Imagine Travel Closes After 31 Years

The last 10 moths have been a logistical nightmare for the travel industry.

  • Business   Mon, Jan 25th, 2021   Kristen Hahn
Imagine Travel closed its doors recently due to pandemic issues. Owner Karen Weber recounts her long career. (Photo credit: Lisa Hagen)

Imagine Travel closed its doors recently due to pandemic issues. Owner Karen Weber recounts her long career. (Photo credit: Lisa Hagen)

"One of my earliest memories is of being bundled into the car at 2:00 in the morning and heading east with my family. We'd make that trip every single year—if not twice a year. It was really exciting. Travel was always imbued with the idea of adventure and connecting with the people. It's no wonder that I fell in love with the idea of travelling."

Karen Weber has been doing just that for the past 31 years as an enthusiastic globetrotter and owner of Imagine Travel.

However, few industries have been hit as hard as the travel industry, and on January 12, 2021, Weber announced the permanent closure of this beloved New Hamburg business.

The past ten months have been a logistical nightmare. In the early days of the pandemic, when the travel advisory was first issued, clients could file for a refund from their insurance company. But the policy quickly changed. Instead of a refund, people were offered a credit for future travel.

Meanwhile, the industry let go 90% of its workforce and the 10% that remained were working from home without supervisors or coworkers to help them. Agents could only contact these people by email and they were asked to allow six-to-eight weeks for an answer.

"Sometimes I'd wait the six weeks and send another email and more often than not, the clock started again. I had some files that took five and six applications to the company to resolve. It was extremely frustrating. The policies just kept changing. I have one client who filed at the beginning of April who finally received their cheque last week."

Weber talked about the "game of dates" she was forced to play.

"They'd keep asking for more proof of to accompany the original forms I sent in. When did the client cancel? Was it before or after it was mandated that a future travel credit was sufficient?"

Nobody wanted to give a refund; a lot of paperwork was required to get simple answers, and those answers took months to get.

"For the past ten months, I've been looking after issues, problems and cancellations, processing for insurance, and trying to figure out for the clients where their files stood. And all this time I've had no income coming in."

Some companies asked her to return the commission she received on the cancelled trips; others stipulated when the client rebooks with their future travel credit she would not receive any commission—and of those, many haven't paid her the commission she was owed when she originally booked the trips before the shutdown.

So why didn't she just walk away? Why didn't she just leave her clients to their own devices?

"You have to remember when this COVID madness first started the epidemiologists talked about the curve of the virus; it would go way up and then it would come down and level off. I was hopeful. But then the lockdowns kept happening and travel came to a virtual halt and countries around the world closed their borders, and I realized that this was not going to be settled in a couple of months. But I couldn't just leave my clients in the lurch. I've had long relationships with many of these people. Many of them are like friends to me."

So she kept soldiering on but the hard truths became unavoidable. Even with surveys that say Canadians are eager for travel, it is not likely to happen for at least another year. Some industry experts predict it will take upwards of five years for a full recovery.

"I'm just at the point in my life when I'm ready to retire and if I wanted to keep my business going I'd probably have to invest $80,000 over the next two years. I'm really sorry my business is closing because this has been a wonderful area to serve, but this is the right decision for me.”

Weber has received countless messages of goodwill and appreciation from her past clients. “It’s been really gratifying and humbling. I’ve had great staff over the years and I feel so lucky to have been blessed with such good people in my life.”

When asked if she had a top destination from over the years, Weber laughed: "Well, they say your favourite place was the one you were just at!"

Lucky for Weber, her last trip before the shutdown was one she had dreamed of her whole life—Egypt. Next will be her husband’s dream trip to Machu Picchu and an in-depth tour of Peru.

"I want to travel until the day I die. In the meantime, I've never had the opportunity to just wake up in the morning and think, 'what will I do today?' I'm looking forward to that. Every facet of life has a different reward, doesn't it?"

(Editor's Note: Stewart Grant, owner of Stonetown Travel Ltd. in St. Marys, has submitted an application to the Travel Industry Council of Ontario to open a branch office at 210 Mill Street, New Hamburg, in the former location of Imagine Travel Inc. “Karen Weber and her amazing Imagine Travel staff, Traci and Kristina, have provided first class service to this community for 30 years, and I would like that legacy to continue. Although it will take time for the travel industry to fully recover, we are taking steps now so that we will be ready to serve the community when called upon.”)