual changes, as well as new and improved tools that are critical to the booking experience.
Users will, for instance, notice improvements to the dashboard for Sunwing’s Agent STAR rewards program.
Enhancing this section was a priority, Murphy said, as Sunwing’s rewards function is the “main reason travel agents have come to our site for years.”
“Thousands and thousands of agents go there every day to look at their points and convert them to cash,” she said. “There’s a lot of activity there.”
The STAR rewards page, now, is “more accessible and personalized,” Murphy explained, and “the visuals are so much better.”
Better for group bookings
Strengthening the portal’s groups content was another objective.
The new site holds expanded resources for groups, such as functions that generate instant group quotes, as well as info on destination weddings and incentives.
This is useful, given that Sunwing’s hard copy groups guide “is no longer in existence,” Murphy said.
Of course, hot topics in trade circles, these days, are the long telephone wait times agents face when trying to change or modify a booking.
So naturally, integrating self-serve options into the new portal was key, Murphy said.
“It’s all about saving travel agents time,” she said.
Self-serve functions are available 24/7 and the portal’s “Manage my bookings” feature, for one, now allows agents to add payments and insurance, make changes to bookings, access and print e-docs, select and upgrade seats, book excursions and more.
“Things like adding special meals or accessing baggage or making payments – these are things we weren’t able to do on the portal a few versions ago,” Murphy said.
The platform has marketing solutions, too, such as a function that allows agents to customize flyers in an interactive way.
Speaking of marketing, there will be more to come on Sunwingagents.ca this summer, Murphy said, as Sunwing plans to unveil a new phase of add-ons that will make it easier for agents to download assets for social media.
“We want to help agents get our message out there,” Murphy said.
All of these upgrades came about because travel agents asked for them.
“We listen to the feedback,” Murphy said. “If agents see something that our competitors have, let us know. If there’s something we’re missing, I’m happy to bring it to our developers to see what we can do.”
Agents will also see improved training options on the portal.
Leading up to the pandemic, Sunwing’s agent webinars were housed in various locations. Now, all webinars are available on-demand, on the portal, because “that’s how travel agents want us to train them,” Murphy said.
Most webinars are in French and English and run between 15 and 20 minutes. But they’re getting shorter in length, Murphy said.
“We find that agents respond to bite size,” she said. “We know they’re inundated with information, so a webinar might just be highlights of Royalton properties in Punta Cana [for example].”
“If an advisor has someone who’s interested in a property, they’ll sound like a pro in 10 minutes.”
When things go wrong
Of course, as Sunwing customers saw this week, and as everyone has learned over the past two years, travel is not always a seamless experience.
Sunwing’s portal, for instance, is a valuable resource for agents for whenever things go wrong, like when flights are delayed due to a network-wide outage.
“When information is fluid, it’s hard to keep up, so we have a central place to go,” Murphy said, noting how the portal is where travel updates are posted whenever Sunwing.ca is updated.
On Sunwing’s network outage this week, Murphy said it has been a “Herculean effort” getting passengers on their way after the carrier’s third-party check-in system was compromised in a data breach, which caused long delays.
“The biggest parts of this challenge are behind us,” she said, praising Sunwing’s teams here at home and in destinations.
Yesterday, between manual check-ins and sub-chartered aircrafts, more than 30 planes departed, according to an update Sunwing posted to its Twitter account.
The latest update, posted Thursday (April 21), is that Sunwing has extended the option to change travel dates with no fees for bookings impacted by the outage.
This applies to Sunwing bookings with originally scheduled departure dates between April 19, 2022 and April 25, 2022, and the offer is valid for travel up to June 23, 2022.
“We obviously apologize profusely for the additional grief and inconvenience, but the majority of people have been wonderful,” Murphy told PAX yesterday.
If anything, Sunwing’s system outage highlights the importance of using digital tools for accessing updates whenever a crisis hits.
“What I’ve heard, quite a few times this week, is that ‘Sunwing didn’t phone us,’” Murphy said.
“There’s no way we could possibly phone people to update them on this information. We need them to go to the Sunwing app, go to Sunwing.ca, and make sure all the info is in writing and available so there’s not a miscommunication.”
Sunwing's agent portal is also where FAQs are posted, as well as up-to-date information on entry requirements for all of Sunwing's destinations.
“We really want agents to spend a little time on the portal, looking at some of the options that are there,” Murphy said.
There’s a good reason to go.
During April, agents can earn STAR Agent Rewards Points with Sunwing’s One Million STAR Points Contest.
Registered agents can increase their chances of winning one of 10 weekly 25,000 STAR Points prizes that can be redeemed for cash, simply by logging in and interacting with the portal.
Chances of winning points increases the more you log in and interact with various elements of the platform.
“We are extremely optimistic”
The bulk of Sunwing’s business, these days, is being booked outside of 12 weeks, with most trips happening next winter, Murphy said, making an end to the last-minute patterns that fuelled travel last year when border measures restricted mobility.
“Our groups business is crazy busy,” Murphy said. “But the demand is far outweighing the supply right now. Things are really selling out.”
The American market hasn’t slowed down at all, she said.
“We often forget that we’re in competition with other global markets. The Memorial Day weekend [in May], for example, is extremely popular in the U.S. for taking a getaway. A lot of that is sold out.”
For Christmas or New Year’s travel? “If you want one of those swim-out rooms, you might be too late. Most of them are filling up,” Murphy said.
“People have really decided to spoil themselves because they’ve been denied for a while.”
That being said, “We are extremely optimistic,” she added.
“We know next winter is going to be amazing. We’re happy to end this winter which, with exception to these last few days, was very, very strong.”