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Travel agents busy at work at their desks, given a post-COVID surge in demand from old and new clients. Photo: North South Travel

After pandemic lull, travel agents see promising resurgence

COVID-fuelled booking woes and risk aversion push new clients to travel agencies

By Husein Haveliwala , in City , on November 25, 2023

As the general manager of a travel agency, Liz Fleming had to make some tough calls during the COVID-19 pandemic. She wanted to keep her long-term travel agents employed, especially as they scrambled to assist clients in difficult travel situations. But with the agency’s income stream practically dried up, there was no way to pay them. 

Liz Fleming, general manager at North South Travel. Photo: North South Travel

Then, a ray of hope finally shone through with travel restrictions easing starting 2022. Travel advisers in Canada reported a surge of pent-up demand, which has only continued rising through 2023.

“It was like a floodgate just opened. Most people I’ve talked to say they’re pretty much back to pre-pandemic levels of sales,” said Fleming, general manager of North South Travel, a boutique travel agency in Vancouver that specializes in customized luxury travel planning and corporate travel management.

Across the country, the industry is making steady headway towards pre-pandemic numbers. Canadian travel agencies more than doubled their operating revenue in 2022, reaching $1.8 billion, from a low of $800 million in 2021, according to recent data from Statistics Canada. In fact, travel agencies nearly broke even in the last year, with a profit margin of -0.1 per cent.

The post-pandemic world has ushered in a whole new set of travel trends and styles, spawning new buzzwords like “bucket list travel,” “greatest of all trips,” and “revenge travel,” agents have observed. The common thread among all of these is the urge to go all out with trips to make up for lost time, along with a newfound zest for life. Travellers increasingly want to splurge on flight upgrades and nicer hotels.

Another post-pandemic outcome for the travel industry has been the number of people making use of travel agencies for the first time. New clients, scarred by experiences involving cancellations and refunds, are turning to travel agents for their expertise, knowledge, and personal touch.

“When you book online, you’re on your own and have to directly deal with whoever you booked with,” says Heather Snedden, a Vancouver travel agent working with pan-Canadian retail travel chain Marlin Travel.

“The hold times for Air Canada at one point were six hours. People just don’t want to deal with that themselves anymore,” said Snedden, who has over 20 years of experience. “Other than travel insurance, travel agents are one of your best investments while travelling.”

Scott Peters, PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University. Photo: Scott Peters

This upsurge in the first-time use of travel agents post-pandemic is part of a larger shift in consumer behaviour, with safety becoming a top priority in the travel sector.

“People have less of a tolerance for risk than they might have had three or four years ago,” says Scott Peters, a PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University with a focus on tourism post-COVID. He believes that having a travel agent may offer people a sense of security in their travel purchases, particularly if something goes wrong.

The phenomenon can also be attributed to basic economic principles. As the demand for travel returned, supply was slow to follow, according to Marion Joppe, professor emerita at the University of Guelph’s school of hospitality, food and tourism management. Travellers had trouble finding flights, rental cars, and accommodation themselves. According to Joppe, the pandemic made the value of travel agents clear to people.

The COVID-19 pandemic was not the first time the travel industry has been hit badly. It has made it across peaks and valleys over the years– through natural calamities, acts of terrorism, health crises and more. With travellers hitting the road again in droves, members of this resilient industry are slowly returning to a semblance of normalcy.

While leisure travel has made a comeback, the corporate side has not been quite as quick to recover. This is possibly due to some caution on the part of corporations especially in terms of conference travel, according to Fleming. Looking to the future, she says, “I do think we’ll see a rise in corporate travel in 2024. People just want that human connection again.”