It’s just another day at work for travel advisors in a coronavirus world.
Some are living off funds they set aside over the years; some are filing for unemployment; some are building a side business to help them survive the next few months. And at least one is waiting to be tested for the coronavirus he’s pretty sure he has.
With all her clients home safe, Kathleen Sullivan is trying to focus on things that will make her business run more smoothly when travel ramps back up. She is researching CRM systems, looking at TravelJoy and TravelContact, and thinking perhaps she will use one of those in combination with Dubsado, a workflow automation system that will generate reminders to clients at various steps in the booking process.
She’s also developing marketing content for online media and email; she already has completed her first “15-Minute Vacay” video, offering a virtual tour of Versailles with recommendations for hotels and tours.
As far as future business, Sullivan is researching a trip for “a couple who still thinks they are going to Antigua in May.” She spent some times renegotiating their final payment back to 14 days before departure, and now, for them and for other future clients, she is planning to take some online training courses about properties and destinations in the US and Canada, where she thinks travel will come back first.
She also plans to learn more about the art of choosing the right supplier. “I’m keen to educate myself more on the financial state of suppliers; I wish I understood more about how the industry works financially” to better choose suppliers that will survive, she said.
Deborah Izenberg, meanwhile, is reaping the rewards now of all the time she spent listening to mentors in small businesses of every ilk at SCORE and her local Chamber of Commerce, all of whom emphasized the importance of sticking to a strict budget and putting money away for the inevitable rainy day. She is glad to have those funds to fall back on now. Still, she has stopped all marketing and canceled her E&O insurance for the balance of the year, thinking no one will be traveling anyway.
Many are doing outreach to the local community, not selling travel but just staying in touch. Debbie Rogers hosted a virtual brunch with a travel theme, with a table runner from Turkey, Italian Prosecco, a mug from London, a coaster from Japan and, for the main dish, French toast, of course. Dillon Guyer hid a bunch of "social distancing" bags with frisbees, bubbles, jump ropes, silly string, candy, and some Guyer Travel swag on a local hiking trail, and is giving a few lucky customers who share his posts $10 gift certificates to local restaurants, thereby promoting his business while supporting theirs.
Sally Black offered up advice for travelers on her local PBS station; Sylvia Longmire is writing a book about her experiences as a wheelchair-bound traveler.
Kristy Durso of Incredible Memories Travel has come up with an idea for a whole new side business. While reading a story to her eight-year-old, she saw an opportunity in producing a kid-friendly YouTube series on interesting destinations around the world, paired with a written curriculum for them to follow at home.
In this environment, “I don’t feel comfortable saying, ‘Let’s talk about planning a trip for next year,’” she says. “This is a way to educate my clients about travel without selling them.”
With no hope of duplicating her amazing sales of last year, and a background as a Disney specialist, “it really seems to me that the more we focus on the relationship, the better we’re going to bounce back. And at a time when they are not actively booking travel, what better way to show these kids the world than by taking them on these journeys and doing an actual lesson about the countries and cities, their wildlife and history?” she says. “When they are ready to book, the kids will want to go explore and the parents will already have my name.”
Still working or laid off?
Many travel advisors have little time for side businesses, though; they are spending long hours on the phones trying to rebook or cancel reservations, or still keeping the home fires burning for stranded clients. Helen Deavers is texting and talking with clients quarantined in Cambodia and their family (and gave a shout out to Viking for their support.)
Lorraine Simpson is fighting a lawsuit from a client demanding a refund. Tracy Federico is filing for unemployment. Julie Bartz is fighting an Expedia TAAP booking for which the hotel is charging a $700 cancellation fee.
Cathy Wiechnik is starting insurance claims for her clients. Bob Preston paid out of his own pocket to get “two Dutch kids” home when their credit card was denied; they paid him back as soon as they arrived in Amsterdam.
Lauren Doyla stayed in constant WhatsApp communication with her client stuck in Thailand; her “amazing on location supplier,” Trails to Indochina, escorted them to the airport to change their ticket and back to the hotel, and back to the airport the next day for their flight.
Ami Greener is offering up a new category of excursions: “socially distant” fun (think horseback riding) for her multi-gen family group in Costa Rica. Mollie Ward is checking in regularly with a client “fleeing a dangerous home situation” who will be self-quarantining for two weeks.
Some still are working on future bookings. At Plaza Travel in California, one agent took a call from a client quarantined at Travis AFB after sailing on the Diamond Princess who wanted to book a new cruise.
And some are personally involved in corona travel drama. Rae Ann Wright is stranded at sea, on MS Roald Amundsen, where “crew, food and spirits are all positive and I am enjoying the adventure!” Sahar Eissa got all her clients home, but is herself still stuck in Cairo. W Will Medina is going the extra mile and hosting a client who has been stuck in Peru in his own house for his upcoming quarantine in Florida. And after deciding to stay in Colombia for now, Vincent Wong is providing pro-bono services to members of the local expat community trying to get out.
Leia Weeden, who had every client traveling against her recommendation sign a waiver, now has released those bookings; “if they get stuck, they’re on their own,” she says.
Rick Scadlock is busy “undoing all the plans that took me a year to put together, my heart sinking a little more with each plan and event we cancel,” for a group of 70 headed to Ireland and Scotland.
And even as this article goes to print, Claire Maguire is on the phone with a client who debarked from NCL Spirit and now is stuck at Schipol airport. “They cannot check in for their next flight (on a different airline) nor get their luggage as they are not allowed out of transit area. Cannot check in online nor will anyone at the airport assist them. Going on two hours now with multiple holds with three airlines on different phones, two WhatsApp chats and three Facebook chats . And the saga continues... hopefully I can get them on this flight tonight!”
Ralph Celento, though, will have a unique story to tell. His wife was in the Philippines looking at options for a branch of her travel agency that she hoped to open there, but the borders closed on March 14. Ralph woke up feeling “really bad, and then this morning it was worse, my throat is scratchy and I’m running a low grade fever,” he says. Military Health referred him for a teledoc, who set up an appointment for tomorrow morning. “My body aches; I have an intermittent cough and I’ve had a headache nonstop for two solid days; I feel warm” he says.
Coincidentally, his daughter has been living in Italy. And she’s not feeling well either.
It’s just another day in the travel industry.