More than six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, hotel occupancy rates are still down, most cruise ships are docked, meeting and conference halls are empty, and travel agent bookings have stopped — or at least slowed considerably.
“There has been zero business travel booked since this pandemic started, and all international leisure travel has been negatively affected,” says Laurel Brunvoll, owner and president of Unforgettable Trips in Gaithersburg, MD.
But the pandemic is also showing that this industry is among the most resilient. Simply put, people want to travel. And travel advisors and suppliers alike are eager to get them on the road, in the air and aboard cruise ships. In fact, advisors who commented for this article say business is slowly returning; and some are getting inquiries and bookings for 2021 and beyond.
Sectors like air and lodging are already at work, albeit at a reduced capacity. According to the Transportation Security Administration, for example, the number of passengers going through checkpoints has been on a slow rise, from the low of 87,534 on April 14 (a 96 percent freefall from the same date in 2019) to over 2 million over the recent Labor Day weekend. Nearly half that total came on that Friday, when 968,000 travelers flew – the highest number since March 17.
And according to an American Hotel and Lodging Association study released Aug. 31, 65 percent of US properties reported occupancy rates approaching 50 percent – about double April’s historically low rate of 24.5 percent.
Then there’s the question of when the cruise industry will set sail once again. “I believe once cruising starts in earnest, bookings will return quickly,” says Chris Caulfield, owner and vacation consultant at CruiseOne in Croton-on-Hudson, NY. “Die-hard cruisers cannot wait,” he adds.
As of press time, that might happen in the United States as early as Oct. 1, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s No Sail Order banning cruise ships at US ports was scheduled to be lifted, although members of Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) have canceled sailings until Nov. 1.
Cutting Through the Confusion
While virus-related health and safety concerns are top of mind with travelers, government restrictions are also playing a part. For example, CLIA members’ extension of cruise cancellations beyond the date set by the CDC is due partly to port and border access restrictions set by governments of destinations they visit.
Zane Kerby, president and CEO of the American Society of Travel Advisors, says travel will start building back to pre-pandemic levels “as soon as the US government sets and communicates the new protocols for travel in the nation’s airports and seaports.” He cites the lifting of the No Sail Order and the State Department’s bilateral travel agreements with other nations as examples.
In mid-September, the US finally ended some of its measures for international arrivals from China, Iran, the Schengen countries of Europe, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Brazil. Flights from those countries had to land at one of 15 designated airports so passengers could undergo enhanced entry health screenings.
Because of new and differing protocols, “the world of travel is going to get exponentially more complicated. Travel advisors were never needed more than now. The pandemic has revealed that,” Kerby says. “When you book on your own, you’re leveraging the power of one. When you book through a travel advisor, you’re leveraging the travel advisor’s longstanding relationships and network of suppliers. When things go wrong on the road, they are there to mitigate those consequences.”
Until then, travel agents are preparing for the pent-up demand by continuing to educate themselves, staying engaged with clients and helping those who are traveling and planning trips to navigate through the new rules and protocols.
From May through August, 700 people signed up for ASTA’s Verified Travel Advisor program, according to Kerby. They’re also flocking to supplier-hosted webinars. Those webinars, which typically draw an average of 100 to 150 attendees, have been getting as many as 400, he says.
Travel advisors also are staying in touch with clients, from keeping them apprised of travel possibilities to simply checking in with them to ask how they’re doing. “Having that personal connection makes all the difference,” Caulfield says.
“I’ve tried to be as proactive as possible and help them navigate these crazy times,” Brunvoll adds. “I ramped up my communication with clients through a personal, informative newsletter, as well as just setting aside time to talk with them.”
Jeni Chaffer, president of Journeys Travel Inc. in Bourbonnais, IL, partners with travel suppliers to present live videos “to try and show the consumers that although I am ‘just one agent,’ I have the ear and support of large corporations. You will have access to me and I them, unlike an OTA or big box store, where you have an 800 number and a six-hour hold time.”
Speaking of which, agents are running interference by calling suppliers on clients’ behalf with questions and concerns, even if it means a long wait on hold.
“I’ve impressed upon people that I’m still here for them, navigating COVID protocols, finding the safest suppliers and staying on hold on the phone so they don’t have to,” says Amy Freyder, owner of Epic Away Travel, LLC in Costa Mesa, CA.
Advisors also are implementing initiatives to encourage their clients to plan their next trips.
“I am 100 percent focused on reframing the future and inspiring people to ‘travel like you mean it,’” saysChristina Schlegel, founder and luxury travel advisor at Bluetail Travel in Arlington, VA. “I have created resources to help my clients and other travelers to get inspired, capture their dream travel list (please don’t call it a bucket list!), and plan dates for when they can take their future journeys. While we may not be traveling now, I want us to be ready to travel, and I want us all to travel more meaningfully.”
CTA Travel in Cerritos, CA, has implemented several initiatives, including e-mails, phone calls and partnering with travel suppliers to present virtual updates on those suppliers, as well as on destinations and other topics. In one program, “my team has five ideas of local journeys (in case the client asks) to share,” says Cathie Lentz Fryer, president. “It is working beautifully, and new trip requests are coming in.”
And Brunvoll presents weekly “virtual trips,” which feature different destinations, such as Antarctica, the Galapagos Islands and Bali.
Meanwhile, many clients are taking short-haul road trips and staycations. Among the respondents to the Aug. 19 Back-to-Normal Barometer, sponsored in part by ASTA, which polls consumers bi-weekly on their willingness to travel during the pandemic, 71 percent said it’s safer to drive 1,000 miles by car and stop along the way during a pandemic than to fly those 1,000 miles on a commercial airline.
In addition, Freyder notes that more people are considering VRBO-type accommodations in order to avoid larger hotel crowds.
Still, people are eager to get back to longer-haul travel, according to Kerby. “We’ll see a massive push for European and Caribbean travel,” he says. Pent-up demand is especially strong for cruises, with travelers “planning and dreaming that cruises will come roaring back in 2021,” he adds, citing the Aug. 19 Back-to-Normal Barometer’s finding that 64 percent of respondents are “ready to go” on a cruise, compared with 49 percent in June.
When they do get back to longer-haul trips, many clients are interested in dream trips and traveling in groups with friends and family, according to travel agents. “Most are interested in small groups, river cruising, custom journeys,” Fryer says.
At the same time, they are more mindful about traveling, taking a wait-and-see approach and considering more pricing options. “Clients have many more questions about travel restrictions and regulations, and we spend more time discussing timelines and implications,” Brunvoll says. “The majority of clients are willing to pay more for flexible rates so that they have better options if they need to cancel or change their plans,” she adds.
Another part of that approach is greater interest in buying travel insurance. Before the pandemic, some clients thought they didn’t need it, according to Caulfield. “The pandemic has shown how something can pop up that no one was expecting. It has affected everyone, so the ‘that won’t happen to me’ thinking has gone away.”
Business travel is a different story: It is expected to take longer to recover. For example, according to the Aug. 19 Back-to-Normal Barometer, only 48 percent of respondents said they were “ready to go” to a conference or convention, although that’s a slight improvement since June, when 40 percent said they would attend.
But it will come back. “Nothing replaces face-to-face interaction. It’s critical for building new relationships. Calls and web meetings reduce efficiency, collaboration and a human element,” the Barometer concluded after surveying frequent business travelers.
“It’s about collaborating,” Kerby says. “I can’t even imagine how you’re going to get the new iPhone 13 to market with everyone working remotely.”