Travel Agents and First Travelers Ready to Navigate a New World Order

(guvendemir/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images) Photo by guvendemir/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

There likely will be masks. Empty middle seats. Prepackaged food and snacks in the air and servers at the buffet tables at sea (if there are buffets at all). Check-in may require a nasal swab and a health certificate—and expect itinerary changes and cancellations along the way.

Without question, the first intrepid travelers to hit the post-corona road will find an experience as changed as it was post-9/11. And, indeed, perhaps that in itself is part of the draw for the many who are raring to go and the travel advisors eager to book them.

The first travelers—and among them, surely, will be the luxury travelers—likely will stay close to home or head for the roads less traveled. 

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“I’ve been in the travel business for 45 years and it’s never been like this: Travel is frozen; one in 10 people in the world is in the hospitality industry; and the cruise business is sort of doomed for a while,” says Jack Bloch, owner of luxury travel agency JB’s World Travel Consultants in New York. "But I have clients ready to go in July and supplier contacts in Shanghai and China who tell me they are back to normal. People will want to travel as soon as they can—and, more than ever, they will want that personalized service that a travel advisor offers. They will want more privacy; they will want to know not just who the company is, but even who their driver is.”

Initially, Bloch predicts, luxury clients will head to places that are a little more remote, like New Zealand, which has very low rates of COVID-19, or the South Pacific. Europe will take longer.

“People will look for open places, adventure and private islands. And my clients always want insider access—so can you imagine now? That will become even more of a trend if you can afford it,” Bloch adds.

That all bodes well for travel advisors who manage to hang on for the next few months, says Bloch and many of his colleagues.

“Back in the old days” travel agents, as they then were called, didn’t need any information to buy an airline ticket for a customer—not even a birth date or passport number. So much more will be required now and, more than ever, it will take a professional to get it right

Beyond the actual booking, though, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown just how badly things can go wrong, how quickly regulations can change—and how costly errors can be. From the story of the rich family that chartered a plane and a villa, only to be denied entry to the island when they arrived, to the many who ended up stranded in foreign ports, the takeaway for the traveling public is that it never hurts to have a professional advisor with local contacts watching out for you.

Travel advisors will need to be better educated than ever, more aware of the world news and the ever-changing regulations, and more in touch with the procedures and financial states of the suppliers with whom they partner.

After 9/11, Bloch says, it took just “a month, maybe two at the most” for his customers to be clamoring to get away. “It was a hit, and then life started again. It was shockingly short.”

First to return will be private yachts and private aircraft, he predicts. Cruise lines likely will slash prices and go direct to consumers; in any event, margins will be so low that the business will not be attractive to travel advisors, unless they charge fees.

“Absolutely, luxury will come back first,” he says. “My customers tend to travel four or five times a year. And folks who have money, even if they are not making money in the market, have enough to travel. Luxury travel is always an escape from reality—and they are going to be antsy and want to go because they have been cooped up for so long.”

Beyond the Luxury Market

A little further down the economic scale, many say that while customers are eager to go, the return to travel will take a while.

Toni Day, owner of Toni Tours Inc. in Levittown, NY, said her customers see travel “not as a luxury but as a necessity. They are all ready to go—but they are not stupid. They are waiting until it’s safe.”

A first responder who worked in downtown Manhattan in the days after 9/11, while running a travel business on the side, Day agrees that “9/11 was an event; it happened and then we moved on. Here we don’t know when we can start the rebuild. Until we have a vaccine I don’t see things starting to get back to normal.”

Still, she is talking to customers about spring 2021. “Baby Boomers living on pensions and 401(k)s may not be so quick to make a big withdrawal for that big intergenerational vacation, but they will take one trip a year, even if they can’t take two.”

In Kansas, meanwhile, Amanda Storm says her town has fewer than 40 cases of COVID-19, and she does have quite a few clients ready to travel this summer, including one who’s “holding out for the end of May.”

At her EarMarked Disney agency, 30 to 40 percent of her annual business normally is headed to Disney World—a trip that families spend months dreaming about and planning and saving for. With schools closed for the year, no one has canceled yet for this summer, though some have mentioned they might have to reevaluate whether they will have the time off that they expected if they are called back to work.

