POSITIVE VIBES: Flemming Friisdahl looks at travel today

Flemming Friisdahl is reflective, “The world has changed again even since we last talked last time, hasn’t it?” said the president and founder of The Travel Agent Next Door, in a video conversation with Travel Industry Today last week. We agreed that it had certainly done that, and asked, “what do we do now? You have a good perspective, what is happening to travel from your point of view?

“I think some things are happening slowly – very, very slowly,” said Friisdahl, “but we’re definitely seeing bookings coming back. Right now, between 10 and 12 percent of (bookings in) 2019. I think that’s what everybody’s using as the benchmark – 2019.

Positive sales

“So, it’s not negative sales, it’s positive sales. Certainly a percentage of them are future travel credits, but we’re definitely starting to see bookings come in. A number of wedding groups – but a lot of it is for the fourth quarter and into 2022.”

And as for where they are going – primarily cruises – and a lot of river cruises. He expects the ocean cruises to sell closer to departure and noted that Regent Seven Seas’ World Cruise sold out in a matter of hours.

There’s been a lot of positive news says Friisdahl. He really wants to see Canadian airlines and tour operators get financial help from the government. “It’s important,” he says, “No company can lose $16 million a day and expect to stay around for a long period of time.”

Important work is being done right now by ACTA and the Independent Consultant Travel Agent Group in their efforts to get the government to protect travel agents’ commissions.

Survivors

As to who will survive, Friisdahl notes there are technically four industry groups. Storefront, OTAs, home base and suppliers.

“I think the suppliers that are here now, are going to be staying around. I don’t think we’re going to see any major suppliers leaving. I really don’t. In fact, I think we might see new suppliers joining the marketplace. I’ve heard rumblings about new suppliers coming in and people have been asking us about us wanting to work with them. But we obviously are working with the ones we want.”

However, there have been a significant number of storefronts closures. But, he reminds us that seven years ago, when he started The Travel Agent Next Door, research they did at the time showed 65 to 75 percent of all travel agency storefront owners were 60 years and older.

“I think that a lot of these people just decided to throw in the towel. Perhaps they were thinking there was magically someone going to be buying them, but that has disappeared. Now, they’re just saying ‘forget it’, which is a shame. That’s a lot of knowledge leaving the travel industry.”

Still, others have chosen differently and TTAND offers a solution to the ‘Mom and Pop’ agencies, consequently a number of storefront locations have joined them.

“There’s a misconception that if you join something like the agency solution, then you lose control of your brand”, he says, emphasizing that it is just not so. A lot of the agencies that have joined TTAND say it was their best decision.

“We provide services,” he says, “we don’t tell people what to do unless they don’t follow TICO’s rules.”

People really do need to take a different view, he reasons. “The same way of thinking is going to get you the same results time in and time out. I don’t think that agencies understand that it is time to do things a little bit differently. If you’re good at solving problems, that’s what you should be doing. If you’re good at managing a store, then you shouldn’t be at a travel agency. You should be a manager somewhere. But it’s hard to do both.”

Travel as a career

What about the perception of travel as a career? Will young people coming into the workforce see being a travel agent a viable career choice?

Friisdahl believes they will. TTAND runs new agent training programs – admittedly not the least expensive. Other companies have far cheaper programs, but he doesn’t agree with the philosophy that you can take, for example, a 16-hour online course and think you’re a travel agent.

“I personally think that’s insulting,” he says.

TTAND’s travel course usually involves 40 hours of personal, “real people on people in-classroom training.” During the pandemic, of course, that is currently being done online. There is then two years of agent support – helping them to become successful professional travel agents.

Travel courses are still being operated by community colleges and others, but Friisdahl believes that training programmes created 20 or 25 years ago are not always valid today. Programmes such as Sabre and GDS for example. The majority of agents don’t use GDS anymore, he says.  The reality is, agents are learning skills that are not really relevant to today’s research and problem solving issues.

Staying optimistic

For the industry in general he’s optimistic. He believes investors know that travel is going to come back, and that suppliers, like G Adventures did recently, can get financing from equity groups.

