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.”

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