A passenger walks the halls at Montreal Trudeau Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic in Montreal, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020. Travel agents, with bookings down significantly this year, are digging into their roles as information providers or exploring different, less-travelled destinations in the hopes of drumming up business as the pandemic forces the industry to adapt to a new reality. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Travel agents, squeezed by COVID-19 restrictions, adapt to a changed industry

In an ordinary year, Toronto travel agent Leila Lavaee would be busy around this time preparing custom itineraries for her customers in far-flung destinations like Jordan, France and the Galapagos.

But now, with growing COVID-19 restrictions and an uptick in cases worldwide limiting international travel, Lavaee says she has had to get creative. Instead of the wonders of ancient Petra, the culture of the Louvre or islands teeming with sea turtles,she is pitching more local experiences to clients this year — such as an RV trip across Canada, a spa getaway and a boating holiday on the Rideau Canal.

“I’ve sort of pivoted my business in terms of looking at what can be done locally,” Lavaee said.

Other travel agents, with bookings down significantly this year, are digging into their roles as information providers or exploring different, less-travelled destinations in the hopes of drumming up business as the pandemic forces the industry to adapt to a new reality.

Richard Vanderlubbe, the president of Trip Central, a travel agency with more than two dozen offices across Canada, said he expected bookings to be down around 90 per cent for the winter season, reflecting the scale of the challenges facing Canada’s more than 12,000 travel agents.

“Normally we’re really busy this time of year,” said Vanderlubbe, whose company specializes in leisure travel to sun destinations. “Now we have a skeleton crew.”

Travel agents have already faced tough competition in recent years, as online services like Expedia and Booking.com offer consumers an easy way to save on fees by planning their own trips. But the pandemic has brought with it a new set of business challenges for the industry, with total revenue projected to decline 33 per cent in 2020, according to data from research firm IBISWorld.

Quebec’s Office de la protection du consommateur, which is responsible for certifying travel agents in the province, said the number of travel agents in Quebec fell for the first time in 2020, from 12,953 registered in February to 11,339 in December.

With Canada’s airline sector waiting for aid from the federal government, virtually every business that depends on travel, from taxi drivers to hotels, has found itself squeezed by the lack of demand. Earlier in December, an industry group representing more than 100 airports nationwide asked the federal government for urgent financial support, and some are running out of options to cut costs.

Anticipating poor demand, airlines have slashed capacity by as much as 85 per cent this winter, giving travellers less flexibility on dates and destinations, Vanderlubbe said. Once-popular routes to destinations like Cancun and Montego Bay are operating on a reduced schedule, and flights between Canadian cities and other countries have been cancelled altogether.

Still, with countries enforcing different entry requirements and new airline policies complicating the process of international flight, travel agents say they see an important role for themselves as guides for their customers in a confusing and rapidly changing landscape.

Lavaee has been sharing information about airline policies and travel guidelines in a weekly newsletter she distributes to her network. Some of the materials she has shared with her contacts during the pandemic addressed questions around health care for Canadians abroad and visa issues for people looking to go away for an extended period, she said.

Vacations are taking longer to book, with rapidly changing regulations in different destinations and more issues around insurance and cancellation policies to iron out with customers before departure, Vanderlubbe said.

Some countries, such as Antigua and Barbuda, are requiring proof of a negative COVID-19 test prior to arrival, and others, like Grenada, are asking travellers to self-quarantine for a period after they land. Wendy Paradis, president of the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies, said staying on top of these regulations can be one of the advantages of hiring a travel agent.

“During the pandemic, with global travel advisories and policies continuously evolving, travel agents have access to up-to-date information,” Paradis said. “They save you hours of research.”

With the pandemic prompting many consumers to tighten their budgets, however, it remains to be seen whether travellers will value travel agents’ guidance enough to book through them, rather than online.

Some travel agents are focusing on more remote places in the hopes of selling clients on vacations where they can avoid having much exposure to other people. Rocky Racco, the CEO of Toronto-based travel agency TTI Travel, said his company has concentrated lately on planning trips to destinations like Slovenia, Malta and the Azores, where it is easier for clients to respect social distancing guidelines.

Demand for different types of accommodations, like homes or private villas, surged since the start of the pandemic, Racco said. That trend was reflected in a Nov. 16 report by Expedia, which said that alternative property types, such as private homes, cottages, house boats and treehouses, had increased in popularity over the last year.

But for the majority of people who aren’t willing to take a vacation just yet, travel agents are simply trying to stay in touch through newsletters and other means in the hopes that demand for trips bounces back once pandemic-related restrictions ease.

