“People are reassessing why they want to travel. They’re looking at places and hotel chains that are safe and that they’re familiar with,” said Chief Operating Officer at Sunwing Travel Group Andrew Dawson.
Speaking exclusively with PAX on Monday (Aug 17th), Dawson shared the latest on Sunwing’s strategy amid the COVID-19 pandemic, providing new insight into the popular tour operator’s plan for a successful return.
After all, August has been a big month for Sunwing.
On August 7th, the company announced it would be returning to the Caribbean this fall since it began suspending flights and grounding airplanes in March due to coronavirus-related challenges.
Supported by a new health and safety program called Safe With Sunwing, the plan is to offer flights from Toronto to Cancun, Varadero, Cayo Coco, Punta Cana and Montego Bay as well as from Montreal to Cancun, Punta Cana, Varadero and Cayo Coco.
While originally promoted as a “limited schedule” that would launch in September, determining an official restart date isn’t as straightforward as some may think.
Canada’s non-essential travel advisory and 14-day quarantine order for returning/arriving travellers has had a negative impact on the market's demand for travel, as one may expect.
To that end, unless those restrictions change soon, Sunwing may have to postpone things, said Dawson.
“The possibility of a September return is a lot less likely,” Dawson told PAX. “We may have to push it back a bit.”
Taking cues from its competitors and its U.S.-based sister company Vacation Express, Sunwing is letting pure economics do the talking.
“To start operating a program, there has to be demand, week in and week out,” said Dawson. “You don’t want to lose more by flying when there’s no demand.”
The state of future travel credits
Still, Dawson is certain there’s Canadians out there that are “desperate to get away” and start vacationing again.
The question is: when?
Canada’s movement restrictions aren’t making travel an easy sell right now – after all, who can take three weeks off for a one-week vacation?
“Other countries are evolving and Canada doesn’t seem to be doing so,” said Dawson, noting the travel corridors and air bridges that some countries have introduced to help kickstart the economy.
Allowing quarantine-free travel to places that have little to no COVID-19 cases, or mandating that travellers get tested when they return, would help matters, said Dawson.
“I think there are workable and safe solutions that could be put in place if there was a will to make it work,” he said. “There’s been no appetite to look at this.”
Canada’s willingness to ease restrictions will also determine what Sunwing will do with the thousands of future travel credits customers were issued in March when the coronavirus pandemic closed borders and brought air travel to a halt.
Sunwing’s travel credits are valid for 24 months, whereas other airlines have updated their policies so that credits have no expiry date.
In this regard, Dawson said Sunwing will review its credits “once we know the dynamics” of Canada’s travel restrictions and how the marketplace responds.
From there: “We’ll come up with a final decision on what we’re going to do.”
Manulife COVID-19 insurance is coming
The majority of Sunwing’s demand, currently, is geared towards travel in November and December 2020, and into February 2021, said Dawson.
“Jamaica has proven to be very popular,” he said. “It’s a place that people can identify with of having done a good job [during the pandemic].”
Cuba is gaining steam, too, he added. “People are gravitating towards places with low incidents [of COVID-19],” said Dawson.
Some customers already started getting their vacation on this month as Sunwing welcomed guests back to Cancun and Montego Bay, flying them down on an airline, such as Air Canada, that had the routes.
Of course, finding travel insurance that includes COVID-19 coverage also plays into today’s challenges.
Some Canadian insurers have already broken rank by adding out-of-country COVID-19 coverage to their menus, and this is something Sunwing will be doing also, in due time, Dawson confirmed.
In fact, just this past weekend, Manulife, Sunwing’s insurance partner, presented a product to the tour operator that includes an option for COVID-19 coverage, he said.
While the details and release date is under wraps, the program likely will not include coverage for travel to the United States where COVID-19 cases are nearing 5.5 million, said Dawson, noting that Sunwing doesn’t intend to offer Florida this Christmas anyway.
Still, Sunwing’s soon-to-be-released insurance product, said Dawson, will be “something good.”
The ultimate beachfront office?
The trick these days is pinpointing the type of customer that is willing to travel despite the barriers at play.
If travellers need to self-isolate for 14 days when they return to Canada, some may consider vacationing for longer periods of time to make it worth their while.
More people are working from home now, making remote office spaces – even in a tropical destination – a greater possibility.
This is where Sunwing may have had a stroke of genius with its latest “Upgrade Your Office” offer.
Available from November 1st onwards, travellers can book longer stays of 14, 21 or 28 nights at three of Royalton’s all-inclusive luxury resorts (Royalton Negril Resort and Spa, Royalton Riviera Cancun Resort and Spa and Royalton Splash Punta Cana Resort and Spa).
The idea is to redefine the idea of work-life balance – people can wake up to the sounds of the ocean (instead of an alarm), have all their meals/drinks taken care of, be steps away from pools and still have all the facilities they need to have a productive work day.
“There’s a lot of people right now who are going crazy in their surroundings,” Dawson told PAX. “This is something unique that is reacting to where the market is at this time.”
Somewhat similar to Barbados’ recently-launched remote work visa program, Sunwing’s offer is tempting, with packages ranging from $2,295 to $2,795 per person (based on double occupancy), depending on one’s location and length of stay.
“People and their partners can be on vacation at the same time, someone’s cooking for you…This is not a bad plan,” said Dawson, noting that the Wi-Fi at all the participating resorts is “so good.”
What about the West?
Western Canada’s access to southbound flights has been a point of contention within trade circles in recent weeks after Transat, on July 27th, made the tough call to cancel all of its Western flights to the South and U.S. for winter 2020-2021.
While Sunwing’s current fall schedule does not include departures from any western hubs, Dawson indicated that this is temporary, suggesting that Sunwing will return to Western Canada when it sees that “spark in demand.”
“It’s our intention to have Western programs,” Dawson told PAX, naming Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Regina and Winnipeg as cities that would “definitely” host flights.
However, Canada’s ability to ease travel restrictions and quarantine measures will play a role in Sunwing's ability to do so, said Dawson.
What travel advisors should do, right now, is make sure they (and their clients) are educated and up-to-date on all the latest developments, both from the government and from Sunwing – “so people can make the right choices,” said Dawson.
Restoring consumer confidence in travel is key, he said
“Travel may not be as bleak as some people think," said Dawson. "People need to understand that."
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