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Like much of the travel and hospitality industry, travel agents took a huge hit when the pandemic struck in March 2020.
However, after months of struggle and setbacks, a potential silver lining has emerged: Travel advisors’ effective advocacy for clients stranded or stymied during the global lockdown has now become perhaps their strongest selling point.
“The bottom line is that the adversity of the last 15 months is not without some value,” said James Ferrara, co-founder and president of the Delray Beach, Florida-based InteleTravel network of some 60,000 home-based travel advisors. “For us, it drove customers back to a respect for professional advice and assistance.
“I don’t want to sound callous in any way; I’m very empathetic,” he cautioned. “I just want people to understand that you can use a travel agent.”
That’s because when Ferrara got into the business three decades ago, he saw a survey that “put travel agents somewhere below used car salesmen in terms of trust, credibility and value,” he said. “We’ve 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 advisors. “Before all of this, [planning] felt like an overwhelming process for clients who’d come to me,” said travel advisor Mike Rubinstein, owner and director of travel firm UprouteMe in Los Angeles. “They were staring at their computers, trying to sift through the mounds of information, misinformation and disinformation as far as travel goes, so I was always a help to them.
“But now, more than ever, with this added layer [of crisis], I think there’s just so much value added in coming to a travel planner.”
Jessica Griscavage, an advisor and director of marketing at McCabe World Travel in McLean, Virginia, recalls answering her mobile on a Friday night at the onset of the pandemic. It was her contact at the Four Seasons Resort and Residences Anguilla informing her that her client shouldn’t head to the airport in the morning because the Caribbean island had just closed its borders.
“The next day, we booked that client on a driving trip to Florida instead,” she said. “We were not only fighting for our clients and working 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 of 2020 were the two worst months of her entire career. “It happened right at spring break time, which was going to be my best spring break on record,” she said. “I was thinking ‘This is going to go away in a month and a half; it’s Zika [virus] all over again.'”
Instead, lockdowns continued from spring into summer and beyond. Rubinstein said his last client traveled in February 2020. “I literally had to close down for a year to keep afloat and try to figure out how to restructure my processes,” he said, adding he enrolled in a six-month paralegal course at UCLA in case travel didn’t bounce back.
Through it all, “we were just refunding and refunding, and we were fighting for our clients,” said Griscavage.
Despite that nonstop advocacy, travel advisors — for the most part, women operating small businesses — didn’t get paid when clients didn’t travel, noted Zane Kerby, CEO of the American Society of Travel Advisors in Alexandria, Virginia. “Our members keep planning, replanning and rebooking, so they’re doing more work and still not being paid for it,” he said. “The pandemic revealed a real weakness in the compensation structure for travel advisors.”
While there was a big push in many regions to support local shops, bars and restaurants amid lockdown, “people forgot about the other side of the hospitality industry, from the flight attendant and travel advisor to the [hotel] housekeeper,” Griscavage said. “It impacted our industry in a really bad way.”
Advisors weren’t always the endangered species they sometimes seem. Once upon a time, back in the pre-internet era, you’d take a short trip to a travel agency before setting out on a family vacation or business trip. Few people had the travel know-how or connections to book airfare, hotels stays or tour packages on their own, and travel agents would handle it all for you free of charge.
With the dawn of so-called online travel agencies, discount consolidator sites and travel supplier web portals in the late 1990s, consumers were able to book much of their travel themselves, at home, sometimes saving money in the process. (Gen Xers, who came of age as online agencies debuted, “were really the culprits here,” said Ferrara. ) Suppliers even started to cut travel advisor commissions altogether.
Using the internet cut out “the middleman” — i.e., the travel advisor, who was paid a commission by airlines, hotel chains and tour operators — so suppliers could offer seeming bargains at their own self-service sites or at online travel agencies. Problems arose, however, with unforeseen bumps in the road — natural disasters, political crises, industry strikes — and then travelers largely had to fend for themselves.
