'It's been absolute hell, quite frankly': Life as a travel agent during COVID-19

Instead of helping their clients plan a long awaited trip or a vacation of a lifetime, these days travel agents are working overtime trying to sort through myriad cancellations and closures, while trying to find ways home for overseas travellers.

They working long hours and sorting through a dizzying number of changes

Travellers wear masks as they walk through Montreal's Trudeau Airport. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Instead of helping their clients plan a long awaited trip or a vacation of a lifetime, these days travel agents are working overtime trying to sort through myriad cancellations and closures, while trying to find ways home for overseas travellers.

When COVID-19 began to spread, Lesley Keyter created a folder to keep track of the travel impacts as airlines, cruise ships, and other operators began announcing reduced service. As countries then began closing their borders, her folder was soon overwhelmed.

"Goodness me, they've changed so much all the time, so it's difficult to keep up," said Keyter, the owner of The Travel Lady Agency in Calgary.

She's often worked past midnight frantically trying to help large groups of travellers in Portugal, Spain and Italy find a way back to Canada.

"It's been absolute hell, quite frankly," she said. 

Her weekly newsletter showcasing the best travel deals won't include any advertisements in the latest edition, instead replaced with the most important information about travel restrictions.

Passengers are pictured at the Vancouver International Airport (YVR) in Richmond, B.C. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

On top of those stresses, she's dealing with the new financial reality for travel agents of late: very few new bookings and likely a difficult period of low revenue for several months to come.

"There is a concern what's going to happen further down the road, how long this is going to go," said Ken Stewart, the owner of Crowfoot Travel, which has been in business for 21 years.

Like many people, Stewart is working from his Calgary home as he self-isolates. Even travel agents are having to wait on hold with airlines to make flight changes and cancellations.

"We're on hold for multiple hours at times," he said. "It's an uncertain time, an unprecedented time especially for us in the travel industry with everything being shut down, borders being shut down, flights, cruises, pretty much everything being cancelled. It's something we just have to live with."

In the last 25 years, the travel industry has faced three significant slowdowns: during the SARS outbreak, the turmoil caused by the 9/11 attacks, and the financial crash in 2009. If history is any indication, the tourism slump will recover, no matter how terrible the slowdown becomes.

"The thing about travel is, it's such a resilient industry," said Greg Klassen, a partner at Twenty31 Consulting and the former head of the Canadian Tourism Commission (now Destination Canada). He remembers what happened to the industry after those challenging events.

"We had a down year, but the following year was not only recovery, but at record paces. Travellers had continued to travel with a vengeance. People love their trips, people love their vacations, people love to travel and I don't see that changing this time around either," he said.

Still, there will be changes. Some airlines and travel operators may not survive the downturn or they may not offer the same routes or services they did in the past.

Travelers arrive at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on March 16, 2020, moments after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a travel ban amidst efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The cruise ship industry will likely face the biggest challenge in luring travellers back, said Klassen, considering the challenges the sector has faced with COVID-19.

"I think cruise ships have a lot of catching up to when it comes to looking after passengers, the cleanliness perhaps of their ships and the way their filtration systems operate. But they are billion dollar corporations, they will figure this out," he said. "They will reinvent this industry for cruise ship travellers."

While travel outside of Canada is heavily restricted right now to limit the spread of the virus, some people are already making bookings for the end of the year or a vacation next year.

Keyter, with the Travel Lady Agency, hopes and expects there will be pent up demand.

"Honestly, it's hard to suppress that desire to travel," she said.

"Once we've reached the peak of this COVID crisis here and we're on the downturn, then people are going to be sitting back and saying, 'you know what, I've been in self-isolation. Get me the hell out of here.'"


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