How Travel Agents Are Coping With COVID-19, Preparing for Recovery

In anticipation of the economic recovery that’s bound to follow once the COVID-19 health crisis abates, Development Counsellors International (DCI)—a leading travel and economic development marketing firm—looked to travel advisors to discover the ways in which they’re coping, and how marketing organizations might best help agents to prepare and position themselves well for the industry’s rebound.

A group of 457 travel advisors, 73 percent of whom hailed from the United States and 27 percent from Canada, participated in a March 2020 survey to provide some insight into the challenges agents currently face, and what their present needs and future expectations might be.

Current Climate

Amid the onslaught of travel notices and restrictions, border closures, and transportation shutdowns that have occurred over the past several weeks, travel advisors been kept busy—perhaps even more so than usual.

79 percent of advisors reported that they now spend the majority of their working hours rescheduling client bookings, and 71 percent of advisors reported spending much of their time providing their clients with reassurance, relevant up-to-date information, and clarification on new restrictions or policies.

A staggering 90 percent of respondents reported seeing cancellations of existing bookings and 82 percent have seen a decline in future 2020 bookings. While some share of clients may cancel entirely, 64 percent of advisors have also seen clients looking to postpone and reschedule their travel plans.

53 percent of those surveyed said they’ve seen a decline in interest in 2021 trips, though it’s impossible at the moment to make accurate predictions about such far-reaching effects of the coronavirus on travel.

Despite the pervasive air of uncertainty affecting everyone at present, North American travel advisors’ outlook for the near future seems optimistic, as evidenced by their reported anticipation of returning to business mostly-as-usual within the next few months.

Maintaining Momentum

Although at present they’re largely focused on mitigating fallout from the coronavirus epidemic, travel advisors are also apparently readying themselves for the time when travel resumes its normal pace.

The research showed that agents are demonstrating a marked interest in pursuing professional development opportunities, such as specialist courses and webinars. 38 percent reported that they’re actively engaging in these types of continuing education during the slowdown.

Since trade shows and FAM trips are all on hold, advisors are finding their own ways of staying updated on the products and destinations they sell; which is why DCI suggests that DMOs and operators ought to keep their websites and online marketing materials continuously refreshed, so that agents can be set to start selling once travel resumes.

Future Forecast

The data clearly shows that the majority of travel advisors are eager to get back to business as usual and attend events, at least in their home markets. Nearly one-third of respondents said they anticipate participating in destination sales events within their home markets as early as May 2020, with that number jumping to almost 60 percent who expect that it will happen by June.

In terms of taking a FAM trip, advisors seemed slightly more hesitant. For domestic trips, 26 percent of advisors mostly said they’d be willing to take a FAM trip within the U.S. by June, 18 percent by May. It will take a bit longer for them to reestablish enough confidence to volunteer for international FAMs, with a majority of respondents indicating that September is the earliest they’d consider traveling outside the U.S. Yet, more than 30 percent still said they would contemplate doing so by May or June.

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Agents Say Caribbean Travel Thus Far COVID-19 Resistant

Top travel agents say Caribbean vacations remain popular even as COVID-19 cases emerged this week in a handful of destinations and hoteliers on one major island warned of coronavirus-driven cancellations.

Several agents are positioning Caribbean islands as alternatives to COVID-19-impacted regions. “Depending on their interests or travel goals, we’ve tried to shift to similar experiences [by] moving multi-gen families from Tuscan estates to Caribbean villas, replacing a French Riviera stay for a St. Barth’s getaway and swapping Croatia island-hopping for yachting around the BVIs,” said Samantha Collum of River Oaks Travel Agency.

Caribbean destinations are also increasingly an option for West Coast-based travelers said Vicki Lundy-Wells, owner of Carefree Travel, with “quick connections from the West Coast as well and also with some nonstop flights from the Midwest and East Coast” to Caribbean islands.”

Lundy-Wells cautioned that agents must stay updated on the recent outbreaks in the region. “Clients are paying close attention and expect travel advisors to be informed and knowledgeable.],” she said.

While no cases have originated in the region, a few Caribbean islands are dealing with returning residents and visitors who contracted COVID-19 elsewhere. Jamaica’s minister of health and wellness on Tuesday confirmed the island’s first COVID-19 case, a Jamaican woman who had returned to Kingston on March 4 from a United Kingdom trip. The patient reported to the public health system on March 9 and has since been in isolation.

Authorities “dispatched health team to the home of the patient for assessment and initiation of public health measures,” said Dr. Cristopher Tufton, Jamaica’s health and wellness minister. Jamaica has local capacity to test for the virus, via training provided by the Pan-American Health Organization, Tufton said.

Sint Maarten officials this week confirmed two COVID-19 cases on French Saint Martin; the patients are in isolation “at the Hospital on the French side and will remain there for 14 days,” said officials in a statement.

There are no cases on Sint Maarten’s Dutch side. “Screening processes at our ports of entry have been stepped up in cooperation with the airlines, who are also following screening protocols based on World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations,” said officials.

Earlier this month Dominican Republic officials reported the country’s first COVID-19 case, a tourist visiting from Italy. Meanwhile the Cayman Islands, St. Kitts and Nevis and Saint Lucia, none of which have reported any COVID-19 cases, have issued statements announcing the activation of national preparedness and response plans.

The destinations have also placed travel restrictions on non-nationals with travel histories that include visits to COVID-19 impacted regions. In some cases, islands are placing quarantines on nationals with recent travel histories to impacted areas.

Caribbean countries are also reporting to the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA), the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), said destination officials. In addition, the Caribbean Tourism Organization and Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Assn. are recommending travelers monitor the CARPHA site for regular updates.

While it has reported no cases, hoteliers in one major Caribbean destination say they’re feeling a COVID-19 chill. Barbados Hotel and Tourism Association (BHTA) members have suffered “a significant decline in business as a result of the virus, said Stephen Austin, the group’s chairman.

BHTA is still polling hotel members to uncover “the true impact of cancellations and forward bookings,” said Austin. Yet to date 41 of 81 hoteliers surveyed reported a $1.2 million March revenue loss tied to 2,853 room cancellations.

“It is quite significant and we are working now on an emergency plan through the BHTA to try to help our members through this time,” he said.

A different scenario has played out at Caribbean cruise ports. While a handful of ships turned away by local officials concerned about potential COVID-19 exposure, cruise calls to the wider region have proceeded largely uninterrupted.

“Jamaica’s refusal of the cruise ship demonstrated a proactive approach and we are confident in recommending the island as a go-to getaway,” said Tom Carr of Preferred Vacations.

Nevertheless, as the Caribbean remains the cruise industry’s largest operating region, the business’ struggles with at-times contradictory government statements regarding the advisability of cruise vacations present a clear challenge.

Importantly, experienced agents advise that their colleagues consult with clients in a straightforward manner that is sensitive to concerns regarding their health and well-being, whatever destination their plans may entail.

“In my 15 years of selling luxury travel, we have encountered similar “crises” – SARs, Zika, the economy – that throw the world into panic mode, which results in an immediate spate of cancellations globally,” said Stacy Small, owner of Elite Travel International.

“Given this, I have encouraged my clients to make decisions based on what they feel comfortable doing, not push or encourage anyone to travel at a time they do not feel safe and/or are concerned about their well-being.”

“If a person is captivated by fear and the 24-hour news cycle, we take the approach that it’s best to offer a change of dates for those traveling in the near future,” said Carr. “If clients aren’t traveling for some time, it’s our recommendation to wait it out. And so far, so good.”

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