TORONTO — It’s hard to believe that after forming ACITA a year ago, the three founding members have still not met one another.
Thanks to the global pandemic and lockdown measures, Judith Coates of The Travel Agent Next Door in Orillia, Nancy Wilson of Leisure Life Holiday in Ottawa, and Brenda Slater of Beyond the Beach in Tiny, Ontario have been forced to meet virtually, like everyone else in the travel industry, during these past 15 months. But it’s also through the magic of Zoom that ACITA (Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors) has been able to make an indelible impact in such a short amount of time.
June 26 will mark a full year since the organization’s very first Zoom meeting with MP Michael Barrett, Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes. Since then ACITA has held close to 250 virtual meetings with various MPs as part of its ongoing advocacy efforts on behalf of Canada’s 12,000+ Independent Travel Advisors, a huge accomplishment considering Coates, Wilson and Slater had no previous political experience.
“I say it all the time, we’re just three wee chicas who sell travel, that’s what we do,” Slater tells Travelweek during an exclusive interview. “So if we can do it seriously and we can mobilize all of these people across the country, anybody can do it. It just takes a lot of one people.”
THE EARLY DAYS & RAPID GROWTH
For ACITA, a chance encounter started it all. In March 2020, Flemming Friisdahl, Founder of The Travel Agent Next Door, encouraged Coates to request a meeting with her MP since at that time, Independent Travel Advisors were not being considered for any government funding. After three months of waiting to see whether the federal government would clue in, Coates finally reached out to Bruce Stanton, MP-Simcoe-North in June and secured a meeting, then invited other Independent Travel Advisors via Facebook to join in. It was during that fateful initial Zoom call where Coates first met Wilson and Slater.
After a post-meeting chat, the three formed an easy alliance and agreed to join forces in their advocacy efforts. ACITA was quickly born and soon enough, they were generating quite a bit of buzz in the industry.
“We asked our travel advisor colleagues and shared the information on other travel agent groups to get the word out. The biggest advantage we had was word of mouth and specifically through the host agencies. When advisors who weren’t constituents joined a call, we invited them to share the information about our group and what we were doing with agents in their host agencies. That really helped spread the word,” said Wilson.
The plan worked. Within six months, ACITA’s membership skyrocketed to 1,000 strong and after a year it now boasts 1,800 members, all Independent Travel Advisors. Salaried agents, agency and business owners and media are all prohibited from joining to ensure the authenticity of the group.
With a growing team, ACITA was able to reach out to MPs across the country more quickly and more efficiently to advocate for financial aid and commission protections. Rumours swirled for months last year of a possible government bailout plan for Canada’s airlines that was contingent on the airlines offering refunds to all passengers whose travel plans were cancelled by COVID-19. Refunds, of course, would mean commission recalls for travel advisors so time was of the essence to connect with as many MPs as possible and bring the plight of travel advisors – both salaried and independent – to the forefront of the conversation.
How did they do this? ACITA provided their members with customizable email templates and talking points that they could, in turn, use during meetings with their MPs. Coates, Wilson and Slater also opened up their own MP meetings to allow members to listen in, which was a huge motivating factor for members to take up their own advocacy efforts.
“By the end of August or September, we were starting to have the same regulars jumping on calls and now ultimately, we have a small crew of people who are helping us,” said Wilson. “As you can well imagine, we’re doing this voluntarily, in addition to our own businesses, and not getting paid for it. It was starting to become a bit hard to manage, with some weeks being 50-hour weeks. So it’s great that we had all these people step up and say, ‘how can I help?’”
Another upside to having a bigger team is having more people to celebrate accomplishments with, and ACITA had several over the past year. The biggest one is commission protection, first announced by Air Canada on April 12 and then Transat on April 29 following their respective funding agreements with the federal government. By then ACITA had spent several months relaying to MPs how dire it was for Independent Travel Advisors to have their commissions protected so when two of Canada’s major airlines came forward with the news, it was a major victory celebrated by all its members.
“We know that they would never have entertained the idea,” said Slater. “The thing about the politicians is that they didn’t understand how our business works and they didn’t understand the connotations of refunds. They didn’t know that it meant taking back our revenue from 2019 and early 2020 and the airlines weren’t about to tell them.
“ACITA was on it, ACTA was also, it was coming at them from all angles. But where we differed from ACTA was that we were extremely vocal in the House of Commons and busy talking to MPs and getting them to talk about us in the House of Commons, whereas ACTA was coming at them from the back end, from the policymaker point of view.