“I don’t think most people are ready to just hop on a plane and go; I think it will be a slow rollout,” she says. Some may drive, even though it’s 1,200 miles. “But I think people want to return to what normal was.”

Indeed, she had clients book vacations just last week. “They said they can adjust if they need to, but they have to have something to look forward to. Risk-averse travelers will be more inclined to stay in the U.S.; adventurous ones may do the Caribbean instead of Machu Picchu this year. But travel is something you get to enjoy three times—when you are planning, when you are traveling and when you are in the destination. And people are going to travel.”

In Austin TX, though, Lainey Melnick’s Dream Vacations franchise is taking things slowly. “Our industry is based on social gathering, so when the world feels we are safe to gather again and the health officials propose requirements to make those gatherings more safe, our industry is ready and will be there to bounce back quickly,” she says.

As a travel professional, her priority is the health and wellbeing of her clients. “We are taking each day as it comes with the newest announcements, cancellations and modifications,” Melnick tells us. “Pushing out travel to late 2020, 2021 and beyond is giving clients some confidence that we will come out of this and find a new normal on the other side without sacrificing our love of the world and travel.”

A Quick Roundup

Many travel advisors share those sentiments or simply have no choice. Asked how many trips they have booked since the outbreak began, Deborah Izenberg at GeoLuxe Travel LLC says “zip, zero, nada.” Susanne van Speybroeck of Cruise Planners in Texas says “none, and not for lack of trying.” “Nothing,” says Amy Shannon of Cruise Planners in North Carolina. “Ha,” says Eva Grodberg of Epic Experiences in New York. “Every time the phone rings I lose $1,000—though I did get a Cancun request for April 15. Still laughing.”

Randall McKeown of The Travel Agent Next Door in Ontario has personally contacted every client—and none are ready to book, given that suppliers are not offering cash refunds and travel insurance companies are continually changing their policies. “We can only wait and see,” he says.

Others have had more luck, though. Janey Noblett of Dreamtravel4you in Tampa booked eight Viking Cruises, three in the British Isles and five on the new Mississippi itinerary for 2022. Angela Hughes at Trips & Ships Luxury Travel booked two groups for Christmas markets this year and one Beaches Turks & Caicos for next. Michael Graham’s new bookings include a Tauck Spain & Portugal tour for fall 2021, a multi-gen Mediterranean cruise for next fall and a group for Royal Caribbean in October 2021. He advised a customer against booking a June 2020 cruise, but is working on an Oceania cruise to Monte Carlo and Sicily in 2021. “Things are looking up!” he says.

Indeed, against all odds, cruise bookings seem to be holding on, at least among customers who use travel advisors—and even when they are carefully apprised of all that might go wrong.

“The majority of my new bookings have been cruises (Caribbean, Alaska and Europe), plus a few Disney resorts for December,” says Michele Bridges at Bridges & Holman Worldwide Travel. “They have all booked with the strict warning that what they are booking will most likely be moved or changed. As long as the client understands the risk, I will book it.”

Her partner David Holman agrees, saying, “I just this week booked a small group for a Med cruise in November. I talked to them extensively about the chance of cancellation of itinerary changes. And they decided to go ahead.”

And, of course, love conquers all; another bright spot is honeymoons and destination weddings, many say. While her river cruise clients at Vitamin T Vacations are mostly on hold, owner Molly Murphy’s honeymooners have just moved from the summer to the end of September. And First Class Travel reports two new honeymoon bookings for October, one to Grenada and one to Hawaii; as “honeymoon couples are staying positive and going ahead with their plans for this fall.”

Also popular are U.S. destinations. Geoff Millar of Ultimate All-Inclusive Travel has sold six Hawaii vacations; Kat Casarez-Perkins at Choice Travel Adventures sold one Hawaii and one Alaska (though her overall sales are down 99 percent). Jennifer Walker’s clients at Camelback Odyssey Travel in Phoenix are looking only slightly farther afield, at discounted all-inclusives in Mexico through Apple Vacations.

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