The cruise industry has taken a massive hit during the COVID-19 crisis, and with it travel agencies like Chilliwack’s Roblin Travel, which helps book people onto boats like the Grand Princess. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

Chilliwack’s Roblin Travel trying to weather COVID-19 crisis

Agencies big and small have been hit by a wave of travel-plan cancellations.

Doug Rollheiser has seen a lot in his years in the travel agent biz.

SARS. H1Ni. MRSA. 9-11.

All significant and highly disruptive events, but none had the impact of COVID-19.

“This one’s definitely taken it up a notch, that’s for sure,” said the owner and manager of Chilliwack’s Roblin Travel. “Who’s seen this?”

Rollheiser’s industry was hit hard in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, and it has continued to absorb body blows every day since.

The biggest lesson he learned during previous global calamities was to maintain a positive attitude.

“You look at these things with people cleaning out meat counters, buying toilet paper and everything like this, and that contributes to it as much as anything,” Rollheiser said. “It’s not like I haven’t had sleepless nights through this, but you’ve got to keep the perspective that we’ve been through things like this before.

“When 9-11 hit and they shut down airports worldwide, it seemed like the world was ending then too. But you’ve got to believe that this too shall pass.”

For the sake of Rollheiser’s business, the sooner the better.

He estimates an 80 per cent hit to revenue for March as clients back out of travel arrangements.

He’s had staff members on the phone for eight hours some days, going back and forth with airlines on cancellations.

“The most important thing and our major focus right now is our clients who are planning to go in the next three weeks, and making sure those people are well taken care of,” Rollheiser noted. “The next step after that, I don’t know what it’s going to be.”

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Worldwide, experts project significant revenue and job losses in the travel industry.

Close to home, the Tourism Industry Association of B.C. suggested recently that massive travel cancellations already total hundreds of millions of dollars and will balloon into the billions unless senior governments step in with financial relief to help businesses survive.

“You’re doing the best you can, but you only have resources to go for so long,” Rollheiser said. “I’d like to say I’m going to be here on the other side of it, but this is a new one we haven’t had to deal with before. The Flight Centres and Maritimes are still going to be around, but even a guy like me, you say, ‘I’ve got this much I can do and after that I might say that’s enough.’

“If this carries on for a year, what are you going to do?”

Rollheiser has eight employees in the building, and they have done fantastic work keeping level heads in a chaotic time.

“We’ve been here since 1947 and the strength of our agency is the people out front,” he said. “If anything, this shows the value of a good travel agent, because we’re getting calls from people who are all over the world right now. We’re doing our best to help them get back home, and that would be very difficult for people to do on their own.

“My message to them (his staff) is to take care of the people we have now, and we won’t worry about three months from now. Let’s get this part taken care of first, and I’ll do what I can to make sure that at the end of it all, we come back as a strong agency.

“It’s a great team that we have and I want to keep them all together.”

In the short term, that might mean tough decisions, and utilizing the Employment Insurance Work-Sharing program, described on the Government of Canada website as ‘an adjustment program designed to help employers and employees avoid layoffs when there is a temporary reduction in the normal level of business activity that is beyond the control of the employer.’

When the crisis does end, Rollheiser believes the travel industry will bounce back fast, and he’ll want his entire team in place, ready to help people get moving again.

“Right now, people are looking at this with a very negative spin, like this could be the end,” Rollheiser said. “But I think we have to look past that 30 day window that we’re all dealing with right now.

“At the end of it all, there’s going to be some great offers from cruise lines, tour suppliers and others to try and service what we hope is going to be a pent-up demand for travel.”


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