Changing Times Mean Tour Operators Need Advisors as Much as Everby Dori Saltzman /
For many suppliers, travel advisors are their primary source of business and there’s no evidence of that changing.
In fact, if the COVID-19 pandemic taught the travel industry anything, it’s that advisors are needed, and not only by the travelers who relied on advisors to get them home when they were stuck overseas. During the shutdown, suppliers depended on advisors to act as the middleman, to communicate policies, to cancel and rebook (often multiple times), and to stay in touch with clients in order to be better able to react when demand rebounded.
“You guys are so important to our business,” Marigold Frontuna, general manager, sales, Western Canada for Air Canada Vacations, told attendees at Travel Market Report’s Travel Market Place West conference, held earlier this month in Vancouver. “Other people are ‘we want to go direct,’ but that’s definitely not the model we’re going after.”
Frontuna said travel advisors drive 80% of Air Canada Vacations’ business, adding ACV relies on advisors to understand the Air Canada Vacation product and value proposition and communicate it to their customers.
“You guys are a good source of information… especially now that the world has changed. Traveling is different and we’re going to rely on you to be an extension of our voice. You’re very important.”
Carla Brake, director of business, development for the Globus family of brands, agreed. Across the company’s brands, Brake said advisors account for 90% of their business, which she attributed to the agency community’s ability to act as a guide to ensure travelers find the right product in a sea of options.
“There are a lot of questions that come in and that’s where your value comes in. They need you to guide them and I don’t think that’s going to change. The pandemic brought to life the value of the travel agent that much more,” she said.
Travel advisors drive a bit less of G Adventures’ business – about 70% – but Erin Rogers, national sales manager for Canada at G Adventures, agreed wholeheartedly with Frontuna and Brake.
“We need you to be that first point marketing tool for us,” she said. “We really need you to introduce your clients to our style of travel for the first time… It’s why we pay commission and it’s also why we love you so much.”
Panel moderator Brian Israel, TMR associate publisher, pointed out that not only do tour operators need the agency community as much as ever, the two are more alike than one might at first assume. Both had to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by pivoting and making changes they might, otherwise, never have made.
“As much as COVID has brought a lot of disheartening things to our industry, we also had to look at opportunities,” Air Canada Vacations’ Frontuna told the audience.
For ACV, it was learning to react and make decisions quicker. “That was one of the things we really had to adapt to, we need to react… you’re never ever going to know all the facts whatever the scenario is, so make a decision. Once you measure the results, you can always course correct along the way.”
At G Adventures and the Globus family of brands, learning to be more flexible was their big takeaway.
“Within our business, we needed to become more flexible,” Rogers said, referring both to the company’s terms and conditions, as well as how they operate their tours.
G Adventures, for example, implemented a rebooking policy that lets clients cancel and rebook up to 14 days prior to travel. “Which logistically is crazy to think about because the chances of us re-selling that spot in 14 days is pretty slim,” she said.
But it was what consumers needed.
As for their tours, G Adventures had to learn how to be nimble to adapt to changing regulations, like being able to ensure travelers, while on their tour, can get the testing they need to get back to their home country.
At Globus, flexibility was also important. So was having open conversations, Brake said.
“None of us have ever experienced anything like this before. So in working with partners, with advisors, it was open conversations. How can we help you? How can we help each other? What was needed?”
Many of the answers to those questions inspired suppliers to invest in technology in ways they hadn’t before. For instance, Brake said, no one wanted paper brochures anymore, because no one wanted to touch anything. Globus turned to digital channels, like email and their agency portal to provide information about itineraries.
The company also had to find ways to communicate policy changes and itinerary suspensions to advisors more rapidly. Again, technology played a role.
“From our side of things, it’s allowed us to be more accessible… that [the agency portal] became such a wealth of information for everyone, we were able to put everything there as it happened,” Brake said.
Frontuna agreed. “It definitely was a bridge to connect with people without in-person contact,” she said. “It allows us to increase our engagement with the customers… it allows us to communicate a lot faster to you.”
G Adventures turned to technology to bring “tours to the consumer,” Rogers said. The company offered “virtual tours” with their CEO and tour guides explaining what it’s like to do a G Adventures tour in destinations around the world.
The panelists also agreed that technology has allowed travel advisors to be more self-sufficient, pointing out that there are lots of things they can get done on the agency portals without the help of a call center rep.
“I’m going to go there,” Frontuna joked with the audience. “It’s allowed us to enhance our technology so that you can better serve yourself because we know that the wait times out there are painful. There are many things that you can complete on your own to self-serve, freeing up the phone lines for agents who have legitimate needs to get through to us.”
Rogers echoed Frontuna, pointing out that the G Adventures agent portal has a live chat function that can get answers to questions or help with rebooking faster than if they try to reach out to the call center.
A Behind the Scenes Look at Supplier Cancellations
One of the most difficult aspects of the past couple of years has been the steady cancellation of tours by suppliers. These required rebooking, often multiple times, all without any compensation for travel advisors.
Moderator Israel asked panelists to speak about what’s going on behind the scenes when a cancellation decision is made.
“Our number one motto is happy guests, so we want to make sure the experience that we are offering is what the guest is expecting,” Globus’ Brake said. “When we do suspend trips, it’s not because we want to. It’s not that we want to take anything away from you or your client. It’s just that it’s not going to be the right vacation.”
Rogers added that running a tour in a destination is logistically complicated. When the logistics don’t line up, there’s no point in trying to operate a tour – that’s assuming the local government would even allow them in.
“When it comes down to determining what destinations we operate, there are so many factors that we have to consider, to the point that our operations and product team came up with a 65-page document that is our internal checklist that we have to go through to make sure that everything is in line before we reopen that destination.”
Things G Adventures looks at are vaccination rates, are guides vaccinated, and is there readily available access to medical supplies and facilities if a guest does contract COVID-19. Another question they ask, are the small, local communities that G Adventures operates in, even open to having international travelers?
“Not everyone wanted travelers back as quickly as we wanted to get back out there,” she added.