Call Mike Foster an eternal optimist. The president of Nexion Canada says COVID is the biggest disruption he’s seen in his 41 years in the travel business, but he still believes the crisis may lead to changes that are ultimately beneficial for the travel counsellor community.
And it’s a feeling in which he says he’s not alone, with the London, Ont. travel agent noting that he’s seen a surprising amount of interest from others about joining the profession since the pandemic took hold in March causing devastation of the industry, including a near complete shutdown of international travel.
A long-time industry activist and board member for both ACTA and TICO, Foster says he’s seen the interest bubbling beyond his own host agency, which counts about 5,000 members in the US and Canada, and is itself a member of the Travel Leaders Network. (Nexion is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2020).
“It’s been really interesting – we’ve seen more and more people who are looking to enter the industry today. I shouldn’t be surprised, this is perhaps the best time ever to enter the industry in my view – it’s a great opportunity for people are who are new to the industry.”
“Also, for people who are interested in becoming independent contractors for the first time or switching host agencies, I believe this is the best time ever to make that change.”
One reason, Foster says, is that agents are being shown to be an essential part of the travel experience – to both their clients and suppliers.
“The advisor will never be more valued than when we come out of this. I think the advice of dealing with a human being rather than directly with suppliers or with an online agency have really shown the value of a human being agent,” he says.
“Just talk to any consumer out there who booked a trip this year on their own and has had to navigate the changing cancellation fees on their own,” adds Nexion president Jackie Friedman. “We’re seeing just an increased awareness overall in travel advisors with these people who have had (extra time while staying at home) to learn how to go there,” she says.
The experience of doing business during the pandemic will also prompt agents to change the way they do business by taking control of the fees they charge (including adding cancellation fees), says Foster. “I think agents have always thought that they should be charging fees, but now they’re actually jumping in and doing it because of all the things that have happened and, in some cases, their clients actually empathize with them. “Agents are feeling more confident, they’re feeling better about themselves and I think you’re going to see more fees. I think we will be better compensated than ever before.”
He adds he even believes there’s a potential for increased commissions from suppliers.
Despite being “heartened” by the new blood coming into the industry during the pandemic, Foster laments the enforced layoffs for many travel agents and decisions by some industry veterans to retire early rather than rebuild, which will ultimately leave fewer agents when it’s all said and done. But those remaining “will have even more value,” he says.
Back to basics
Meanwhile, in the here and now, Foster says agents have the opportunity to use the downtime to do things they otherwise wouldn’t have the time to do. For example, he says, “I think it’s probably the best time ever to revisit your current business. It’s hard to fix your plane while you’re flying – and we’re on the tarmac now.”
To that end, agencies should consider re-evaluating their niches, marketing plans, assess websites, and clean up databases, he says. “(This time) is terrific for those who are active in the business and planning on staying in the business and just stepping back and looking at ways (to) go from here.”
Of course, there is also time for training – to both learn new things or simply update one’s knowledge, whether it’s taking or completing specialist programs, attending virtual events, or engaging with suppliers.
“One of the good things out of the pandemic, if you can say that, is that our suppliers are engaged and really have the time and energy to connect with agents,” observes Foster. “It’s been really good for agents who want to connect with suppliers – they’ve got this opportunity that they may never have had before to really engage with them.”
He acknowledges, “There’s been less supplier support around,” but adds, “They’ve been very good.”
Meanwhile, while joking that her “crystal ball is still in the shop,” Friedman says what she does know is that “People can’t wait till they can travel again, there really is pent-up demand.”
She acknowledges that it may be “several years” before a return to 2019’s heady tourism numbers and that no one knows when full travel will return, but she notes that travellers are taking trips closer to home, and are beginning to return to the Caribbean and Mexico, and increasingly doing so in small “travel pods” of family and friends.
Cruising is also continuing to generate strong interest and enthusiasm as clients continue to book and rebook in anticipation of the day that they can get can on a ship again (likely Q2, 2021), she says, adding that the health and safety measures being implemented by cruise lines now “should make cruising one of the safest ways to travel.”
As for retail travel, Friedman says, “Our industry and the people in our industry are resilient and they have a passion, and that passion doesn’t go away.”
The Nexion boss, for example, points to the 1,200-plus delegates at its CoNexion at Home event late last week, despite the annual conference having had to be held virtually. And its September 2021 cruise conference sold out in less than 70 hours.
“Definitely, I have a bright outlook on the future of our industry,” says Friedman. “And there’s definitely a bright future ahead for those (agents) who can stick it out.”
Source: Travel Industry Today
BRIGHT SPOTS:Nexion sees hopeful signs for agents