David LaMere of LaMere Family Travel is putting together research to present to clients on a tour of Covered Bridges in Indiana as he works in his Coralville office on Wednesday. (Jim Slosiarek / The Gazette)
As much if not more than many other sectors, the travel industry has been hit hard by the effects of the pandemic for more than a year and a half. And the role they play in helping consumers and business travelers is like a roller coaster ride, Corridor travel agents said.
When the pandemic first became evident in Iowa in March 2020, travel nearly stopped.
“It’s been a very bumpy road in this industry,” said David LaMere, who has spent more than two decades working in the travel industry.
His plans to start his own travel agency – LaMere Family Travel, based in Coralville and covering the Iowa City area – were put on hold from early 2020 until April, when many pandemic restrictions began to be lifted and LaMere believed that now is the time to open its doors to customers.
Its initial business model involved purchasing tourist buses, which LaMere is grateful it did not do when the pandemic began to affect travel.
“This part of the travel industry has come to a screeching halt,” he recalled.
“I know a lot of really big coach companies that have been in the industry for 50 or 60 years and they’ve gone out of business and called it retirement time.”
Without a doubt, travel has been hit hard in 2020. Linchi Kwok, associate professor at Collins College of Hospitality Management, noted on the Hospitality Net website that according to the International Civil Aviation Organization, global air traffic has increased from 4.5 billion in 2019 to 1.8 billion in 2020.
He added that “hotel room revenues have been halved from $ 167 billion to $ 85 billion. Hotels were operating at around 44% occupancy in 2020, up from 66% in 2019. ”
But while many planes, trains, cruise ships and automobiles remained relatively empty, consumers did not give up working with travel counselors at the start of the pandemic, local experts noted.
“Our staff were actually very busy processing cancellations and making reservations to reschedule business and vacation travel, so we stayed pretty busy for a while,” said Duane Jasper, CEO of Travel Leaders / Destinations Unlimited, which has offices in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.
“I think we all had a different idea of when this pandemic ended,” Jasper said, noting that at one point he thought travel might be affected for a few months.
“And now here we are almost in a few years.”
Jasper said many travelers who had planned trips in mid-2020 put them off by several months and even had to move them a second time – or more – because variants of the virus made it difficult to recover from a pandemic.
“In fact, we’ve helped people change their vacation plans three and four times over the past 18 months,” he said. “This is what we are dealing with a lot today.”
Jasper and LaMere said working with travel counselors can be particularly beneficial in today’s travel climate, as requirements advice continues to change and it takes time to follow.
“You might have a good understanding of what it takes to enter a particular country today, but that could change in a few days,” Jasper said.
He said his agency worked with past clients, but also with many people who had not used an advisor in the past.
“We work with so many vendors and monitor so many websites to make sure we are up to date. It’s an ongoing effort because it’s constant change, ”he said.
“Things can take a brutal turn and change quickly,” agreed LaMere.
“I probably do one webinar per week with updated code regulations, just tracking which country is open, which countries are closing, what restrictions are in place.”
Through his agency, LaMere also serves as a travel insurance agent, which he says is gaining popularity with consumers.
“Travel insurance is one of the things I recommend for anyone traveling now to look at due to the ups and downs of the pandemic,” he said.
He said he knew of people who lost money on their plane tickets because they booked a flight before the pandemic, moved it within a year – but still couldn’t board the flight and now cannot get a refund from the airline.
In addition, he said many people came to see him, at a meeting, for example, to ask for travel advice in these uncertain times.
“In these technological times, we see a lot of people saying they can just go through Expedia or Travelocity and figure out their own travel plans,” LaMere said.
“But I always tell people that travel agents always have an advantage in this route because there are so many complex pieces that you are not going to go through these sites. And people are starting to see it now.
“They might have had a lot of trouble getting their travel dollars reimbursed or modified trips when they went directly to the supplier,” Jasper added.
“Obviously, as an agency that is active in this field, we have different channels and different resources and quite a different set of experiences and knowledge of how to help people get through this system. So what we are seeing, a lot more people are coming to us and people are booking trips most of which are for next year.
There is growing interest in international travel in the coming year, Jasper said, as borders open up and a consistent process is developed for moving from country to country. In fact, his company sent 30 people to Italy last week.
“Our biggest challenge was finding a place where everyone could get tested 72 hours before travel,” Jasper said. “So we know traveling can be done now, it’s just not an easy thing to navigate right now.”
LaMere has started to see tour bus travel picking up.
“Now, every time I have a meeting in the Quad Cities or wherever I take Interstate 80, I probably come across three or four buses. It’s not the 20 or 30 that I used to spend in that hour’s drive (before the pandemic). But there are people who travel with smaller groups.
As for the full recovery of the industry, only time will tell, it seems, just as the rest of the pandemic has unfolded, they said.
“We’re busy booking a lot of vacation trips right now, but we were down (in 2020) to about 10% and 15% of normal activity,” Jasper explained.
“We saw a little rebound in July, and we’re definitely going in the right direction. I would say now we were probably running at about 50% of our normal activity. “
With the delta variant, he added, “business has stabilized or maybe even declined slightly.”
Jasper and his team are working with around 80 companies across the Corridor to plan business travel, which has been slow to return to pre-pandemic activity levels.
“Companies were starting to bring people back to the office in June and July and people were traveling more frequently, but those plans were also pushed back,” he said.
LaMere said around this time of year that he would have his entire group travel schedule planned for 2022, but so far he’s only booked a few things until March of next year.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow and sometimes I feel like I’m constantly chasing my tail,” he said.
As for the upcoming holiday season, Jasper believes travel will be around 50% of normal, unless there are significant changes with the Delta variant or a significant increase in vaccination rates.
“I don’t know if I see any significant changes to increase travel by the end of the year,” he said.
But the travel industry is likely to pick up at some point, Jasper said.
“As soon as this variant is under control,” he said, “you know there is an appetite and a demand for travel.”
David LaMere of LaMere Family Travel gathers research to present to clients on a tour of Covered Bridges in Indiana while working in his Coralville, Iowa office on Wednesday, September 22, 2021 (Jim Slosiarek / The Gazette )
Souvenirs of appreciation from clients are seen in the office of David LaMere of LaMere Family Travel as he gathers research to present to clients on a tour of Covered Bridges in Indiana while working in his office from Coralville, Iowa, on Wednesday, September 22, 2021 (Jim Slosiarek / The Gazette)