Travel agents struggle to stay open after ‘devastating’ pandemic year without bookings

Travel agent Karen Weber has only booked four new trips since the pandemic started last March. It’s the same number of employees she once had.

She knew there was no way to make that math work. So she shut down her New Hamburg, Ont., travel agency, southwest of Kitchener, in January.

“It’s not the way I intended to end my career,” she said. “I don’t see any travel for a while.”

Weber worked for 34 years in travel, one of the industries hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Ontario alone, visits from the US and abroad in 2020 were down 84 per cent from the previous year. Destination Canada predicted a $19.4 billion shortfall in 2020 international visitor revenues.

The start of the pandemic was busy for travel agents, who were frantically working to get people home. Now a year on, with COVID restrictions still in place, many are making negative revenue and aren’t earning any commissions, as customers keep canceling and rebooking trips.

COVID-19 has been tough on all types of businesses but most have been able to make at least a little bit of money. Restaurants do take out. Shops sell online. For travel agents, there have been no new trips to book. (Haydn Watters/CBC)

Weber is winding down with a few of his clients, trying to get them refunds for travel credits. With just four insurance disputes to go, she’s nearly done.

At 70, she feels she was more or less ready for retirement anyway. She’s gotten plenty of well wishes, in emails, cards and people even stopping her on the street. She feels lucky to have good health and no debt or young children.

“There’s so many people that are in a way worse situation than I am.”

Bookings ‘dropped like a rock’

The Travel Industry Council of Ontario (TICO) oversees travel agents and tour operators in the province, as regulatory oversight.

Membership numbers show a significant drop between the end of 2019 and 2020, with 186 fewer registrants.

TICO president Richard Smart said the drop was not all necessarily because of COVID-19, but it was a huge factor. He figures 80 to 90 per cent of travel agents in Ontario are small businesses with five or six employees. (CBC)

Closures in the past year include a mix of small businesses like Weber’s, and branches for big travel chains like Flight Center and Carlson Wagonlit.

“It has been devastating,” said Richard Smart, TICO’s president and CEO. “Future bookings basically dropped like a rock, right through to now.”

It’s hard to predict when travel will rebound, given so much uncertainty with variants, vaccine rollout and questions about what other countries will allow when the world starts to relax travel restrictions. But Smart’s team has been running forecast modeling.

He knows there was a pent up travel demand after past crises, like 9/11, SARS and the 2008 global recession. He continues to be conservative with his estimates, and doesn’t expect a full travel industry recovery until 2023 or 2024 in Canada. He said we are more risk-averse than other countries.

“It’s going to be a slower re-engagement rate than other countries,” he said. “When it does turn on, just watch out. I mean, travel’s going to take off.”

Travel agent telling people not to travel

Government support programs, such as the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) and the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), have allowed Dana Omstead and his wife Helga to keep their travel agency open. They run Migrations Travel, in Palgrave, Ont., near Orangeville.

Still, Omstead has cut the number of employees from six to three and is considering if he still needs a physical storefront office. He would normally be arranging tour groups to go on riverboat cruises and safaris, booking years in advance.

Instead, he’s spent the past year actively discouraging travel.

Travel agent Dana Omstead, right, is really banking on vaccines for work. He’s got customers booked for river cruises in Europe as early as this September. They were supposed to go last September. (Submitted by Dana Omstead)

“It’s been a difficult time telling people not to travel but in the end, it’s the right thing to do until it’s safe,” he said. “It’s been like being thrown lemons and trying our best to make limoncello.”

Meanwhile, he and his wife are running an online travel night they call Gourmet Globetrotting. They pick a country and match it with a movie, drink, food and a virtual travel tour. For example, their UK night saw them sipping martinis and eating fish and chips while watching James Bond.

The pandemic prompted the largest, most elaborate repatriation of stranded Canadians outside of full-scale war. (Sam Nar/CBC)

Omstead is trying to make a go of it because he and his wife love what they do.

“Obviously if we’re going to continue to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars on an annual basis, we’re not going to be in business,” he said.

“We are confident that it will come back. It’s just a matter of how long and how much we are prepared to lose.”