“Something that I promote is, even if you’re not ready to travel right now, start the planning,” Lavaee said. “Because all the flexibility, all the great deals and offers that are out there right now may not exist when you decide to do something in the summertime.”

Just Posted

Patrons practice on a putting green as the Whitestone Bridge looms in the distance at Trump Golf Links at Ferry Point in the Bronx borough of New York on Tuesday, May 4, 2021. Former President Donald Trump has a rich history of fighting back when he’s down and making others pay, and that’s exactly how he intends to deal with New York City over its plans to fire his company from running the city golf course. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Dump Trump? Kicking him off NYC golf course may not be easy

Trump Organization has been reeling after the Capitol riots

A photo illustration made December 14, 2012 in Montreal shows a computer in chains. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Irish health system says it’s targeted in ransomware attack

Health care systems have been a target before

A woman wearing a mask talks on her phone near an exhibition depicting a rover in Mars in Beijing on Friday, May 14, 2021. China says its Mars probe and accompanying rover are to land on the red planet sometime between early Saturday morning and Wednesday Beijing time. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
China Mars rover to land between Saturday and Wednesday

Only the United States has successfully landed a spacecraft on Mars

Smoke rises following Israeli airstrikes on a building in Gaza City, Thursday, May 13, 2021. Weary Palestinians are somberly marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, as Hamas and Israel traded more rockets and airstrikes and Jewish-Arab violence raged across Israel. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)
Palestinians flee as Israeli artillery pounds northern Gaza

Israel called up 9,000 reservists as fighting intensifies

Bo’s Bar and Grill owner Brennen Wowk said the hospitality industry is looking for more clarity from the province around what conditions must be met to allow for restaurants reopening. (Advocate file photo)
Frustated restaurant owners want to know government’s reopening plan

Restaurant owners feel they are in lockdown limbo

A used protective face mask is seen discarded on the ground in Vancouver, B.C. in May 2020. (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Medical exception letters required for Albertans who don’t wear masks in public areas

EDMONTON — Alberta has moved to close loopholes people might use as… Continue reading

Team Canada’s head coach Troy Ryan talks with players before the start of the of the Rivalry Series at the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, February 3, 2020. Ryan of Spryfield, N.S., has been named head coach of Canada’s women’s hockey team for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Troy Ryan to coach Canadian women’s hockey team in 2022 Winter Olympics

Ryan was Canada’s assistant coach from 2016 to 2019

FILE- In this April 19, 2021, file photo, people wearing masks as a precaution against the coronavirus wait to test for COVID-19 at a hospital in Hyderabad, India. Misinformation about the coronavirus is surging in India as the death toll from COVID-19 rises. Fueled by anguish, distrust and political polarization, the claims are further compounding India’s crisis. (AP Photo/Mahesh Kumar A, File)
Misinformation surges amid India’s COVID-19 calamity

Distrust of Western vaccines and health care also driving misinformation

FILE - In this Friday March 6, 2020, file photo, Britain’s Prince Harry visits the Silverstone Circuit, in Towcester, England. In an episode of the “Armchair Expert” podcast broadcast Thursday, May 13, 2021, Prince Harry compared his royal experience to being on “The Truman Show” and “living in a zoo.” (Peter Nicholls/Pool Photo via AP, File)
Prince Harry thought about quitting royal life in his 20s

Feared his family would have to deal with the same spotlight that was on his late mother

Opinion
Mental health: Gossiping, backbiting and forming factions is unhealthy

We all know of dysfunctional organizations, which can be as troublesome as… Continue reading

Family practice physician Christina Tuomi, D.O., (right) gets Homer's first dose of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine from Emergency Department nurse Steve Hughes (left) on Thursday, Dec. 17, 2020 at South Peninsula Hospital in Homer, Alaska. Tuomi has been the hospital's medical lead throughout the pandemic. (Photo courtesy Derotha Ferraro/South Peninsula Hospital)
Alberta physicians: Vaccines are our path forward

As the AMA representatives for Alberta’s family physicians, we were immensely relieved… Continue reading

Vancouver Canucks' Nils Hoglander, right, is checked by Calgary Flames goalie Jacob Markstrom during third-period NHL hockey action in Calgary, Thursday, May 13, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Lindholm, Tkachuk lead Calgary Flames in 4-1 win over Vancouver Canucks

Lindholm, Tkachuk lead Calgary Flames in 4-1 win over Vancouver Canucks

Most Read