The state of one local travel agency during a pandemic

I have been getting emails and messages from friends asking me how I'm handling the downturn in my travel business during COVID-19. Since no one is traveling now and I’m not designing nearly as many new trips, I decided to write a "state of the agency" update and share with my clients and my readership.

I am, by nature, an extremely positive and motivated individual. Still, it is disheartening to go from designing custom dream trips and talking to my fabulous clients to working with insurance companies and managing cancellations all day. For sure, the Coronavirus is brutalizing the travel industry - its financial impact is expected to be nine times worse than 9/11.

I was hoping to be on my own family vacation this week, exploring the red rocks and vortexes of Arizona! We had plans to visit state and national parks, hike, shop, swim, have some fantastic dinners out, and take in the beautiful scenery. But, like many of you, we are at home and are unsure of when we will be able to reschedule.

My heart is with everyone who has had long-planned trips canceled or, at the very least, pushed back for months or more. The hardest for me are the anniversary trips for clients who could not afford to travel when they were younger - some have waited 50 years to take a honeymoon! And some have had the means to travel, but have been overwhelmed with planning that complex, multi-country trip, and finally took the wise step to consult with a travel professional to make their long-awaited trip happen.

As I mentioned, my work days have changed and now look much like this:

Travel restrictions are changing rapidly, so the first thing I do each morning is read the latest travel news and advisories, and check in with my travel partners/suppliers, both domestic and international. Policies are changing (sometimes by the hour), and it is important to stay current. This week has been full of updates on enhanced cleaning protocols for our trusted, preferred resorts that are reopening soon in Mexico!

After catching up on industry news, I check on all reservations in date order, and touch base with those clients who have approaching trips and decisions to make. I spend much time each day updating insurance policies for those clients who have moved their trip dates, and also lots of time on firmly advocating on behalf of my clients who are due a refund from airlines/cruise lines/hotels and other travel suppliers.

I enjoy spending time talking with the business development managers who represent the brands and travel products that I support. However, as in other professions, many of these managers have been let go from their jobs, and the people that I have worked with for years are no longer available. I am forging new relationships as best I can. The travel industry is about people and relationships (two things I love), and I am spending some of my work time keeping up with them and with my travel colleagues; we encourage each other!

In between all of these things, I am keeping up to date on my certifications and destination training, streamlining my business processes, and taking some time to learn more than just my current 'travel Spanish' and improve my rough French and German, so that on my next international trip, I'll be better practiced. (Thanks, duolingo)!

My advice to everyone in these times is to be patient, as most travel suppliers won’t discuss a reservation until mere weeks (days!) before travel, but I’ve been quite proactive and have had luck working a little farther out. Those of us with relationships in the travel industry can get things done a bit easier than the average consumer. Make sure you are familiar with Terms and Conditions - if a flight has been cancelled, then you are due a refund! For my Arizona trip, Southwest Airlines canceled our flights and offered me only future travel credit. That was wrong. And of course, I told them that, and my refund is being processed :) 

If you have booked flights on your own for an upcoming trip, do not cancel them, even if you don't plan to travel - let the airline do it, and then you will have an option for future travel credit or a refund. It is much nicer to have the option! If, however, the airlines don’t cancel your flight, most airlines are waiving cancellation/change fees and offering future travel credit good for at least one year (sometimes more). And FYI - travel-related refunds have been taking anywhere from 4 weeks to 12+ weeks after they are requested; there is that much volume, so be patient!

Some of my thoughts on planning upcoming travel:

International Travel:

Personally, I am not recommending planning any new Europe/Asia travel until later 2020 or 2021. We have clients set to travel this fall to Europe and are holding out hope, but it remains to be seen whether or not US citizens will be welcome in all countries. Our dollar is strong, but European countries are leery of another spike of infections. For Caribbean/Mexico - currently things are set to open June 1 - July 1 (depending on the country), but flights are tricky to find, and I have been advising that until we see what it looks like for those traveling outside of the US and then returning, to wait a little bit longer. Unknown TSA, immigration, and customs procedures, along with the possibility of being quarantined upon your return are not how I would want to start/end my vacation. However, I will happily consult with any of you who would like to consider late summer/fall Caribbean/Mexico travel.

Cruise Lines:

The cruise lines have offered great incentives and pricing on 2021 and 2022 sailings, and I have had several customers take advantage of some stellar deals on Alaska and Caribbean sailings for the future. In most cases, there is little risk for booking these itineraries, as the cancellation policies are quite flexible. So if you are looking toward late 2020 or beyond, now is a good, risk-free time to consider booking.

Domestic theme parks:

These are still in flux - Shanghai Disneyland reopened on 5/11/20 and the world is watching to see what restrictions are there, and what the vacation experience will be like for those guests. Walt Disney World is currently taking summer 2020 reservations, but personally, I expect them to open only to a small amount of guests first - possibly Florida residents. Universal Studios Orlando is closed "at least through May 31." Nonetheless, you can book either destination now, and as always, that deposit is refundable (up to a certain point- ask your travel advisor).

Air Travel:

Upside - planes have never been cleaner and prices are great! Downside- many routes have been cut and finding flights has become tricky. Air passenger traffic is down by approximately 94%, and flying will look different once people are traveling again. That is an entirely different blog post, but it is a side effect of this pandemic that I am avidly following.

Alternate travel ideas:

Some domestic/closer-to-home vacation ideas to consider later this year when things start to open back up: Dude Ranches, US River Cruises (Mississippi River and Pacific Northwest), Hawaii, RV/road trips, National Parks, cabin rentals, beach/lake vacations, and train travel (Amtrak Vacations and Rocky Mountaineer). Whatever you choose, please DO book a refundable rate hotel/lodging, and read any airline terms and conditions carefully. As always, I urge you to consider adding travel protection and always, always, ALWAYS use a travel professional to handle your reservations.

Two things I know for certain:

1. The travel industry will rebound and be back stronger than ever. Who doesn't want to get out of their house for a change of scenery these days?

2. I miss planning travel for my clients and will be here for their travel-related questions, and also to plan/consult when they feel the time is right for their family to travel.

Important question - when this pandemic is under control, where do YOU want to travel??


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