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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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How Suppliers Are Helping Travel Agents During COVID-19 Outbreak

Amid the ongoing chaos wrought by the coronavirus outbreak, there is one decided bright spot: suppliers are standing by their travel advisor partners with advice and support to help them move forward.

“Suppliers are absolutely going above and beyond to help advisors take care of our clients during these uncertain and challenging times,” said Susie Chau of Carpe Diem Traveler. As a case in point, Chau’s DMC partner, Charmed by Spain, helped her deal with clients who were in Spain when the country declared emergency earlier this month.

“They quickly reorganized transportation to take them to Valencia where their flight was scheduled to depart from and booked their hotel with a flexible check-out date. The local guides even offered that my clients could stay with them in their homes if they could no longer stay in the hotel. They truly treated them like family and put them at ease.”

She added that the hotel’s owners cooked them meals on their last day in Spain when they were quarantined to their room. “My clients were so grateful for the warm treatment they received from all of the suppliers involved,” Chau said.

Suppliers are also working hand-in-hand with agents to “field the insurmountable number of cancellations and changes coming their way, so realistically, all they can do right now is make sure that we are up-to-date with their policy changes as they come in,” said Hannah Nowicki of Sunset Travel & Cruise in Chicago. “Our consortium, MAST Travel Network, and ASTA are offering webpages with updates and tools on how best to respond to concerned clients, as well as the media. ASTA is offering weekly webinars with updates from the travel industry and their advocacy work.”

Also, Nowicki noted that suppliers are keeping the agency well informed. “Things are changing by the hour and it takes a lot to make sure that all agents are well-informed with the new information and policies as they come in,” she said.

For his part, James Ferguson of Travel Edge gave a shout out to the cruise industry. “The cruise lines have been particularly forgiving with very liberal cancellation policy updating regularly in concert with the rapidly changing scenarios,” he said. “In particular, Crystal Cruises offered my client an upgrade (at a nominal cost) from their regular suite to the Penthouse for their July 25, 14-day Grand Europe river sailing – which the clients gladly accepted.”

Ryan Doncsecz of VIP Vacations Inc. praised Delta Vacations for disseminating crucial information to agents on a real-time basis. “They are immediately updating policies to help cover travel agents by allowing new rules to help agents protect the money spent on the booking in terms of an agency service fee, offering flexible future credit options, and are the first company out to update their waiver policies…” he said. “Delta Vacations President Jennie Ho and Vice President Kristen Molloy have been open to travel agent suggestions, and are responding in such a fast manner.”

He also praised AIC Hotel Group’s Hard Rock Hotels “for being the first resort brand to proactively release a very flexible rebooking program for worried travelers. Many key resort partners from around the world have followed AIC’s action plan.”

Doncsecz also praised Apple Leisure Group for doing an amazing job at implementing self-help technology through to help agents update their bookings, he said. “This will hopefully alleviate wait times for their various companies within their umbrella.”

For Travel Experts, getting information out to its member advisors has been key from the get-go.

“When the coronavirus began to impact the travel industry, we immediately created our own internal information center for the posting and updating of all supplier information and their policies regarding Covid-19,” said Sharon Fake, the luxury host agency’s director of operations. “This information center for our travel advisors is very well-organized for easy access by the advisors and has been the primary resource our advisors are using. It is updated the moment new information is presented.”

Other suppliers that are arming agents with resources include Apple Leisure Group, Travel Leaders Group and Cruise Planners.

“During the downtime we are experiencing during the coronavirus pandemic, a number of vendors have been reaching out via webinars, phone and email with information about promotions once the pandemic eases up,” said Claire Schoeder of Elevations Travel.

She had been planning to attend the now-canceled Visit Scotland Expo on April 1 and 2 in Aberdeen Scotland.

“Several vendors I was scheduled to meet have reached out to me via phone and email. Yesterday I Skyped with the Fife Arms, a luxury hotel in Braemar, Scotland,” Schoeder said. “This is a great way for me to learn about the hotel when I cannot see it in person. Vendors and agents who are pro-active during this trying time will be ready to move forward once the pandemic has settled down.”

