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Travellers and Travel Agents Regroup

The new travel and tourism normals


There have been many changes! Technology, COVID disruptions, a season of high-profile flight cancellations and sordid luggage disasters, shifting consumer trends and other broadsides have forever changed travel, tourism, travellers, airlines, airports and even the role of travel agents.

However, some things never change. In Alberta, and Edmonton, travel and tourism continue as dynamic drivers of the economy.

“The visitor economy is extremely important to Edmonton, its businesses and the region,” says Paul Hawes, vice president destination development and marketing at Explore Edmonton Corporation. “Tourism is made up mostly of small enterprise; in fact, more than 90 per cent of the tourism industry is a small-medium enterprise.

“At Explore Edmonton, we deliver on a broad mandate, not just marketing the city but driving direct business and revenues into the city. In 2023, Explore Edmonton drove $194.2M in direct economic impact, 241,097 room nights and supported 68,531 jobs.”

Hawes notes that for the past three or four years and for a number of reasons, travel and tourism have been victims of circumstances and complicated challenges.

“It’s no secret that the visitor economy was hit hard, especially through the pandemic. Some areas of the business, specifically conferences and business events, have been some of the hardest impacted segments. Although we are seeing good signs of recovery, we are not at 2019 numbers, yet,” he said.

“Our Edmonton hotel partners tell us that occupancy levels are slowly climbing but there is a lot of room to grow. We work closely with our partners at Travel Alberta and generally, we predict that we will see a return to pre-pandemic numbers by late next year or even into 2025.”

It was a transformational double whammy for travel agents. Already adjusting to technology re-defining their profession, the pandemic scramble abruptly put travel on hold and shut down their businesses.

“The impact of the pandemic was devastating on tourism and particularly on Alberta travel agents,” admits Wendy Paradis, president of the Association of Canadian Travel Agents (ACTA). “With travel restrictions being in place for more than two years and travel agents being laid off for so long, we now face a significant labour shortage. Now, while COVID restrictions have eased in Canada and around the world, there is a strong demand for travel and agents are very busy. Many travellers are looking for the expertise and personal touch of a travel specialist post-COVID because if any challenges happen during a trip, people rely on the help of a qualified and knowledgeable professional.”

Just when travel agents in Edmonton started digging out and regrouping after COVID, they had to deal with yet another sucker punch. Weather and other complications like airline and airport issues and helping to sort out their customers’ concerns.

“After being shut down for two years, the restart of the industry has definitely been a bumpy ride,” Paradis says. “The entire travel and tourism system was significantly impacted, not just airlines. The winter storms around the Christmas and New Year holiday period were very challenging for the travel industry, and most importantly, for travellers.”

There’s no denying that smartphones, tablets, easy internet accessibility, e-ticketing and even e-boarding passes have re-defined travel booking options, allowing people to make DIY travel arrangements. The huge volume of online options is not only overwhelming for many travellers, but also extremely time consuming. Especially since the recent tsunami of airline delays, cancellations and scrambling for DIY problem solving, re-bookings and travel crisis management underscore the value of, and the need for, professional travel agents.

According to a recent study by the American Society of Travel Agents, over half of Millennial (59 per cent), GenXer (53 per cent) and Boomer (58 per cent) leisure travellers who used agents believe that their vacations were better than DIY arrangements.

“Travel agents and tour operators, known collectively as travel trade, have always been a significant contributor to the business mix,” Hawes points out. “For consumers’ needs, comfort level or the reliable understanding of a destination, people rely on travel agents, especially in our longer haul markets.

“The pandemic definitely shone a light on travel agents and their knowledge. While consumers used travel agents for big trips to places they had little knowledge about, there is now a shift for also relying on professional travel agents for shorter, domestic travel. They are that trusted source of information that can really make the difference to planning and the travel experience.”

The good news, for Alberta and particularly Edmonton, is that the travel sector is recovering and has rebounded.

“As our visitor economy gets back to pre-pandemic levels this year, we expect that many Canadians will stay motivated to explore all that Alberta has to offer,” says David Goldstein, CEO, Travel Alberta. “Simultaneously, we’re developing experiences and destinations across the province to ensure we’re ready for high-value U.S. travellers to make a full return in 2024.

“Approximately 40 per cent of people interested in travelling to Alberta from our core markets identified an event or festival as their reason for travel. Edmonton has the potential to become Canada’s premier festival city, particularly in ICE District, and a major destination for business travel.”

Paradis shares the enthusiasm about travel’s regrouping. “The key draws for tourists visiting Alberta are the beautiful and natural environment such as the Banff, Lake Louis and Jasper areas. For Edmonton, families often ask about Dinosaur Provincial Park, West Edmonton Mall and some of the urban natural environments such as Edmonton’s river valley.”

Hawes adds, “Edmonton is known for many great attributes. Fort Edmonton Park, including the Indigenous Peoples Experience, has added an internationally acclaimed experience to what Edmonton has to offer.

“What we also hear from consumers experiencing the city is that they are coming for our dining and culinary scene, major sports and cultural events. Music plays a big part of the nighttime economy, with small intimate jams up to major concerts, big names and special events like Edmonton hosting this year’s JUNO Awards.”

Explore Edmonton was instrumental in bringing the JUNOS to Edmonton. Hawes explains that “We also took the opportunity to showcase Edmonton with a newly created commercial, focused on awareness of Edmonton’s arts, culture and events experiences. Although we are still working on the final impact numbers, a good estimate is the JUNOS delivered more than $13M total economic impact for the city.”

As travel and tourism bounce back, Edmonton travel agents get busier and travellers assume new normals, Hawes mentions room for improvement and tourism growth.

“Access, specifically air access, is a key factor in tourism recovery,” he says. “Direct air access into YEG plays a fundamental role in reopening pre-existing markets and new markets. We’re thrilled to see new flights coming into Edmonton from Minneapolis as well as strong domestic routes like Toronto and Ottawa returning.”