September 27, 2022

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COVID: travel agents brace for end to federal assistance programs

A pickup in demand for post-pandemic travel doesn’t mean travel agents who haven’t been paid for the past 16 months will see an immediate boost in revenue

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Port Coquitlam travel agent Barbara Young has been busy through the pandemic, even with the shutdown of leisure travel over the past 16 months.


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The catch is most of her work has been handling cancellations, securing refunds and rebooking clients, work that is unpaid or won’t be paid for until those clients travel, which could be up to a year from now.

That reality of the business has Young and agents across the industry worried about the wind-down of federal business assistance programs such as the Canada emergency wage and rent subsidies, which are scheduled to end in September.

“I kind of feel that it’s a shame that they’ve supported us to this point, and yet we still have six months to go,” before starting to see significant revenue, Young said.

“It almost feels like, you know, maybe we should have quit a year ago,” she added.

While Young is more positive now that things will turn around, the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies warns that a big chunk of its membership remains at risk without an extension of federal assistance programs until at least November.


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The association counted 800 agencies that had closed their doors by the end of March, and an industry survey estimated that 75 per cent of them “will not be able to survive to the end of the year without maximum support,” according to Heather Craig-Petty, vice-president of advocacy and member relations.

Craig-Petty delivered that message in a video statement on the association’s website that is central to the agency’s lobbying campaign to pressure the federal government by writing to their MPs.

As of March, Craig-Petty said, 90 per cent of Canada’s 24,000 travel agents were on employment insurance or the Canada Recovery Benefit, which is one of the programs that Ottawa is trying to end.

The wage and rent-subsidy programs were due to decline to 60 per cent, from 75 per cent, as of July 4 and decline again to 40 per cent Aug. 1, and then 20 per cent Aug. 29 before fading out Sept. 25.


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And the Canada Recovery Benefit drops from $900 after taxes to $540 after taxes for a two-week period starting July 18 and is also due to end Sept. 25.

In conjunction with those programs, government did institute the Canada Recovery Hiring Program and a more accessible financing program for small business that allows loans to cover operating expenses as well as startup costs, said Katherine Cuplinskas, a spokesperson for the federal finance minister.

Cuplinskas added that as part of the government bailout to airlines, it ensured that travel agents would be able to keep commissions for cancelled flights. But not all airlines are taking part in the program.

“If the assistance programs aren’t extended, there’s going to be businesses that will fail,” said Sue Urie, business solutions manager for the Travel Leaders Network, a consortium of agencies, “that will just not have enough to draw on to keep them afloat.”


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The irony is that agents who are still at work have been incredibly busy keeping up with rapidly changing rules for travelling during the pandemic, such as varying testing requirements from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and what is acceptable proof of vaccination.

“Clients have many, many, many more questions to ask than they’ve ever had to ask,” Urie said, and “they’re going to a travel professional to get those answers.”

Now, as travel demand has started to rise, Urie said agents can spend hours on the phone, waiting on hold with providers, to complete functions for clients that can’t be done online.

“What’s happening now is a bit of a dilemma,” Urie said. “Everybody in the business is short-staffed right now, (but) these people have not earned anything for the last 16 months.


“You know the bounceback is coming, but you have to appreciate that the surge today doesn’t mean people are travelling tomorrow. Generally, these people aren’t travelling en masse until 2022.”



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