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Like much of the travel and hospitality industry, travel agents took a huge blow when the pandemic broke out in March 2020.
However, after months of struggles and setbacks, a potential silver lining has emerged: effectively advocating travel agents for clients stranded or disabled during the global lockdown is perhaps their strongest selling point now.
“The bottom line is the adversity of the past 15 months is not without worth,” said James Ferrara, co-founder and president of the InteleTravel network, based in Delray Beach, Fla., Which includes approximately 60,000 home travel agents. “For us, it has brought customers back to a respect for professional advice and support.
“I definitely don’t want to sound numb; I’m very empathetic, ”he warned. “I just want people to understand that you can use a travel agent.”
Because when Ferrara got into the business three decades ago, he saw a survey that “places travel agents among used car sellers in terms of trust, credibility and value,” he said. “We have come a long way from that, and the last year has accelerated that.”
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Even before the crisis, some travelers remained loyal to their advisors. “Before all that [planning] felt like an overwhelming process for customers who came to see me, “said travel consultant Mike Rubinstein, owner and director of UprouteMe travel company in Los Angeles.” They stared at their computers, trying to sift through the mountains of information and misinformation Disinformation when it comes to travel so I was always a help to them.
“But now, more than ever, with that extra layer [of crisis]”I think a trip planner has so much added value.”
Jessica Griscavage, a consultant and director of marketing at McCabe World Travel in McLean, Virginia, recalls answering her cell phone on a Friday night at the start of the pandemic. It was her contact person at the Four Seasons Resort and Residences Anguilla who informed her that her client should not go to the airport in the morning because the Caribbean island had just closed its borders.
“The next day we booked this customer for a trip to Florida instead,” she said. “We not only fought for our customers and worked to get them refunds and date changes – for those who were still willing to travel, we switched gears and got them to do something else.”
Griscavage said March and April 2020 were the two worst months of her entire career. “It happened at exactly spring break time, which was going to be my best spring break on record,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is going to go away in a month and a half; it’s Zika [virus] once again.'”
Instead, the lockdowns lasted from spring to summer and beyond. Rubinstein said his last client traveled in February 2020. “I literally had to close for a year to stay afloat and figure out how to restructure my processes,” he said, adding that he was looking for a six-month paralegal I have enrolled in the UCLA course in case the trip has not recovered.
“We just always refunded and refunded, and we fought for our customers,” said Griscavage.
Despite this uninterrupted advocacy, travel advisors – mostly women who ran small businesses – weren’t paid when customers weren’t traveling, noted Zane Kerby, CEO of the American Society of Travel Advisors in Alexandria, Virginia. “Our members are always rescheduling, rescheduling, so they’re doing more work and still not getting paid,” he said. “The pandemic has revealed a real weakness in the compensation structure for travel agents.”
While there has been a lot of pressure in many regions to support local shops, bars and restaurants during the lockdown, “people are forgetting about the other side of the hospitality industry, from the flight attendant and travel agent to the [hotel] Housekeeper, “Griscavage said.” It’s been really affecting our industry. “
Advisors have not always been the endangered species as they sometimes seem. Once upon a time, in the pre-internet era, you would take a quick trip to a travel agent before going on a family vacation or business trip. Few people had the travel expertise or connections to book flights, hotel stays, or travel packages themselves, and travel agents did it all for you for free.
If you didn’t understand the value of a travel advisor before, surely you do now.
CEO of the American Society of Travel Advisors
With the advent of so-called online travel agencies, discount consolidator sites, and travel agent web portals in the late 1990s, consumers were able to book much of their trips themselves, sometimes saving money in the process. (Gen Xer, who grew up as online agencies, “really were the culprits here,” Ferrara said.) The vendors even started cutting commissions for travel agents overall.
With the help of the Internet, “the middleman” was eliminated, the travel consultant who received commissions from airlines, hotel chains and tour operators so that the providers could offer seemingly bargains on their own self-service sites or in online travel agencies. Problems arose, however, with unforeseen bumps in the road – natural disasters, political crises, industrial strikes – and then travelers had to largely self-cater.
