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Revenge of the Travellers

Easing restrictions see increased outbound and inbound tourism for Edmontonians

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There’s nothing better than the thrill of an upcoming vacation. That is, unless a pandemic puts the kibosh on it. As global restrictions are lifting, Albertans find themselves with a major travel itch. It’s a scenario Hidar Elmais, Travel Gurus founder, calls “revenge travel.”

“A lot of people have built up their vacation days, Albertans are ready to travel again and they deserve it,” says Elmais. “It’s beautiful for us to see them de-stressing, returning happy and excited, bonded with family outside the home, and with a changed perspective when they return.”

The demand, combined with an ongoing environment of uncertainty, has travel agents working overtime. “Many people are not fully aware of the world we’re living in right now with exorbitant gas prices, inflation and so many future travel plans already booked,” says Elmais. “They’re looking for certain deals that just aren’t there right now and won’t be for at least a couple years until this current backlog of future travel vouchers and revenge travel that we’re seeing ease off.”

How did we arrive here? Back in 2019, Travel Gurus was in a steady growth stage. However, “Over the past couple years, it’s been a never-ending roller coaster ride for all travel agents,” says Elmais. “Going back to March of 2020, our first job was simply getting people home. Then, we worked to secure refunds from airlines and hotels, all the while earning no income.”

Agents worked to rebook travel plans only to have them canceled time and again. They were also servicing essential travel in conditions Elmais describes as “the worst of times,” with a lack of flight options and ongoing restrictions. “Even now, we continue to have restrictions to stay on top of and new rules that change every day.”

As travel looks to finally open up, Travel Gurus continue to do record-making business. November of 2021 was their biggest month in 10 years’ history. While December saw a drop-off due to travel bans, 2022 saw a massive uptick.

“We said, ‘wow, if this is how it’s going to be, we better get ready,’ and we’re actively recruiting more agents,” says Elmais. “Over January, February and March of 2022, we’re at least 10 times over the business we were doing one year prior. These are the most record-breaking months ever, not just within the pandemic.”

For travel agents, the momentum is much appreciated but brings an incredible amount of work pouring in. “We’re receiving incoming quotes for all kinds of things. We have to be fast and efficient in turning them around,” says Elmais.

It’s an effort of love for these professionals passionate about helping clients realize the wide-ranging benefits of travel. “It’s so exciting to look forward to a trip,” says Elmais. “It puts an extra drive in their step. Then, they come back excited to get home and work harder. Travel has great impacts for Albertans when we return, but it also helps so many people around the world feed their families. It’s a major economic boost for so many small businesses and families.”

Where online travel services have encouraged DIY booking over the last decade, ongoing uncertainties, including restrictions, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and economic volatility will likely see more folks turn to the dependency a local, trusted travel agent can offer.

“An expert travel agent can guide you through all the changing rules people need to know before and during travel,” says Elmais. “They can beat or match what you’re seeing online, plus there are extras they’re aware of that the average consumer lacks access to.”

There are perks, too. “Good travel agents have great connections with airlines and hotel representatives,” adds Elmais. “We can score you a free upgrade, special extras in the room, a spa credit. Most importantly, if something goes wrong, because we have these relationships, we can help fix any problem on the spot.”

When reaching out to book a trip, consumers can achieve the best outcome and save money when they’re flexible. While vacation pricing is expected to continue to rise over the next year or two, deposits and insurance can ensure vacationers hold their spot and price, rebooking without penalty if needed.

“When we tell you, add that extra $50 to your travel package for cancelation up to three hours prior. Why not protect yourself in these times at such a low-cost investment?” says Elmais. “Small deposits can secure a great price, and if it drops in the meantime, you’ll get the lower price. There’s no reason to not book for the future right now.”

As business ramps up for Travel Gurus, their team will also have their hands full with inbound travelers. YEG Scoot, the scooter adventure business Elmais launched during the pandemic to keep his staff employed, is set to welcome international visitors this summer. “As of March, we already had bookings from Europe, the U.S., Mexico, tons of different places,” says Elmais.

That returning international presence is welcomed by the local tourism industry. Daniel St. Pierre, Director of Strategic Communications and Partnerships at Explore Edmonton, says the pandemic impacted visitation to the city in interesting ways. “People still wanted a getaway, but one within driving distance that wasn’t across a border,” he says. “There was more domestic tourism demand, without question.”

Explore Edmonton spent seven years running up to 2019 developing their current brand. They changed their marketing approaches and campaigns to promote Edmonton as a destination while helping local businesses grow and expand their marketing reach. These efforts led to more than 6 million visitors to the city in 2019, who spent nearly $2 billion into the economy.

“In terms of businesses and jobs, it’s hundreds, if not thousands, of businesses and it’s thousands, if not 10s of thousands, of jobs,” says St. Pierre.

COVID-19 was an eye-opener for Edmonton’s tourism industry. “[It has] shown us how many service jobs, and other jobs around the city, are tangentially connected to tourism and the visitor economy,” says St. Pierre. “There’s a connectivity and awareness around how much the elements of hospitality, tourism and events of the visitor economy really impact the city as a whole.”

With that realization, efforts were shifted to help the city’s businesses access government funding and programs to keep them viable. They also encouraged Edmontonians to be tourists within their hometown.

Meanwhile, the city’s appeal is far reaching, evidenced last November when Edmonton hosted the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifying matches in Edmonton. In just two games held at Commonwealth Stadium, nearly 100,000 people attended with Explore Edmonton estimates suggesting nearly 30 per cent of visitors resided outside the Edmonton region.

St. Pierre recalls the excitement in seeing Mexican nationals staying downtown at the Westin for the event. “They went through all that hassle to get across the borders to come here,” he says. “It got cold, snowy, and created a more iconic Canadian experience. They were loving it, buying winter coats, and it was a much more novel experience than just a typical soccer game.”

It also generated nearly $40 million in economic impact for the city. Now, as the pandemic shifts to an endemic phase, St. Pierre is optimistic about Edmonton’s tourism industry. “People are starting to get their heads around being out and about again. I think we’ll see an increase in visitation,” he says. “This is the place to hold your conference or convention so people can experience all of Edmonton’s secret sauce – the culinary scene, the festivals, that small-town vibe in a big city with things to do – when people experience it, they can’t help but rave about it.”

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