Burnaby families still out more than $4,000 each for cancelled school trip

Parents say they're caught between travel agency and insurance underwriter sending them contradictory messages about refunds for Europe trip cancelled in March because of COVID-19.

Burnaby families have added their voices to a Canada-wide chorus of frustration around travel insurance payouts for international school trips cancelled this spring because of COVID-19.

Families at Burnaby Mountain Secondary had paid more than $4,000 each for their kids to go on an art-history-themed trip to Italy, Switzerland and Germany, according to parent Marnie Burnam.

“It was really all she talked about for most of the year leading up to the trip,” Burnam said of her daughter, Olivia, who was in Grade 11 at the time.

With the devastating and deadly impact the new coronavirus was having in Italy at the time, Burnam said the family understood why the trip needed to be cancelled in March, and she was happy they, like many other parents, had bought cancellation insurance.

“We were completely confident because we bought cancellation insurance. I don’t think we’ve ever not bought cancellation insurance,” Burnam said.

Half a year later, however, the families are still waiting to be reimbursed.

Caught in the middle

“That’s almost a year’s tuition for one of our kids for university,” Burnam said.

Natalie Brenton said she had been proud of her son Maxwell for raising half the money for the trip himself by working at McDonald’s.

“For a 16-year-old, $2,000 is a lot of money,” she said. “I really want it back for him because I want him to learn that, when you pay for something, they honour it and they honour their agreements. That’s what insurance should do.”

The families have been caught between the travel agency Explorica, which specializes in out-of-province and international school trips, and insurance underwriter Old Republic Canada.

At first, Burnam said the messaging to parents was that the global pandemic had resulted in an unprecedented numbers of claims and that getting their payouts would take time.

Starting in August, though, she said the two companies started throwing each other under the bus.

In emails to parents, Old Republic said it needed information that Explorica wasn’t providing. But Explorica told parents it had given Old Republic everything it needed and further information was only being asked for so the insurance underwriter could reduce their claims to as little as zero.

Burnam said Explorica has urged the Burnaby Mountain Secondary families to file a complaint with the Financial Services Regulation Authority of Ontario, saying Old Republic is not meeting its responsibilities under the Insurance Regulation Act.

Old Republic has filed a complaint against Explorica with the Travel Industry Council of Ontario to compel the company to provide more information to process the claims.

“We’re just kind of in the middle as they point fingers at each other,” Burnam said. “We’re sort of at a loss as to what our next steps are or what to do.”

The Burnaby Mountain Secondary families are not alone.

A number of similar stories about the same two companies have appeared in news outlets across the country, and the families involved have formed a Facebook group (Explorica Canada – Trying to get our Refunds) in an attempt to support one another.

The group had 419 members as of Monday morning.

In response to an interview request, Explorica sent the NOW an email saying the travel agency doesn’t “offer interviews right now” and recommended visiting its Q&A webpage.

Old Republic Canada has not responded to a request for comment.

(USD) $20.98 billion in assets

The Canadian operation belongs to Chicago-based Old Republic International Corporation – one of the 50 largest publicly held insurance organizations in North America, with consolidated assets of about (USD) $20.98 billion as of June 2019, according to the company’s website.

This month, the company boosted its cash dividend to shareholders for the 39th consecutive year, according to a press release.

On its website, Old Republic Canada’s Tips Travel Insurance label urges travellers to get insurance for peace of mind.

“Today’s travellers invest significant amounts of their hard-earned savings to enjoy those special vacations with family and friends,” it states. “Travel insurance is a means of protecting that initial investment in the event an unforeseen event occurs which forces you to cancel your trip.”

Burnam, however, said her family will not be participating in anymore school trips like the one that has caused them so much grief this year.

Follow Cornelia Naylor on Twitter @CorNaylor
Email cnaylor@burnabynow.com

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