As pandemic restrictions ease, travellers are back onboard planes, trains and ships. But they’re not onboard with the headaches caused by crowds of “revenge travellers,” constantly changing rules, and seemingly endless hurdles that can trip up their trip before they take off.
Fortunately, those in the tourism and hospitality industries are well aware of the frustrations, since reducing them is crucial to recovery, and are working hand-in-hand with all sectors to ensure travel is as seamless — and painless — as possible.
Cleared for take-off
For many people, travel starts at the airport, as does the aggravation. There’s paperwork to complete, screening to clear, questions to answer, documents to show, patience to lose. Imagine if most of those tasks could be done before travellers left home?
“At the height of the pandemic, our focus was on helping people navigate the new requirements, which could be complicated and confusing,” says Ryan White, manager, Communications and Media Relations for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority. “Now our focus is on education and giving people the tools they need to better navigate their journey.”
Those tools come courtesy of an infographic on Toronto Pearson’s website, called Travel Hub, that walks travellers through every step of the process at the airport and who’s responsible for each. The site also features a live wait-times dashboard for those processes, including security screening, customs and immigration, and baggage claim.
The airport’s newest program, called YYZ Express, allows passengers to schedule a security-screening time online. “It helps reduce queues at the departure screening process faster,” says White. Vancouver International Airport also has the option, called YVR Express.
The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) also has a “Breeze Through Security” mobile app that allows passengers to check wait times at screening checkpoints. It also lists allowable carry-on items, and offers advice for families, seniors and those with special needs to transit through the airport quickly and easily.
In addition, improvements in facial-recognition technology lets travellers register their face and passport information to further speed their way through customs.
White says all these initiatives are in addition to the Healthy-Airport program that was introduced in mid-2020. “We knew early on that [COVID] would be longer term and that we needed a program that could change as we got new information from the Public Health Agency of Canada.”
The program started with physical-distancing markers, hand sanitizers, PPE vending machines, and new air-handling systems that increased flow throughout the terminal. It then implemented Blue Dot Outbreak Risk software that identifies and isolates viruses and other illnesses, signaling staff to step up cleaning operations in the areas potentially ill passengers move through. Now the airport is piloting the country’s only wastewater testing system to monitor for new variants of concern, which will reduce health checks and further ease airport flow and wait times.
Susie Grynol, president & CEO, Hotel Association of Canada, says traveller demand is driving changes and accelerating projects that were already underway pre-COVID. “The evolution of consumer needs and desires are influencing how hotels and other businesses are adapting,” she says. “Guests are determining how they want to interact with other human beings, whether that’s checking into a hotel or purchasing something at a retail store. For example, mobile check-in, room service dropped at the door, not having the room cleaned as often — all to minimize touch.”
Hoteliers, however, worry about the loss of that human touch, the reason many people travel in the first place. “We’re adapting to the various personas post-COVID,” says Grynol. “Some people want that human contact, some people don’t. It’s all about personalization, about knowing your customers, their preferences. Businesses that have invested in technology [that collects this information] will be better positioned to provide the kind of experience that each of these personas want.”
Safe and Secure
As staffing shortages continue to plague the industry, ensuring those workers who have remained are safe is paramount, as is the communities in which they operate. “People have a better understanding of how to protect themselves, how to keep themselves healthy, how to wear masks if they’re not feeling well,” says Grynol. “We understand more about COVID — and all viruses — and how it’s transmitted. The combination of knowledge and changing personal practices [helps] businesses provide more touchless experiences and fewer areas of exposure.”
Beth Potter, president, CEO, Tourism Industry Association of Canada, says many ideas and plans that were sidelined during the pandemic are back to being top of mind. “Conversations are focused around moving passengers more effectively across the border; the voluntary use of the ArriveCan app for advanced declaration at customs; other ways to [clear] customs; getting the Nexus program back up and running and using it more efficiently, such as adding it to the United States’ Trusted Traveler program so that we can get people through security a lot faster.”
Grynol says one of the biggest issues hampering these plans is workers — more specifically, the dearth of them. “We lost a million workers in our industry during the first two months of COVID. We’re building back but we have a disproportionate worker shortage compared to [other industries]. The flip side is, it’s an amazing opportunity for anyone who wants to join the industry.”
Potter agrees, and says the industry needs to work closely with all levels of government as well as the school system to attract workers. “We suffered some image damage during the pandemic with the constant shutdowns that impacted our industry more than any other. We have to do a better job [communicating] the opportunities that exist, the career paths, the longevity. But we won’t fill all the jobs domestically; we have to rely on immigration. They say it takes a village to raise a child; it’s going to take a nation to [re-build] our industry.”
Potter says she’s feeling more optimistic today than she was even a month ago. “Borders are open, domestic travel came back this past summer in larger numbers than we thought. But we’ll still finish the year 25 per cent down over 2019 levels. We think it’s going to be 2025 before we hit those 2019 levels on the international side. And business travel could still be slower to recover than that, simply because the way we work has changed. And we don’t know what the future holds with the pandemic, or geo-political issues that could interfere with [recovery]. But our industry is resilient, everybody is optimistic, they’re out there with their sleeves rolled up ready to go, and there’s an awful lot of positive sentiment.”
BY ROBIN ROBERTS