P.E.I. travel agents struggle to stay open as pandemic restrictions drag on

·4 min read

Travel agents on P.E.I. are anxiously waiting for the world to reopen and for people to travel again, but for now many offices are closed due to pandemic restrictions and a drop in business.

Travis Stewart has been in the travel business since 1993, and is co-owner of Stewart Travel Group, a company he runs with his wife Paula Stewart. They do regular travel bookings as well as organized tours.

"There's definitely a lot of folks that are out of the business, even around Charlottetown and I'm sad," said Stewart.

His company has 19 travel advisers who work throughout the Maritimes, booking trips for those who live throughout Canada as well as some international customers.

The Stewarts have tapped into federal programs for help and right now they are mainly helping people rebook trips on travel credits, and assisting with insurance claims.

"It's very difficult to have some generating revenue," said Stewart.

Laura Meader/CBC
Laura Meader/CBC

He said travel credits have already paid commission, so handling rebookings doesn't provide new income to travel agents.

Friday March 13 still stands out in his mind — when the pandemic restrictions began and borders started closing, sending many travellers scrambling to get home.

"Probably was one of the worst days in travel that I've ever experienced," said Stewart.

Layoffs and closed offices

Paulette Soloman, owner of The Travel Store, said her business has been affected substantially, She has closed an office in downtown Charlottetown and other offices have closed to the public, with about a dozen staff laid off.

"There's essentially no travel going on, and that's what we do, we book travel for people," said Soloman.

Laura Meader/CBC
Laura Meader/CBC

Like Stewart, Soloman said her staff have been busy with rebooking trips and insurance claims, neither of which generate much revenue.

She said there was a rush of business in the spring and summer to handle trip cancellations and there are still claims outstanding.

Soloman said most agents are working from home when needed to deal with claims.

"There's still no good sense when travel will open up again," she said.

Commission and service fee challenges

Soloman said travel agency organizations across the country have been lobbying government to protect travel agency commissions, which might be involved in refunds.

It's the commissions and service fees that sustain the travel agencies, she said.

Laura Meader/CBC
Laura Meader/CBC

She said in some cases she has had to refund commissions and that's hard since they can date back several months.

Soloman said some agents are very hard hit and many are trying to hold out as long as they can, but it can be hard depending on personal circumstances.

"A big concern of ours is that we will lose people from the industry," she said.

One positive, though, is that it's allowed her to look at the big picture for her business and planning for the future.

Right now, she plans to stick it out, and hopes there's enough government support to help small travel industry businesses until people want to travel again.

"I do worry many days, but I'm also very optimistic," she said.

'Working on hope'

When the pandemic first hit, Stewart thought the restrictions would last a few months, but now it appears they'll continue up to, and possibly beyond, the one year mark.

"We're working basically on hope," he said.

Stewart said he knows some travel businesses have closed, and at others, staff have decided to pursue other work.

"It's been a very stressful time for the travel industry," he said, pointing to the many unknowns with airline companies, and frequent changes to flights and travel restrictions.

Slow turnaround

He believes business will slowly turn around, with bookings starting to pick up by this summer for individual travel. Some group tour bookings are already starting for later this year and into next year, he said.

Stewart believes all the travel challenges of the pandemic have highlighted the importance of having an agent that you can call when you need help, so he is optimistic the industry will rebound.

For now, he's spending a lot of time planning for 2022.

"I think it's going to be a great thing when things change," he said. "We're not going to take it for granted."

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