“I think that you’re going to keep seeing that happening, that they (equity groups) look at travel as a good investment.”

As for TTAND, “Financially, we’re very, very, well-positioned – luckily. If it had happened three years earlier, it might’ve been a different situation. But we were just at the peak coming off our best year. Obviously, it’s been a trying 2020 for all of us. We didn’t make any money, and in 2021 we’re not going to make any money. But luckily, we’ve been able just to continue to keep our heads down.”

TTAND continues to grow. Friisdahl notes that they are seeing very highly qualified agents coming on board, and he believes it is because those agents are confident in the support and opportunities the company offers.

He laughs, “I know I sound arrogant, but there’s just no comparison between us and anybody else.”

A positive place

Friisdahl looks at the travel industry as being in a very positive place right now. “The CRB has been extended another 13 weeks. Still not where we need it to go, but it’s going to carry us from the end of March until the end of July. So, that’s a good thing. We’ve seen the government openly talk about the Ministry of Transportation, talk about protecting travel agents with their commission. That’s a very good thing and that’s going to help.

“We hope the Canadian government is telling the truth in saying that they’re still going to meet the deadline by September to have everybody vaccinated who wants to be vaccinated. That’s phenomenal news in what’s happening within the travel industry.

“We haven’t seen any major suppliers default, which is good news, and I don’t think we will. I think if we were to see that, we would have known by now. I think they now are in for the long haul through whatever acquisition, or funding – they’re going to be fine.”

As for cruises, he is positive, “Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, of the Royal Caribbean group, or Norwegian Cruise Lines. They’re all going to stay around. I don’t think there’s any question. They know it’s going to be another seven to eight months.

“We’re seeing bookings coming in. I talked to one agent that booked four trips in one day. That’s good. I think we all know that we’re going to find people who are willing to travel.

Essentially, he believes strongly that the industry has to hold on till the end of summer and hope the vaccines continue to go as they’re supposed to go. He also believes the industry has to keep working on the government to make sure that if they do fund money to the airlines, that they also protect the commissions and that they extend the CRB until the end of calendar year.

Get on board

Friisdahl says he is surprised that travel agents don’t seem to understand how strong a voice they have.

TTAND helped circulate a petition to the government originated by the Independent Consultant Travel Agent Group.  All they got was 5,400 signatures – from a travel agent pool of approximately 24,000 travel agents – less than 20 percent – signed the form.

He, along with a group ACTA put together, are calling members of parliament to lobby their cause – more than 170 calls so far, 15 by Friisdahl alone.

But, he says it’s amazing how few owners of agencies are taking the initiative to get meetings set up to do things like that. They’re just sitting back, waiting for something to happen and he doesn’t understand why they’re not being more proactive.

Travel agents will fight tooth and nail to get their clients’ their money back and have to give up their commission, but many are not putting up the same fight to make sure that they are getting some return on the investment of the government of Canada to protect them. Whether it’s commission recall, extending the CRV, or rent subsidies.

“I don’t understand it. I just don’t understand it,” he says. It makes absolutely no sense, not to have signed the petition he says, “travel agents have to know, their voice matters. They’re important. But if you don’t articulate it, it won’t matter.”

Going forward

The quarantine is not totally fair because he believes you will start seeing people flying into Seattle for Vancouver, or into Buffalo for Toronto, and then finding a way across the border. They may still have to quarantine for 14 days, but the rules are much less stringent than for those flying in.

“I think the Canadian government can do things to protect Canadians while still not destroying the travel industry. I believe, and I believe this very whole-heartedly, is that you’re probably going to see, (as has been talked about), more suicides, more mental health issues, because people are going crazy staying in their homes for over a year.

“There’s no question that it’s going to take into 2022 before we start seeing certain things coming back to some sort of normality. And probably into 2023. You read some reports saying it’s going to be until 2027 before things get back to normal, and I call that bull****. He believes that by the end of the year people will really start flying again.



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