With more people getting vaccinated and the C.D.C. largely giving the greenlight to travel for those who have had all their shots, a real-deal vacation this summer may be a reality for millions of Americans.
The news couldn’t come soon enough for the travel industry, which is hoping for a Roaring Twenties-level rager of a rebirth this summer. Flight bookings are up, hotels are filling fast, rental cottages have no availability and travelers are desperate to go pretty much anywhere.
Acting as de facto party planner? The previously disrupted, still-kicking, often misunderstood travel agent.
“We have clients who are calling us from the 15-minute waiting period after their second vaccine shot,” said Wendy Burk, founder and chief executive of Cadence, a La Jolla, Calif., travel agency. “They’re making sure they don’t have an allergic reaction, and they’re on the phone with their travel adviser saying, ‘Book me now! Book me anything!’”
Many travel agents are seeing an unprecedented surge of business, as Covid-19 has given them a new relevancy, thanks largely to the morass of constantly changing rules and restrictions that travelers must navigate.
“We had two days in March where we broke records for the number of transactions booked in a single day,” said James Ferrara, the president of InteleTravel, a 60,000-member global travel adviser network. “Our overall business is up 35 percent, not from 2020, which was an aberration, but from 2019, which was the highest year we’d ever had.”
Nearly 50 percent of those inquiries are from new customers, Mr. Ferrara said.
Indeed, travel may be on its way back, but it’s complicated. Harried Americans are looking for a proper vacation, not a stressful travel-planning experience.
Angelica Spielman, a San Diego-based financial consultant, first began working with a travel agent in the spring of 2020 at the advice of her mother-in-law. “I wanted someone to help me get creative with my kids during Covid,” she said.
Ms. Spielman, who is 38 and originally from Panama, traveled extensively with her husband and two young sons before the pandemic and enjoyed the travel-planning process. But the amount of time required to plan a trip, especially with the year’s added complications, motivated her to try something new.
Once the pandemic started, she found that “going to every hotel website, or calling them to find out what their safety protocols are, that’s a lot of time.”
In 2020, her family traveled to Carmel, Calif., and Santa Fe, N.M., on the recommendation of John Beeler, their agent; this March, they traveled to Punta Mita, Mexico.
“For this international trip, he knew what resort had medical facilities on-site in case one of us got sick,” Ms. Spielman said. “He can handle it, and I can be on vacation and fully relax.”
Booming new business for an old sector
Business, through online inquiries or telephone calls, is up for travel agencies of all types and sizes, from large companies like InteleTravel to two-person operations and even to newly opened companies. According to a flash poll conducted by ASTA, the American Society of Travel Advisors, in early March, 76 percent of travel advisers are seeing an increase in customers in 2021, compared to before the pandemic, and 80 percent are hearing from travelers who have never worked with a travel adviser before.
Even before the pandemic, travel agents scrambled to remain relevant with the rise of direct booking sites like Expedia and Booking.com, not to mention Google and Airbnb. Agents closed down brick-and-mortar locations and moved online, touting their expertise and connections while appealing to travelers too busy to plan trips for themselves. According to ASTA, the travel-agent business (or travel adviser, per a 2018 ASTA rebrand) saw an uptick between 2016 and 2019, because of millennials: This age cohort was eager to outsource the planning and benefit from V.I.P. treatment.
Ms. Burk said that 20 percent of her 2021 business so far comes from clients who are either new to using her agency, or, like Ms. Spielman, are new to using a travel agent all together.
“Lots of people got burned last spring. They didn’t have an advocate to call the airline and get their airline tickets or their cruise credited,” Ms. Burk said. “Now, the level of complexity needed to go on a basic trip has drastically increased. A client who, typically, would have planned on their own previously are looking to a professional to say, ‘Please show me the ins and outs.’”
Another full-time job
The sheer breadth of information to track, including vaccine requirements and closed borders, not to mention the rapidity with which everything can change, is challenging.
This has become Lambie Swenson’s role at Exclusive Resorts, a membership-based travel company that has a portfolio of 350 luxury villas around the world. Ms. Swenson’s official title is the Covid Navigator (in addition to her role as the senior manager of member services). She holds regular Zoom meetings for and fields emails from Exclusive Resorts members trying to plan travel in 2021 and beyond.