And what a bump Covid turned out to be. “When the pandemic hit, literally months of planning — for destination weddings, 50-year anniversary trips, these type of things — all this wonderful work was really all just for naught,” said Kerby. “Everything was just canceled in a matter of days — and with it, the modest commissions our members make to feed their families disappeared.”
But advisors’ work has continued. Ferrara said travel supplier cancellation and change policies changed weekly, their telephone lines were jammed and travel insurance claims had to be examined.
“Rules and regulations seem to change overnight,” Kerby said, citing a daily airline update he gets about safety, testing requirements and even local curfews that most travelers aren’t aware of. “That’s why the role of the travel advisor is more crucial than ever.
“The consumer they’re advocating for doesn’t have a relationship with all the various suppliers necessary in order to put together a really successful trip.”
And that’s worth paying for, he noted. When commissions began to be slashed two decades ago, some advisors introduced planning fees. “Some — not enough — of our members are charging service fees, which we completely believe in because they do all this work up front,” said Kerby.
And it’s work in the average traveler’s best interest, according Erika Richter, ASTA’s senior director of communications. “Travel advisors aren’t only for super-luxury or the super-rich, and they’re not pushing you in one direction and marking money off the back,” she said. “The value is there.”
Kerby said if advisors of yesteryear were unclear whom they worked for, commission cuts clarified things. “Even if they didn’t know it then, and they now do, we are advisors to the consumer.”
According to Griscavage, advisors today often charge a fee to book airline tickets — “they’re earning every penny,” she said — despite the ability to book yourself online because flights are constantly changing these days. “A client of mine was about to board a flight to Hawaii and it got canceled the night before,” she added. “So there is huge value in paying a service fee for airfares.”
She also charges what she calls a “plan-to-go” fee, which the client loses only if they ultimately do not travel. “Going forward, you’re going to see more [advisor] fees, but I do think people need to keep in mind that if they don’t travel, we’re not compensated.”
According to Ferrara, only a small percentage of InteleTravel’s home-based agents, usually top-selling ones, charge fees “as a way to be more efficient with their time.”
“It usually filters out the lookers,” he said, referring to window-shopping would-be travelers. Typical travel advisor fees can run as high as $500; some professionals, usually those focused on luxury, also require a daily minimum spending from clients when putting together a trip.
Griscavage requires no minimum but the average is $250. Richter said advisor fees have so many variables that “there’s no one-size-fits-all.”
“How many people are you bringing? Where are you from? It’s complex,” she added. “But it’s something that we have to address and that we’re happy to, because the value is there. And we’re really encouraged to see that more people are seeing that value.”
Whether or not to pay for travel advice is just a matter of how much travelers’ own time matters to them, Griscavage said. “We always say time is your most valuable asset, and that’s what we’re helping with here,” she said. “I’ve been on hold with a tour operator for two hours just to get an answer for my clients; that was two hours that the client didn’t have to do anything.”
The message seems to be getting through. According to Kerby, as travel bookings start to tick up once again, 30% to 40% of business now is from first-time users of advisor services.
For example, this year’s The American Express Travel: Global Travel Trends Report found that 59% of travelers surveyed plan to use a travel advisor to book their next vacation. A survey from ASTA and Montego Bay, Jamaica-based Sandals Resorts, meanwhile, found that while 27% of travelers always or often used an advisor prior to Covid and 44% say they are more likely to do so following the pandemic. In addition, 94% of longtime clients plan to continue to use their travel advisor.
“The future is bright,” Kerby said. “If you didn’t understand the value of a travel advisor before, you certainly do now because you realize how thin the response mechanisms are for some [travel] suppliers.”
He recalled stories of cruise ships unable to dock in ports last year amid Covid outbreaks onboard. “The people who’d booked with a travel advisor didn’t worry at all,” Kerby said. “Those who’d booked on their own were on the phone and Internet incurring extraordinarily high charges trying to figure out how to get home.”
Kerby said the former ASTA tagline was “Without a travel agent, you’re on your own.” The pandemic, he said, ultimately proved it correct. “Once you go and use one, you understand the value implicitly.”
Ferrara is even more blunt: “I think anyone who’s come through the last year would be crazy to book travel without a travel professional.”