Travel agencies

How Chicago Travel Agencies Are Surviving the Pandemic | Chicago News

Airline layoffs, travel bans, quarantine orders – it’s been a calamitous year for the travel and tourism industry.

And Chicago’s independent travel agencies, scattered in storefronts across neighborhoods across the city, have been anything but immune.

One of them is Venus Travel on West Belmont Avenue, which has long been a staple on the northwest side of Chicago since it opened in 1968.

Owner John Conenna officially took over the business from his father, Vince, in the early 90s, providing a level of customer service he says you won’t get from online competitors.

And until February of this year, business was booming. Then, in what has become a common refrain, COVID-19 changed everything.

“It was like a switch, like walking into your bedroom at night and turning off that light,” Conenna said. “Phone calls no longer became reservations, they became cancellations and refunds, doubts and questions no one could answer.”

Conenna says he has processed 700 refunds since his clients, like so many others, canceled trips to Europe, Mexico and around the world.

But eight months into the pandemic, Conenna still comes to work every day, in the building where his father started this business more than 50 years ago.

“I can’t close this door. I have people, friends, family who still say to me, “What are you doing at Venus Travel?” he said. “I have work to do. It’s not the job I wanted to do, but it was always about serving the customer and helping them through this ordeal.

Conenna booked an emergency trip for a few clients. But he says it’s a small fraction of his old business.

Across town in Edgewater, Pleasant Travel near Devon Avenue is in a similar position.

Manager Ali Khan has operated from this location since the late 1990s, working with his wife and son to book trips for the region’s large immigrant communities.

“I mainly deal with all ethnic groups,” Khan said. “People traveling in Africa, people traveling in Europe, people traveling in the Middle East, and especially people traveling in Asia, where India and Pakistan are our main concentration.”

Like Venus Travel, the coronavirus has left Khan booking only a small number of trips – mostly to countries like Pakistan and Ethiopia, which have eased travel restrictions.

“Our business is down to almost 95% – 95% of the business no longer exists,” he said.

Khan says, however, that because his business is small and family-owned, he’s confident they’ll be able to hold their own.

“[We are] hoping that as soon as things get back to normal we will see people coming back to us,” he said. “It may take a bit of time, but hopefully by the end of February or early March we should be in a bit better condition than we are now.”

After falling in March, travel volume is slowly increasing again. The TSA reports a slight increase in air travel for October, although the numbers remain well below what they were before the pandemic.

And for Golden Travel and Accounting in West Lawn in southwest Chicago, the travel lockdown has meant pretty much abandoning that part of their business altogether.

Even before COVID-19, owner Raul Benavides had transitioned from booking most travel — typically flights to Mexico and Latin America — to almost entirely accounting and preparing taxes for small businesses.

“Electronic ticketing on the internet has come to us, they are killing us. We are therefore not currently booking trips. We are reserving taxes, accounting and payroll right now,” Benavides said.

Benavides says he hasn’t booked a single trip since March.

“It’s not a case of spending half an hour paying an employee to discover the ticket [price], with the charges, and the customer saying “No thanks”. So we can’t afford to do that,” he said.

Back on West Belmont Avenue, Conenna remains cautiously optimistic that things will bounce back, even if a new wave of COVID-19 sweeps through.

“This place has given me everything in my life, and for some reason I just don’t want this dream of my dad to go away,” he said. “But I really think if it goes on for another year, then it’s going to be something I have to decide. So I’ll try to give it another year.

Note: This story will be updated with a video.