The Covid pandemic has made these travel agents stronger


Last August, the American Society of Travel Advisors issued a terrible warning. He estimated that 77% of members were threatened with closure. For travel agents, who have read their disappearance for more than a quarter of a century – ever since Delta Air Lines cut their commissions and Bill Gates bragged that Expedia would bankrupt them – a global pandemic that has put the whole travel industry comes to a screeching halt seems to have only made them stronger.

Eccentric circular reports more than two dozen airlines firm Last year. Free time released a list of 68 popular Chicago restaurants that went bankrupt during this never-ending pandemic. Icons like Omni Berkshire Place in New York have closed their doors for good.

However, this week in Las Vegas, travel counselors who are part of the Virtuoso network, brought together in person and virtually, bruised, but far from being beaten. They are apparently well on their way to gaining a greater share of the luxury travel market.

In fact, Gates’ prognosis looks more wrong than ever. Advisors say online travel agencies like Expedia are partly improving their fortunes.

In April 2020, The New York Times published an article, “Why is it so difficult to get a refund from an online travel agency? “

Over 150 readers packed in, sharing their stories of bad service.

MORE FORBESIn a world of Covid-19, here’s why you should use a travel agent

Expedia vice president Sarah Waffle Gavin could only tell the paper, “We get hundreds of thousands more calls every day. “

At the start of the pandemic, travel counselors were also overwhelmed, says Matthew D. Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso.

Instead of putting customers on hold, they went all out. The advisers did what he calls “heroic” work, staying awake all night, bringing clients stranded abroad home and helping travelers who weren’t their clients – those who couldn’t reach them. airlines they had booked directly or OTAs.

Advisors also spent hours waiting, harassing and negotiating with vendors to get customer refunds processed.

While Virtuoso’s earnings have been beaten – a spokesperson declined to say how far they’ve fallen from the group’s $ 32 billion peak in 2019 – its network of advisers remains largely intact. The total number of advisers fell only 10%, from 22,000 to 20,000, with half of that loss being in South America.

Becky Powell, Director of Strategy for Global Travel Collection, which includes Virtuoso member agencies, says: “We have seen very few (advisors) leave, and most are retirements.

In fact, a pre-pandemic trend remains strong. She says there has been an increase in the number of career changers – lawyers, nurses and other professionals who have decided to leave their cubicles and departments to pursue careers by helping you plan enjoyable vacations and celebratory trips. .

Powell is among several agency executives who believe that the continued advertising of OTAs, featuring top players such as Kaley Cuoco and Rashida Jones, is helping to attract new clients to traditional advisers. Jones plays a fairy godmother, supposed to save an Expedia user’s day when their flight is canceled.

Jones’ ad ends with the following promise: “Like a great companion, Expedia supports you throughout your trip. “

“Customers who had never used a travel agency before or who had used an OTA and then had problems… They were stuck; they couldn’t get a refund… We’ve gained a lot of new customers who want high quality service, ”says Powell.

Erina Pindar, CEO of SmartFlyer, says online travel agencies can’t compete with its 275 advisers. “We are above all experts for our clients. Once we understand our clients’ needs, we have the resources to make it happen.

OTAs were also supposed to capture the next generation of digital consumers who allegedly preferred typing on their iPhones to human interaction.

This does not happen. The advisors at the New York-based agency – Smarties as they are known in the industry – are younger and bring with them their friends and friends of those friends who are young, wealthy, and passionate about travel.

“Our customers have never stopped traveling,” she says. “They switched to domestic destinations last year when the borders were closed, but now they are looking internationally.” SmartFlyer’s sales are already above 2019 levels, she says.

Like Global Travel Group, Pindar says the agency has continued to attract new advisers.

And while OTAs and vendors may have large budgets to advertise and public markets to raise capital, advisers, often operating as independent contractors, are entrepreneurs at the foot of the fleet. When the winds change, they are not crippled by thick layers of management.

Joshua Bush, CEO of Avenue Two Travel in Bryn Mawr, outside of Philadelphia, invented a technique he calls “trip stacking” during the pandemic.

After booking, canceling, modifying and canceling the same trips for clients over and over again, it now uses flexible cancellation policies to book two different trips for the same client on the same dates, a first and a second choice.

If the ever-changing travel restrictions aren’t the best option, her clients are always on the verge of leaving. He says customers buy more and travel more, as they then re-book the canceled trip, again stacking it with a second choice for new dates and other vacations.

In Fresno, viewers of the NBC affiliate get something better than empty promises from TV actors. In a corner of the press room, Craig Mungary, owner of Elite Global Journeys, spent the conference recording interviews with executives of luxury travel providers. They are broadcast on the local version of the station. Today.

He says the branch was excited to break coverage from high school sports and local politics with previews of new cruise ships and resorts.

With travel more difficult than ever, agents say another benefit of using knowledgeable travel counselors is that they anticipate for you.

A big problem these days is showing up at your hotel, and finding reduced staff means limited hours in restaurants and spas. Customers, who pay hefty rates, think there are no time slots for that long-awaited Peruvian stone and herbal massage.

Tania Swasbrook, President of Travelworld International in San Diego, helps her clients avoid these pitfalls. As soon as they confirm their trips, she begins making spa appointments, organizing tee times and dinner reservations at hot restaurants.

When she sends them the directions with all of their favorite activities, the typical response is, “Oh my god, thank you! “

Another challenge for today’s travelers is that it’s often difficult to gauge what level of service to expect when you plan to leave, whether it’s next week or next month.

Powell, who names Four Seasons, Montage and Auberge Resorts as three groups that have maintained 5-star service despite labor and supply issues, says that before booking advisors often have candid conversations with hotel managers.

While real estate websites aren’t always open about cutbacks, she says, “Hotel managers know that if they’re not being honest with us, they’ll lose a lot of business down the road. “

While many companies are still struggling to adjust to working from home and are debating back-to-office decrees, Pindar is puzzled. She notes: “Many of our counselors worked from home before the pandemic. They were already adept enough at using technology to work remotely. For that, agents can certainly thank Bill Gates.

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