“A member will ask, ‘We’re interested in Cabo, but we’ve been very cautious. What’s the overall feel there?’ Or, ‘My husband is vaccinated but my kids and I aren’t’,” she said. “We get a lot of inquiries about varying requirements on different Caribbean islands. ‘Will I be able to leave my resort? How many times will I have to get tested?’”
Ms. Swenson monitors the news, and relies on reports from employees and partners at the various destinations that the club serves. There are daily morning meetings to discuss any changes in requirements to any of the destinations.
“Keeping up with the requirements for Hawaii alone is a full-time job,” she said.
Cassie Bendel, who began working with Westwind Travel Service, a two-woman partnership, in August 2019, also feels that understanding the travel rules consumes a significant amount of time. She traveled to Jamaica last November to document and vet safety procedures for her clients and more recently, she attended a 90-minute online training focusing on Hawaii’s travel protocols.
“These are things that the average traveler just doesn’t want to have to deal with,” Ms. Bendel said.
Nicole Piatak, a nanny from Stow, Ohio, began working with Ms. Bendel in the fall of 2019 to plan her honeymoon, a six-day trip to Hawaii, in October 2020.
“I love travel and adventure, but planning can be very overwhelming and exhausting for me,” Ms. Piatak, who is 27, said.
When Hawaii closed its borders to tourists last year, Ms. Bendel took the reins rebooking her trip to January.
“Once a twice a month, I would hear from her with updates on the situation in Hawaii,” Ms. Piatak said of Ms. Bendel. “I was so upset that we weren’t able to go in October, and she just took all of it off my plate.”
While the outlook for 2021 is more promising, travel agents are still reeling from the devastation of 2020. According to ASTA, the average agency saw business crater 82 percent last year and it laid off about 60 percent of its staff.
“The first couple of months, travel advisers were cracking their knuckles, getting their headsets on,” said Erika Richter, ASTA’s senior communications director. “They were heads down, getting people home. Now, mind you, they weren’t getting paid.”
Barring booking fees, which can range from $25 to around $100, depending on the type and complexity of a trip, agents typically make money with commissions from cruise lines, hotels, tour operators, sometimes airlines, often months after the client takes the actual trips. When people aren’t traveling, agents aren’t making much, if any, money.
“My advisers were unwinding what would have been their biggest year ever,” said Ms. Burk about those first months of the pandemic. “There was almost a grieving process. They went from making a huge income to suddenly applying for unemployment.”
A different way forward
Travel advisers hope that the past year has emphasized the continued relevance of their services.
“When I got into this business 30 years ago, I remember seeing a trust and credibility survey that put travel agents somewhere around the same level as a used-car salesman,” Mr. Ferrara said. “I think the adversity of the past year has focused travelers on the value of professional advice.”
Increased interest has also opened the possibility for new iterations of travel-planning businesses. The company Authenteco, which went live last May, has 24-hour text messaging support and an online interface allowing users to enter their travel style, interests and desired trip details; Authenteco has seen a 667-percent increase in trip requests since January. Another company, elsewhere.io, began in this month and matches travelers with local experts to craft itineraries centered around off-the-beaten-track experiences.
“We’ve seen around 200 to 300 new sign-ups per month, since November, with no paid advertising,” said Craig Zapatka, an elsewhere.io founder.
Alexis Bowen, another elsewhere.io founder, said that the company stays in constant communication with its network of local experts, whether based in South Africa or Mongolia.
“They’re the first one to know what’s happening in their own country, getting information from their own government in their own language,” she said. Having an accurate sense of how these local communities feel about opening up to travelers, before advertising trips there, is nonnegotiable.
“A big part of our company is about evaluating the positive impact of our trips on the ground,” Ms. Bowen said. “The question has been, is it actually good for us to be pushing travel in a time like this? Is this really good for the destination?”
Shelby Dziwulski, the Authenteco founder, has turned down clients that she doesn’t trust to be responsible travelers — including one who refused to get a Covid test before a trip.
“Yes, we want to plan your perfect vacation; yes we want it to be all about you and want it to be phenomenal, but never at the expense of a destination, their local community and their environment,” she said.
Whatever the style of trip, and of travel agent, Ms. Richter of ASTA hopes that travelers can appreciate the value of having a professional in their corner.
“You can only do your first post-pandemic vacation once. We hope!” she said.
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