Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
The spread of COVID-19 continues to have an impact on the world, resulting in widespread travel advisories, increased screening procedures at airports, quarantined communities and a heightened sense of awareness around health and hygiene.
The virus – a strain of coronavirus first discovered in Wuhan, China, in December – has steadily crossed geographic borders, with new cases popping up each day around the globe. Canada included.
What we know about COVID-19 is that the virus infects the nose, throat and lungs. Symptoms vary from mild to serious and most people will recover on their own – a daily count maintained by Johns Hopkins CSSE shows more than 64,000 recovered cases globally (compared to slightly more than 4,000 deaths).
COVID-19 presents medical, political and social challenges. However, the world has never had more tools to fight it, and contracting the virus isn’t as easy as some may think.
According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, to be considered high-risk for COVID-19, one must have direct physical contact with someone infected and be coughed or sneezed on by them; have touched one’s face after picking up a used tissue, or be in face-to-face contact, within two metres of someone, for more than 15 minutes. Those are among a few high-risk actions.
Simply walking past a stranger on the street doesn’t apply here.
"We have to stick together"
Still, the travel industry is one of many sectors taking a hit as the marketplace becomes increasingly nervous.
Reports of cruise ships being quarantined, or turned away from ports of call, have spun through the news in recent weeks as officials scramble to contain the virus.
Close to home, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) recommended on Monday (March 9th) that Canadians avoid all cruise ship travel due to COVID-19 concerns. The United States has issued a similar advisory.
Italy, which has more than 9,170 cases of COVID-19 (the most outside of Asia) has quarantined all of its 60 million citizens, restricting inbound and outbound transportation as a result.
In a recent survey of more than 400 of its members, the Association Of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA) found that COVID-19 was "most definitely" having an effect on the travel industry, proving that "consumers are concerned not just about Asia [where the virus originated] but in particular about cruising and about travel in general.”
It is, understandably, a frustrating and problematic time for business.
However, leaders in Canada’s travel industry are remaining strong and optimistic, stressing the importance of working together to overcome the obstacles.
“As an industry, we have to stick together more than ever,” Louise Fecteau, director general of Transat Distribution Canada (TDC), tells PAX.
In the wake of COVID-19, many suppliers have begun offering promos that give travellers the ability to waive penalties for date and destination changes and, in some cases, the freedom to cancel a trip altogether with full credit.
While flexible options may indeed help ease consumer anxiety, it is travel advisors who are at the forefront of mitigating the situation with consumers, Fecteau says.
“They are in a better position than anyone to properly guide their clients,” Fecteau says, calling travel advisors an “important force.”
So, what can travel advisors do to effectively curb the industry impact of COVID-19?
1. Don’t panic. You’re a pro.
“Every few years it seems we are faced with a crisis, but we remain positive, professional, and most importantly, we adapt to the issue at hand,” says Zeina Gedeon, CEO of Travel Professionals International (TPI). “Now is the time to show the value of booking with a travel professional!” Not giving into hysteria is key, especially as the news seemingly gets worse every day. “We have been through many crises before and have survived all of them and have even become stronger as an industry,” says Jim Osborne, vice president of air and distribution at Travel Edge. “Travel advisors are here to stay. Being the best advocate for your clients makes you stand out in the crowd.”
2. Get out there & secure those bookings
Now is the time for travel advisors to engage, says Flemming Friisdahl, founder of The Travel Agent Next Door. “This is when you want to start marketing and getting in front of clients,” Friisdahl says, noting how Canadians (many of whom have passports and are immigrants or have immigrant parents) tend to be more “in-tune” with understanding world events, and are likely still compelled to travel. Friisdahl urges advisors to be “confident when talking to clients that have booked” and explain the facts. “Don’t get facts off Facebook,” Friisdahl says. “Get them from reliable sources.” The Government of Canada, Infection Prevention and Control Canada (IPAC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) are all good starting places.
3. Call your clients. All of them.
Gregory Luciani, president and CEO of TravelOnly, urges advisors to maintain that “human connection” with clients. “This is an opportunity to get in front of this by calling every client,” says Luciani. “Reassure them that you’re there for them, that it’s still safe to travel, that you yourself are travelling.” If anything, now is the time to sell insurance, Luciani notes. “It’s a great opportunity to be the expert,” he says. “Anyone can look like a hero when things are going well. It’s how you act when things aren’t well is when your true character comes out.” Being accessible is key. “Don’t disappear from your clients,” Osborne adds. “Stay positive and encourage your customers to continue planning travel.” At the same time, Gedeon advises agents keep “honest and accurate facts and updates on hand” when speaking to clients about COVID-19.
4. Offer alternative destinations
Travel bans and advisories are becoming more common as countries try and prevent the spread of COVID-19. The Canadian government, for one, has issued advisories for regions heavily impacted by the virus, such as Hubei province, China, Iran, and Italy. While it’s important that travel agents inform their clients of all health and safety risks, “there’s always another place to go,” Luciani says. “The world is a giant, beautiful place.”
Re-routing clients to destinations unaffected by COVID-19 can potentially save a sale. “We are reminding our advisors to not be afraid of suggesting an alternate destination to their clients, allowing them to save their bookings and client's vacation plans,” Gedeon says. If a booking is in a safe destination, take a “wait and see” approach for any forward bookings your clients may want to cancel, Gedeon adds. “With the right precautions, travel can still be safe and uninterrupted," she says.
5. Keep your suppliers close
As mentioned, many suppliers have unveiled options for flexible fares and bookings. Agents can make the most of the situation by “using the tools put in place by the industry,” Fecteau says, applauding those suppliers who have “improved the condition” by offering options. It’s also important that advisors stay in touch with their partners as the COVID-19 situation unfolds. “Talk to your suppliers when you have questions,” Fecteau adds. A travel agent’s relationship with a preferred supplier is invaluable, Friisdahl notes. “Support them to the nth degree,” he says, “because they’ll be there for you during the tough times.”
6. Address the paranoia
With round-the-clock COVID-19 headlines and advisories in full swing, it’s easy to understand why some folks might be afraid to travel right now. “Don't diminish the fear,” Gedeon says. “Many clients have concerns. You are here to listen and proactively advise them on the facts. This reassurance will assist your client in making a decision they are comfortable with about their pending travel.” Understanding exactly why a client has decided to cancel a trip is also important. Was it out of fear? Is it a precaution? Does their destination actually have cases of COVID-19? “We have to talk to the paranoia,” Friisdahl says. “That’s the biggest thing we can do.”
7. Use free time to your advantage
If bookings slow down on account of COVID-19, use that time to get caught up on product knowledge, especially insurance, given the demand for it these days. “Understand your preferred travel insurance products and exactly what they cover,” Osborne advises. And if one does have a lot of free time, use it to “claim any unpaid commissions and update client databases,” Osborne adds.
8. Promote healthy habits
While there is currently no vaccine for COVID-19, there are many ways to avoid it and prevent it from spreading. The Government of Canada’s website lists many easy ways to reduce the risk of infection, such as proper handwashing, sanitizing surfaces and sneezing into your arm (and not your hand). Share these tips with your clients, whether they are travelling or not. “People appreciate that level of service,” Luciani says, noting the importance of educating clients as much as possible.
And be sure to practice your own good hygiene habits. Set an example. Only then can we all be part of the solution and not the problem.
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