Was it really that bad?
It’s amazing to look back on this COVID journey and see just how the world can revolve on a dime in a very short period of time.
Let’s start by looking into the past. January 25, 2020, the first official case of COVID-19 was reported in Canada, not too long after it was identified in Wuhan China on December 31, 2019. The world was blissfully unaware of the planetary besiege that was about to take place. This “flu-like” virus was slowly spreading with cases being reported worldwide, and by mid March 2020, COVID-19 was widely being identified and scrutinized and the travel industry was just beginning to experience its impact.
I recall a conversation with a client in late February. They were looking to go to Vegas but were unsure whether this “flu” would impact their trip. I remember thinking about it and mentioning to them that that there would be no way to predict that, but that it would “have to pretty bad to shut down Vegas”. Only a few days after that I called them and recommended that they not travel. That was my first encounter with what would soon be a deluge of cancellations in my office.
Early March 2020, I had gathered in Vancouver for a travel conference with many colleagues from BC and with suppliers from across the country. The endemic nature of COVID-19 was a huge part of the conversations and how, as an industry, we were going to “manage” it. We knew it would have an impact on the travel industry, but no one could have predicted the scale of that impact. We spoke about how the cancellations of flights, hotels, car rentals, all inclusive vacations, cruises, guided tours and FIT Tours would be devastating for the travel industry. We talked about each client that we so carefully research for, prepare and ultimately send on their way to experience that so much needed time for rejuvenation that travel brings, could lose everything and we would be the ones fielding their frustrations.
I returned home from the conference, unpacked that small suitcase and was ready to pack a larger one. I was scheduled to jet off to Tahiti to begin my dream cruise on March 20, 2020. However, on March 11 we made the decision to cancel that cruise. I was heartbroken. Just like so many others. Just like you.
At the time all this was coming to the forefront, I had 38 active vacation files and 19 active flights only clients traveling over the next 6 months. By March 20, I had received phone call after phone call, email after email pleading for information, pleading for help and I began the arduous task of cancelling each and every one of them.
3 months. In 3 short months the world’s stage became a tragedy.
With this all too sudden deluge, suppliers we use to confirm vacation plans became overwhelmed. It became next to impossible to reach them on the phone and emails were bouncing back with warnings of incredible 2 week-wait periods before the emails could be answered and dealt with. Call back wait times by phone was a minimum of 16 hours!
Yet, I felt so compelled to work endless hours to come to the aid of each of my valued clients. I had to become very creative since I couldn’t reach suppliers. I had one family group leaving Prince George for Hawaii the day before WestJet was to cease operations. Since there was no way to reach WestJet Vacations, I took the back door approach. I first called the airport somewhere around 9:00 pm and cancelled their flights, so they wouldn’t be charged as “no shows”. Then I asked the agent at the airport to put a note on their file that their vacation plans could not continue as the flights were being cancelled, (this information was needed for their insurance claim) and then I went through another back door – a reservation system that we don’t use for booking, but we can call up invoicing on. I cancelled their vacation portion using that portal. Everything cancelled – all was good. Fortunately, they were holding an insurance policy and I activated a claim on their behalf.
I had another family going to Cancun with Sunwing. Same back door, different supplier. Same impossible outcome miraculously achieved. They opted for future travel credit.
Soon after that began the constant continual changes from suppliers…first, no refunds, then refunds, then no refunds, only credit notes, then credit notes only valid for one year, then credit notes valid for 2 years, but only on base fares – taxes were not included, and clients would have to pay those out separately. Then, suppliers realized their error in judgement and put that back in for refund. Every day there was a change, and this continued for months.
It was impossible to keep up with the changes. For me, I just dealt with each file as they came up, one by one. I tackled them according to final payment date and travel date. The media did not help. They came out with half stories and half truths, making an impossible situation even graver. Within 3 weeks, every one of my client’s files had been taken care of, some getting a refund, some taking a future travel credit, some seeking insurance claims. Every day began at 7:00 am and ended at 9:00 pm. I wasn’t eating well, sleeping at all and stress had its grip on my life.
There was so much anger and frustration and disappointment that just couldn’t be contained. Some of my clients handled it with poise and gratitude for the work I was doing of their behalf, some did not, it was too much for them to endure.
Travel Professionals, like myself, get paid from suppliers when people travel – sometimes, we get paid after people get back. So, imagine this now, 38 active vacation files ranging from relatively simple all-inclusive vacations to multi-leg river cruises to extended tours throughout Europe to ocean cruises (around the South Pacific and French Polynesia) and 19 active flights all cancelled. Financially, I was devastated. Thankfully, I work as a home-based agent, and I have very little overhead. However, over those three endless weeks, I had lost everything. What was my most promising January and February in my 18+ years as a Travel Professional, came crashing down to zero. But more financial devastation was to come. As travelers sought out insurance claims and claw backs from their credit card companies, suppliers called back monies that had been paid to me and I took an even more dangerous financial loss that continued for another six months. To add to that, in order to keep my Travel Professional licensing, I had to pay my Provincial and Hosting Fees.
As 2020 continued, travel all but came to a complete stop. Insurance companies were no longer offering insurance coverages for those choosing to travel. My office phone rang only occasionally for those looking for more assistance for insurance claims and for answers about COVID-19 and travel in general. As we moved into 2021 there was the occasional glimpse of normalcy where people would ask about travel but didn’t really want to commit to anything as there was still so much uncertainty. Country after country blocked travelers from entering, some closing their borders completely.
Moving further into 2021 we find the hope in a vaccination – two little shots. I can tell you that when I sat in the chair with the doctor who was to give me my shot and listened to his explanation of what to expect, I felt hope for the first time in what seems like an eternity. I just couldn’t stop smiling. I was part of the solution, not part of the problem.
We have most certainly been on a roller coaster ride. It’s August 2021 now. 20 months have passed us by. We have been in lockdown, out of lockdown, we have been masked, unmasked and masked again. We have been barred and unbarred from leaving the country and entering other countries.
But we still live in so much uncertainty and confusion. What should be a simple flight, is not. What vaccine is accepted to where I am flying to? Where can I get my COVID-19 tests taken? What other measures will I face when I fly? Do I have enough time to navigate through the airports now that there is enhanced security in place? These are just some of the questions that need research now. Vacation packages and cruises require a lot more research. Every country entered has its own requirements that must be met. This is now my new normal and I am as dedicated to offering my clients exceptional service and accurate information as I was before this madness began.
Now, as the world vaccinates and borders slowly re-open with new measures in place, there is a hope again. We long to travel again. We long to feel the gentle breezes, the warm waters, the ancient cultures, the freedom, and renewal of spirit. We long for travel. As we draw to the end of 2021 and move into 2022, a new era begins. I’ll be traveling to Huatulco, Mexico for two weeks and getting first-hand experience there. I have rescheduled my cruise through French Polynesia – but this time I’ll be cruising the Greek Islands. And as soon as the borders between Canada and Japan reopen, I’ll be jetting off to Japan to visit with my son, daughter in law and grandson who I have not seen for 3 years.
I’ll be here always for you, too. When you are ready – I’ll be here. I’ll be here to answer your questions, to take away the fear and confusion. Your job is just to go away on vacation, leave the rest to me.
Was COVID-19 really that bad? Yes. It was and it is. We’ll be living with this for awhile, and it will continue to impact our private and social life. It will continue to impact the travel industry as a whole.
Safe travels everyone. When you are ready – call me. I’m ready to help you experience this beautiful world once again.