Travel agencies

Travel agencies have a moment amid Covid-19 chaos

Travel has become difficult due to complexity, uncertainty, cancellations, delays, border restrictions and virus-related testing requirements. As a result, many travelers booking a beach getaway or other trips turn to professionals to help them plan. Travel counselors — don’t call them travel agents anymore — are cool again.

“With the pandemic, our credibility and our necessity have exploded, and I think we are now advocates for that,” says Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, co-president of Valerie Wilson Travel, a New York-based business and leisure travel agency. York. it is a unit of Frosch International Travel. “Travel is possible. It’s just difficult.”

Do-it-yourself bookings and declining airline commissions squeezed travel agencies from the 1990s. Survivors mostly booked cruises and elaborate travel for customers interested in luxury accommodations, as well than the big business of corporate travel managers.

The industry has proven resilient, and now it’s hot. Travelers are eager to get somewhere after many have been sitting on the ground for a year or more. And they have myriad questions about what you need to do to travel abroad and how you can protect yourself from disappointment, delays and financial loss. More of them turned to travel advisors.

A survey of leisure travelers conducted for the American Society of Travel Advisors and Sandals Resorts this spring found that about 17% of travelers are likely to use a travel advisor for the first time when the pandemic is over. .

In the online survey of 410 travelers, 44% said they were more likely to use a travel advisor. Around 27% have used advisors before, so the difference is the first opportunity for advisors. (The survey’s margin of error was 4.8%).

Avi Gilburt, a stock technical analyst and adviser in Maryland, had started looking for a travel adviser before the pandemic, but the crisis pushed him into the rookie category. He and his wife were traveling more, and all the planning was getting too much for him to handle.

“Covid was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he says.

Mr. Gilburt and his wife continued to travel through the pandemic. This required many changes and adjustments, managed by travel consultant Angela Musso of Valerie Wilson Travel.

Using a travel advisor means you probably won’t get the cheapest prices, Gilburt says, but the reduced hassle justified the extra cost.

And in some ways, advisors can save money. One cancellation involved a $10,000 non-refundable reservation at a five-star Caribbean hotel. Ms. Musso used her connections to get a refund from Mr. Gilburt.

Travel counselors say their job has become more complex. They must keep up with ever-changing border restrictions. They have to sort out Covid-19 restrictions on insurance policies. They should have a plan B for elaborate events like destination weddings or family reunions if plan A becomes impractical due to a viral outbreak somewhere. Plan C may also be required.

Just last week, Hawaii’s governor tried to keep vacationers away and cut non-essential travel because the Delta variant of the Covid-19 virus was sickening enough people to approach hospital capacity. limit of the islands.

“Here we go again,” says Nancy Scorby of Scorby Travel & Cruise in St. Charles, Illinois. Hawaii was a destination she sold successfully. Now that probably means a new wave of cancellations and rebookings.

Like many businesses, travel agencies have suffered greatly from the pandemic. Advisors first worked to bring customers stranded abroad back into the chaos of the shutdown in March 2020. Then they fought to get customers refunds and usable credits for canceled trips. The vacation was booked and rebooked.

With little new revenue coming in and even expenses being reimbursed, Marc Casto, president of leisure in the Americas for Flight Center Travel Group, said he had to make significant layoffs. Now he is aggressively rehiring. Earlier this year, vaccination led to an increase in travel bookings.

“April has been a very busy month,” says Mr. Casto, based in Montvale, NJ, and also Chairman of the Board of ASTA. Many were new customers worried about all the risks and unknowns. Additionally, there is uncertainty as to what is actually open at various destinations for restaurants, museums, events and attractions, as well as how to safely navigate ground transportation.

“Whenever there is complexity, whenever there is uncertainty, whenever the rules are mysterious, there are even more benefits to having the service,” says Casto.

ASTA held its annual convention in Chicago a week ago and attracted 550 travel counsellors, more than the 470 who showed up in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 2019. At each gathering, the number of representatives from airlines, hotels, cruise lines, tour companies, car rental companies and travel insurance companies outnumbered actual agents.

According to attendees, the mood was euphoric, not only excited to reconnect in person, but also energized by the industry’s sudden renaissance. There was even a training session for new travel counselors – people who joined the profession during the pandemic when few were traveling.

“I think the appreciation for work has changed,” says ASTA Managing Director Zane Kerby.

A big question facing travel advisors: what do they need to charge clients now to generate profits when each trip requires more time to design, book and track?

Some agencies charged fees to clients; others relied solely on commissions. Now more training is needed for agents. And if travel needs to be rebooked, advisors can end up spending hours and hours on hold with airlines, property rental companies and the like. “For a $40 service charge, that’s not very good at math,” says Kerby.

Kareem George, who runs a three-person agency called Culture Traveler in Franklin, Michigan, now offers an annual retainer of $2,500 on top of a fee structure ranging from $100 to $500 per trip. He says more than 40% of his current clients are new to travel advisors as a result of the pandemic.

Services that may have been offered only to the best customers may now be mandatory, such as restaurant reservations or local transport arrangements.

“Consumers are really getting it more than ever,” he says. “This really is an opportunity for those who didn’t charge fees before to introduce fees.”

Intel for travel in 2021

Travel counselors say they have added new strategies and procedures to travel planning. Here are some suggestions:

1) Stay in one country. More tours through the regions of several countries. You need to minimize border crossings and subsequent testing requirements.

2) Know where and when you will go for your Covid-19 test required to re-enter the United States The test must meet certain requirements. Know how you will get to the test site, if you need to go somewhere, and how long the results will take.

3) Pay more attention to field issues. Will you need dinner reservations? What are the local mask requirements? What is open and what is restricted? How will you get around if you’re worried about buses and the metro?

4) Walk into a maintenance desk at the airport if you need to renew your Global Entry but cannot get an appointment with Customs and Border Protection. Often, agents can fit you in because of no-shows and schedule confusion.

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