Caroline Connelly and her staff at Marlin Travel don’t wear capes. However, they were superheroes for hundreds of clients scattered around the globe when COVID-19 hit and Canadian vacationers in other countries were ordered home in mid-March.
Marlin Travel has served Grande Prairie travellers for 40 years and Caroline has worked at the City Centre firm virtually that entire time. She co-owns the firm with Karen Cloutier.
“We are here for our customers 100 per cent,” Connelly says, noting that although the office was closed to foot traffic once the pandemic struck, her team was busy working phones and emails to get their clients home.
Staff arrived at the office early and worked late into the evenings for several weeks because they were on hold with airlines, cruise and tour agents and insurance companies for hours at a time. They also had to reach customers in numerous time zones.
“At the beginning, when the Government said that all Canadians must come home, we had lots of clients in all kinds of places – Mexico, Peru, the USA – all over the world,” says Connelly. “We have full knowledge of where our customers are, what they are doing and when they should be coming home, so we facilitated in getting all of them back.”
That wasn’t always an easy proposition.
“We had to be assertive with some of them. We had to say you have to come home and, no, you are not coming home next Wednesday or the week after, you are coming home in the next couple of days.”
When the customers did get home, they were grateful. Connelly notes some people underestimated the severity of the situation and didn’t realize they may have had the last two seats on an available flight.
“They were like, ‘Wow, we had no idea.’ When you’re sitting on the beach in Mexico, you’re not watching CBC News, or news of any sort. All you’re thinking about is the beach and having fun with your family and living it up a bit.
“Once the government says you must come home, your medical insurance doesn’t cover you any longer. If someone had have stayed longer and there was an incident, they would have been hooped,” Connelly says.
That’s the benefit of booking through a local travel agent, she says.
“You have person-to-person, face-to-face contact. They can call us, we can call them. We know each other. We’ve built up a personal relationship with them.”
Connelly says she’s had repeat customers for more than 30 years and they’ve had children and grandchildren over that time.
“Grande Prairie is a relatively small city. People know people. Everybody knows everybody. It’s not like we are in Edmonton. Calgary or Toronto. We see our customers in Safeway and on the street. We take a lot of pride in what we do and we want to be able to be not just a travel agent to them, but a friendly, helping hand. They are really appreciative of that.”
Once home, some customers asked staff if they could help stranded friends who had not booked through an agent. They were able to provide advice.
A long-standing reputation goes a long way, Travel Consultant Stephanie Gaw says. “This is one of the reasons a lot of people book with us. They know that we will have their back and that we will take care of them in any way we can.”
Some destinations were more challenging than others. One customer called in from Peru even ahead of the Prime Minister ordering Canadians home. The client was in a remote area and had to borrow a satellite phone to get through.
“I’m on the phone with him and he was like, ‘What do I do?’ I said, just get to the airport and we will fix it. We will make sure you get home,” says Gaw.
In cases like this, it was all hands on deck.
“Between the two of us, we were on the phone and talking to each other through the client and the airline, trying to make it all work out and get him home,” says Travel Consultant Lindsey Smilley. “There were a lot of things like that – team work and trying to do the best thing for our clients to get them home in a tricky situation.”
Gaw notes there some unique trips that had to be postponed, including an excursion of men heading to the U.S. on a NASCAR-themed vacation.
It wasn’t just ensuring travellers returned to Grande Prairie safely that made for stressful times at Marlin Travel. There have been challenges getting refunds from airlines and cruise companies and issues with insurance companies – sometimes made even more complicated when customers purchased their own policies.
Some insurance companies are responding that if a customer received a voucher for future travel, it can’t be considered a loss. In the meantime, Marlin had clients who found they could use the refund because they’ve been laid off or another extenuating circumstance has cropped up.
“We can only do a certain amount, so if the airline or cruise company are not giving a refund or the tour company is not providing a reimbursement on their packages, we have to adhere to those policies,” says Connelly.
Companies also have rules that are subject to change so Marlin staff continue to keep files open to request a better outcome for customers. They’ve been successful in a few cases. Several insurance cases are still being appealed.
That means Marlin staff still have a significant focus on trying to recoup refunds or deal with insurance issues on claims rather than what is the bulk of their usual work – helping customers plan for vacations and happy occasions.
Even Connelly has had to put a long-planned trip to India on hold and it’s uncertain when she’ll be able to reschedule that vacation.
She’s put everything in perspective, though. “You can’t take hope to the bank but we do have hope in this business because we’re not closing and once things get under control with COVID, we’re going to be busier than ever. We may even have to hire more staff.”
Smilley spoke up, “And we’re going to get raises?” She and her colleagues laughed.
There are already hopeful signs.
“In the calls we’re getting for new bookings, people do seem quite excited that they can possibly go in the spring or even in December or later in the winter,” she says. “There’s been a few bookings for the fall to the Caribbean and Mexico. A few are re-bookings. We are doing our best to inform everyone of all the current policies and what could happen. Or, they could be sitting on the beach with no worries.”