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Plane ticket prices are dropping because of the coronavirus

As more and more people grow hesitant to travel by plane because of concerns about the coronavirus, domestic and international fares have plummeted. Expedia is marketing a New York to Los Angeles round-trip flight for $142, which costs, on average, about $300 one-way. A Miami to Chicago flight is usually about $193, but Frontier Airlines is advertising a $67 round-trip ticket. Prices for international flights are also shockingly low: A round-trip fare from Boston to Barcelona is $196, compared to an average of $681.

a group of people standing in front of a store: People are flying less, but airlines are financially pressured to keep operating so they don’t lose even more revenue from fixed costs.

It might seem tempting to snatch up these deals, if not for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s warning to avoid nonessential travel, especially long plane trips, and crowded spaces, which is pretty much the definition of every airport. These precautions are extremely important to heed, especially for older and sick people as the outbreak continues, and the CDC has travel alerts for South Korea, China, Italy, Iran, and Japan — places Americans are advised to avoid.

So why the bargain-basement prices? Travelers are postponing if not outright canceling plans, meaning airlines have to scramble to fill those seats. According to Austin Horowitz, senior aviation management consultant at the global consulting firm ICF, cheap airfare is a result of multiple factors, namely the drop in flight demand. “It’s almost a negative price that airlines will have to pay to get people to fly,” he told me. “But there are some takers, and right now, they’ll have to keep prices down until people start traveling again.”

Most US airlines are offering travelers who’ve booked within the past month the opportunity to change or cancel flights without fees, something that has angered customers who scheduled their trips months ahead of time. Airlines aren’t likely to promote discounts during a disease outbreak, Horowitz said, so offering cancellation and change fees is another way to incentivize people to purchase a plane ticket.

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Since people are flying less, airlines need to keep operating so they don’t lose even more revenue or coveted airport slots for future flights. There are certain costs that come with operating an airline, such as aircraft insurance, fuel, and labor, that a carrier has already paid for. “From that perspective, as long as you can cover these costs, you might as well fly because you end up bringing in more cash than you would not operating,” Horowitz added.

In Europe, airlines are flying empty “ghost” flights to avoid losing their airport landing slots, the British newspaper the Times reported. In more than 200 airports worldwide, airlines operate under a slot system with assigned take-off and landing times, which ideally prevents airport overcrowding by creating an organized system for planes to arrive and depart. For example, Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC, is limited to 60 slots (arrivals and departures) an hour.

European carriers and ports abide by the “use it or lose it” slot policy, which means an airline is required to fly at least 80 percent of its slots or risk having that time reallocated to a competitor. Grant Shapps, the UK secretary of state for transport, called for British slot regulators to reconsider this rule last week, as did the International Air Transport Association, but no changes have been made.

People are motivated to travel or stay at home based on a variety of perceived risks. “This risk-averse nature is not unusual during times of crisis,” Rian Mehta, an assistant professor of aviation at the Florida Institute of Technology, told me. The lack of control and knowledge of the virus’s spread is a “psychological driving factor” that might lead people to cancel plans, he added. “Every new piece of negative news has the ability to negatively impact perceptions,” Mehta said, but if there’s positive news of the outbreak’s containment, he predicts that people will start traveling again.

Horowitz said the “recovery time” for travelers to feel comfortable flying again is dependent on the “period of disruption.” In the case of the 2003 SARS crisis, which lasted about six months, it took a few months for travel to pick back up to the level it was before the outbreak, he told me. 

On social media, some people are openly weighing the risks and benefits of traveling while others are stocking up on household goods. “Flights are so cheap rn I might risk coronavirus,” one Bachelor contestant recently tweeted. “WE’RE HERE FOR A GOOD TIME NOT A LONG TIME,” wrote another.


Millennials on our way to the airport cuz flight prices dropped:

As Vox’s Brian Resnick reported, health experts have said that containment in the US so far isn’t working. People can ideally help slow the spread of the virus by taking measures like staying home, washing hands, and avoiding large crowds of people, but Resnick wrote that “the outbreak might be further along — and therefore harder to contain — than authorities currently realize.”

That means there’s a lot of uncertainty as to where and how aggressively the virus might spread next, and it seems like many travelers aren’t willing to take the risk of boarding a plane. So long as the outbreak continues, aviation experts predict that airfare will probably stay low — at least for a few weeks after the disease’s eventual containment.

RELATED VIDEO: Coronavirus concerns empty planes, leaving airline industry reeling (provided by TODAY)

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