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Saturday,  May 18, 2024 6:37 PM 

Declined: ON travel agent denied small business grant that was supposed to help industry

Declined: ON travel agent denied small business grant that was supposed to help industry
Sandra Pappas, owner of ClickTheMouse Travel. (Supplied)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

“Ridiculous” and “frustrating.”

Those are the two words that St. Catharines, ON-based travel advisor Sandra Pappas, owner of ClickTheMouse Travel, uses to describe her experience in applying for the Ontario Tourism and Travel Small Business Support Grant, a relief fund that was set up to help hard-hit travel and tourism businesses amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lisa MacLeod, Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries, announced this program on May 13, to “help the tourism industry reclaim its place as an economic powerhouse and key job creator in our province,” as she put it.

It sounded like a good idea at the time, but as trade advocates have pointed out, many travel advisors (especially independent ones) haven’t been able to access the funds.

Many, like Pappas, have had their applications declined for not meeting specific criteria.

Worse, the deadline for applying for the grant is today – Friday, June 25, 2021.

Sandra Pappas is owner ClickTheMouse Travel, which specializes in Disney vacations. (Supplied)

“I’m making a lot of phone calls to understand why we were denied and why we can’t access an actual fund that’s for our industry,” Pappas told PAX over the phone on Friday morning (June 25) after posting a “declined” receipt on her Facebook page.

“It’s ridiculous,” she said. “I haven’t been approved as an agency or as an agent.”

Pappas is owner ClickTheMouse Travel, which specializes in Disney vacations.

The company has a roster of more than 30 travel advisors, all of whom are suffering economic consequences due to the global pandemic and Canada’s ongoing border restrictions.

This was supposed to help travel agents

Ontario’s grant program was originally pitched as way for struggling small travel and tourism businesses to obtain one‐time payments of $10,000 to $20,000 to recover from the impact of the pandemic.

READ MORE: Ontario launches relief grant for travel agents, tourism businesses

Travel agents, hotels, motels, resorts, and bed and breakfasts were all listed as qualifying sectors.

To qualify for the funds, businesses must have fewer than 100 employees and demonstrate that they have experienced a minimum 20 per cent revenue decline between 2019 and 2020.

Pappas’ travel agency fits into this category – after doing the math, she estimated that her business lost nearly 90 per cent of its income, over a three-month period, since 2019.

But for some reason, her application was declined.

“It feels like a slap in the face,” Pappas said. “It’s a tourism and travel small business grant. That’s exactly what we are.”

She said most of her team is relying on the the Canada Recovery Benefit (CRB), a challenging situation that the Association of Canadian Independent Travel Advisors (ACITA) has highlighted several times before.  

READ MORE: “Big stumbling blocks”: Independent advisors face obstacles in applying for ON tourism grant

Meanwhile, ClickTheMouse Travel, like many travel agencies, is still operating on little to no revenue.

“There are still so many costs,” Pappas said, noting how she recently had to pay thousands of dollars for accounting services using her own personal funds. 

“I had to give up my downtown Toronto office because we couldn’t afford it. We’ve been working for 15-16 months now with no pay, but we’re still working full time.”

This is a tough and unfair reality for many Canadian travel advisors, who have spent the pandemic working for free to process refunds, issue travel credits and field questions from customers each time travel restrictions change.

No response 

PAX reached out to Ontario’s Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries in May for clarification on the grant but did not receive a response.

PAX contacted Ontario’s same offices again on Friday morning (June 25), highlighting Pappas own experience, and did not receive a response by press time.

READ MORE: Advocates call on Ontario to amend grant rules for independent agents as deadline looms

The Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA) has already sounded the alarm with the Ontario government over independent travel agents not being able to access the grant.

“ACTA continues to call on the Ontario government to amend the grant rules to include independent travel agents,” said Wendy Paradis, President, ACTA, June 22. “The grant is intended to support the hardest-hit businesses in travel and tourism and the exclusion of independent travel agents doesn’t make sense.”

Provincial officials have repeated their position that only TICO-registered agencies are eligible for the grant, which does not cover individual independent travel agents as “they are only registered through their host agencies,” ACTA points out.

“Big stumbling blocks”

Grassroots group ACITA, which advocates on behalf of self-employed, home-based and independent travel advisors, told PAX in May about the “big stumbling blocks” that are in the way of accessing the funds – as ACITA co-founder Brenda Slater of Beyond the Beach put it.

The first problem has to do with registration – Ontario requires agencies to be registered with the Travel Industry Council of Ontario (TICO).

In Slater’s case, her business is self-branded, and while TravelOnly is her host agency, her company name, Beyond The Beach, is registered with TICO under that name.

“But most independent advisors are not self-branded,” Slater said.

From top left, clockwise (of ACITA): Judith Coates, TTAND; Brenda Slater, Beyond the Beach; Nancy Wilson, TravelOnly. (Supplied)

Advisors who fall into this category, therefore, face problems in the system because their business isn’t named under the TICO license (it would be their host agency).

All Ontario-based travel advisors are assigned an individual TICO number once they complete their exam. “Maybe that’s the number that should be used,” Slater said.

Another issue is that recipients are required to have a business bank account.

Most ICs don’t have one, Slater explained. Many (herself included) have no reason to open a business account because of stringent rules TICO has around handling money.

“It’s confusing to me why they’d make this decision and not even talk to somebody that might have some insight,” Slater told PAX at the time.

Slater said the application process for the grant is "very vague."

"We need this money so bad"

ClickTheMouse Travel pays GST to those agents in its roster that hit certain income levels.  

“Those agents do have business numbers as well,” Pappas pointed out. “I don’t understand why they could be denied.”

“It’s so frustrating. We need this money so bad.”

At this point, Pappas doesn’t see her business fully recovering until mid-2022.

Bookings are coming in (for 2022, mind you), but due to the way payment in the travel industry is structured, her business won’t receive commissions until after the client has travelled.  

“That’s a long way off for us. We need help and support until then,” Pappas said.

Seeing the United States restart its travel industry doesn’t help matters either.

“We’re hearing about agencies tripling their business since 2019, and we’re sitting here watching, unable to go back to normal,” Pappas said. “It’s been very tough.”

Ottawa relaxing travel and quarantine restrictions for fully vaccinated Canadians and permanent residents starting July 5 is a blip of good news for Canada’s battered travel industry.

But the changes don’t serve all travel agencies. 

ClickTheMouse Travel, being Disney-focused, books a lot of families. 

Children under 12, currently, cannot receive a COVID-19 vaccine, which means the 14-day quarantine upon returning to Canada still applies to many clients. 

“Our industry has been decimated,” Pappas said. “We’ve never needed help as much as we do right now.”  

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