Do You Use a Travel Agent? American Travel Agents Reflect on the Pandemic and Hold on to Hope
By Dana Armstrong
According to a report by the U.S. Travel Association, from 2010 to 2019, the total expenditures on both international and domestic flights increased every year. In 2019, the industry made a whopping $374.7 billion more than it did in 2010. For many travel agents, business seemed promising at the start of 2020.
“2019 was the best year we’d ever had,” said Cathy Lawler, owner of Lawler Classic Travel in Winchester, Virginia. “Then in January and February 2020, we had the highest sales we’ve ever had in those two months. We were expecting 2020 to be very, very good.”
“However, then the pandemic hit in March. We heard a little bit about COVID in January, but it wasn’t affecting travel for us at that time. But then when they shut down the cruise lines on the 13th of March 2020 and the islands started closing down, that’s when the bottom fell out.”
Travel Agents in Crisis
In the first few months following March, Lawler recalls spending countless hours on the phone for days on end. Beside her husband and business partner and her troop of 18 independent travel consultants all along the East Coast, they booked hundreds of last-minute flights home, canceled and processed refunds on upcoming trips, secured travel credit, and rescheduled other clients for later in the year—all without making a profit.
When the pandemic didn’t improve by summer 2020, they rescheduled or canceled even more trips.
Jo Wendland, an independent contractor and travel agent for Away We Go Travel based in southern California, experienced similar difficulties and concerns with the travel agency she worked for.
“I keep waiting to hear my manager say that our company’s closing the doors,” she said. “I know he’s cut back and only has a couple of people coming into the office to work part-time. We have a bunch of independent contractors [working from home], and I guess that’s helping keep the doors open.”
It’s not surprising that the lack of travel in 2020 was rough on travel agencies. The Phocuswright research company claims that travel agents lost a total of $12.4 billion.
Business vs. Leisure
Within travel advising, there are two main types of clients. Those who travel for business and those who travel for leisure.
The Statista Research Department reports that in 2019 the United States was one of the top-ranking countries in business tourism spending. But in 2020, the U.S. Travel Association found that “business travel spending fell by 70% (compared to 27% for leisure travel).”
“As far as business travel, I’ve not had any business travel in so long,” said Wendland. “I think most companies now are on Zoom. I had a communications company that I did business with regularly and sent them around to their different offices or their clients. Now it’s all Zoom.”
Additionally, she has noticed varying amounts of hesitancy among her clients who travel for leisure.
Finding Relative Safety in Island Time
For many Americans desperate to travel again and travel agents hoping to recover their losses, the first glimpse of hope was the reopening of the Caribbean islands. Antigua and St. Lucia invited back international tourists as early as June 2020, and Bermuda reopened on July 1, 2020.
Both Wendland and Lawler find that the majority of their clients are currently booking trips to the Caribbean and Mexico, though the Disney parks are also popular. From their own limited travels during the pandemic and their research on these destinations, they are somewhat comforted by the precautions countries and their businesses are taking.
In Mexico, Lawler found that the vast majority of restaurants, shops, and hotels placed hand sanitizer stations by their front doors and many even required temperature checks before entry.
Additionally, as COVID vaccines and testing become more readily available, more Caribbean islands are requiring proof of vaccination before entry, and the United States is requiring proof of a negative COVID test before re-entry. Oftentimes, COVID testing is offered right within the Caribbean’s hotels and resorts to streamline the process for travelers.
As Lawler says, “that’s not the case in Europe. [European] hotels are not providing COVID testing to get back to the U.S., so it’s going to be up to the individuals to find a place, say in London, to find a COVID test. And that’s the part of the puzzle that can be daunting for travelers.”
The Changing Role of Travel Agents
With constantly evolving travel requirements and COVID case trends, it has never been more difficult to plan a successful and safe international trip.
While it may be easy to purchase a flight ticket to an international country on your own, it will take lots of research to ensure you have the correct documents and vaccination status to enter the country. Plus, countries may also require a period of mandatory quarantine for which you may have to pay out of pocket.
Wendland described that one of her previous clients was a young couple trying to book a trip to the Dominican Republic with an additional few days in Panama. They started planning the trip in 2019 and were set to depart in April 2020 — until the pandemic struck. Then, they underwent multiple reschedulings with Wendland.
Since the couple was trying to get pregnant, they chose not to take the COVID vaccine. (The CDC claims that COVID vaccines are safe for anyone who is pregnant or planning to become pregnant.)
The couple planned to travel to the Dominican Republic in November 2021 without being vaccinated. In October 2021, the country began randomly testing new arrivals for COVID upon entry, though it still did not require vaccination. Passengers can exempt themselves from this random selection process by showing proof of vaccination three weeks after the final dose or proof of a negative COVID test 72 hours before arrival.
However, the couple’s Panama add-on had to be scrapped since, beginning in September 2021, the country required a 72-hour mandatory quarantine for unvaccinated people upon entry. Plus, their flights had to be rescheduled yet again to avoid any potential layovers in Panama while on their way to the Dominican Republic. Wendland had to keep up with all of these changes in the days leading up to their flight to ensure her clients’ safe arrival and departure.
The role of the travel agent has changed in 2021 to focus on helping clients successfully navigate the ever-changing, health-related logistics of travel. And that’s why the help of a travel advisor is now more important than ever.
The Importance of Travel Agents
“Unfortunately, the internet is making people believe they’re experts at everything because with a couple of clicks they can do something. But that’s not the case,” says Ric Hanamoto, President of Away We Go Travel.
He likens the expertise of a good travel agent to other trained professionals.
“It’s kind of like if you tried to do your taxes at the last minute and the tax laws are constantly changing. You would obviously go to a tax consultant or attorney. It’s the same as anything else.”
“You’re going to have to go to a professional bakery to get yourself a nice wedding cake, you know? And you can’t just sit down there and think, ‘oh, with a couple of strokes I’m going to tear apart my engine and rebuild it.’ No, that doesn’t work for a car either.”
As Wendland explains, “we [as travel agents] have our resources down, so we know [what tour companies] to go to and who we know will stand behind us and help us navigate these very rocky waters. So, I think clients rely more on us now because they don’t want that headache, and it is a headache.”
Hope on the Horizon
It is no secret that 2020 was rough on travel agents, but for those who persevered, travel’s return may be promising.
“2020 was a very stressful year,” says Lawler. “But never, never, ever, ever did I even consider getting out of the travel business because I knew it was a moment in time and that would change. I knew we would get COVID behind us and travel would rebound. So as stressful as it was, never was it a consideration to throw in the towel.”
That was a decision that she, and definitely her clients, will be grateful for as the world slowly reopens to travel and they can start planning and taking trips once again.