And what a bump Covid turned out to be. “When the pandemic hit, there were literally months of planning – for destination weddings, 50th anniversary trips, that kind of thing – all of this wonderful work was really in vain,” Kerby said. “Everything was canceled within a few days – and with that, our members’ modest commissions to support their families disappeared.”
But the work of the consultants continues. Ferrara said travel providers’ cancellation and change policies changed weekly, their phone lines were blocked, and travel insurance claims needed to be reviewed.
“Rules and regulations seem to change overnight,” Kerby said, citing a daily update from the airline he receives on security, testing requirements and even local curfews that most travelers are unaware of. “That is why the role of the travel advisor is more important than ever.
“The consumer they advocate has no relationship with all of the various vendors it takes to put together a truly successful trip.”
And it’s worth paying for it, he noted. When commissions were cut two decades ago, some consultants introduced planning fees. “Some – not enough – of our members have service fees that we believe fully because they do all of this work in advance,” said Kerby.
And it’s a job in the best interests of the average traveler, says Erika Richter, ASTA’s senior director of communications. “Travel agents aren’t just for the super-luxuries or the super-rich, and they don’t push you one way or cut money,” she said. “The value is there.”
Kerby said if yesterday’s consultants were unclear who they were working for, commission cuts would clarify. “Even if they didn’t know it then and now know, we are advisers to the consumer.”
According to Griscavage, consultants today often charge a fee for booking airline tickets – “they make every penny,” she said – despite the ability to book yourself online as flights are constantly changing these days. “A customer of mine was about to board a flight to Hawaii and it was canceled the night before,” she added. “So there is great value in paying an airfare service fee.”
It also charges a so-called “plan-to-go” fee, which the customer only loses if he ultimately does not travel. “You will see more in the future [advisor] Fees, but I think people need to keep in mind that if they don’t travel we won’t get any compensation. “
Ferrara says only a small percentage of InteleTravel’s home agents, typically the best-selling, charge “to be more efficient with their time”.
“Usually it filters out looks,” he said, referring to window shopping wannabe travelers. Typical travel agent fees can be up to $ 500; Some professionals, usually those focused on luxury, also require their clients to spend a minimum daily amount of time when putting together a trip.
Griscavage doesn’t require a minimum, but the average is $ 250. Richter said consultant fees have so many variables that there is “no one size fits all”.
“How many people are you bringing with you? Where are you from? It’s complex, ”she added. “But it is something that we need to address and that we are happy to accept because the value is there. And we are really encouraged to see more people see that value.”
Whether or not to pay for travel advice depends only on how important travelers’ free time is to them, Griskavage said. “We always say that time is your most precious asset, and that’s where we help here,” she said. “I was on hold at a tour operator for two hours just to get an answer for my customers. That was two hours in which the customer didn’t have to do anything.”
I think anyone who got through the last year would be crazy to book a trip without a travel professional.
President of InteleTravel
The message seems to be getting through. Kerby says 30-40% of business is now coming from first-time users of advisory services as travel bookings start ticking again.
For example, this year’s American Express Travel: Global Travel Trends Report found that 59% of travelers surveyed plan to book their next vacation through a travel agent. Meanwhile, a survey by ASTA and Montego Bay, Jamaica-based Sandals Resorts, found that 27% of travelers before Covid always or often used an advisor and 44% say they are more likely to do so after the pandemic. In addition, 94% of long-term customers plan to continue using their travel advisor.
“The future is bright,” said Kerby. “If you didn’t understand the value of a travel advisor before, surely you do now because you know how thin the reaction mechanisms are for some” [travel] Delivery.”
He recalled stories of cruise lines unable to dock in ports last year amid Covid outbreaks on board. “The people who booked with a travel agent weren’t worried at all,” said Kerby. “Those who booked alone were on the phone and on the Internet and had to pay exceptionally high fees to find out how to get home.”
Kerby said the former ASTA slogan was “Without a travel agent, you’re on your own.” The pandemic, he said, ultimately proved it was right. “As soon as you go and use one, you implicitly understand its value.”
Ferrara is even more blunt: “I think anyone who got through the last year would be crazy to book trips without a travel professional.”