There’s a weariness that sets in when times are challenging. There’s the shock of the onset of a crisis, disbelief, reactions that vary from grief to bursts of energy to remain optimistic and build toward the future. But, then, you wake up day after day and it’s not quite all over yet. Countries are opening but not to U.S. travelers. COVID-19 spikes in different states across the country and reopened businesses again close down. The path to the future isn’t especially clear and, in certain moments, we all start to wonder, “Is this going to end?”
I recall during the financial crisis of 2007–2008, that with the change of every season, each new month, a spate of optimism would hit. “We’re going to turn it around, now,” was the common refrain. But turnaround doesn’t happen that way; it doesn’t follow a traditional calendar and many of us were simply exhausted by how long it took for things to get better.
The funny thing is, I don’t remember the actual moment it happened, when the travel industry picked up again, but I do recall we were, all of a sudden, so busy again that advisors couldn’t keep up with the amount of new business coming in. Some had to go to a “by referral only” model because there wasn’t time to vet new clients.
I’m hoping we’ll be in that mode again soon, but one thing we should all remember after this is over is that we all hung in there together. The luxury travel industry tends to be extremely collaborative and it joined together in a special way during the COVID-19 crisis. So, in case I forget to tell you later on, “Luxury travel advisors and suppliers, I think you’re a pretty swell group of people and I’m glad I bet most of my journalism career on you.”
I’m grateful to those advisors who have put themselves out there during this time. Jack Ezon (whose Embark team graces our cover this month) and I spoke about this feature last December when the travel business was healthy. When I contacted him a few weeks ago to see if he was still game to be on the cover, he said he was, and opened the doors of Embark to share how the company is handling the COVID crisis.
Amanda Klimak of Largay Travel took a trip in an RV and when I found out about it and asked her to write of her experiences, she did so graciously. Her report answers many of the questions that I know some of you have had about this new mode of travel.
Our advisor roundtable strives to capture the mentality of the luxury consumer; when we caught up with the panel of advisors over a Zoom call, most were working overtime to find domestic getaways for their clients, particularly in private villas and residences with private pools.
Matthew Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso, was kind enough to chat with us about what a virtual Travel Week will look like. It’s hard to imagine thousands of us won’t be descending on Bellagio in Las Vegas this August and it’s also challenging to fathom the amount of work the Virtuoso team is doing to coordinate the multitudes of one-on-one appointments with suppliers and advisors. I also want to give a shout out to Anastasia Mann of Corniche Travel for sharing her memories of Capri; that story for me captures the essence of how last-minute travel decisions can shape our lives forever and I am dying to hear about all the details she didn’t share with us!
We’ve hosted a few virtual events ourselves over the past few weeks; our next Pivoting Back to Travel conference will take place at the end of July. For our June event, I held another virtual Zoom summit in which I asked advisors about their view of the future for luxury travel advisors. I’ll leave you with some of the highlights here:
“I think we went from selling and service to really just service,” said Ken Neibaur, of the past several months. Neibaur, who works for Travel Edge out of La Jolla, CA, as manager of advisor relationships, says that this is where a travel advisor’s mission really shines with customers. “So, for me, barring the demand issue, which we’re not going to change today — we’re not going to open up countries, we’re not going to suddenly start launching cruise ships — I think the future for our industry is still, very, very good. And, from what we understand, we think it’s probably even better in terms of the public perception of our value and the ability that we have to really make a difference in the client’s trip when things open up a little bit more.”
Largay Travel’s Amanda Klimak said her agency has been focusing on the services that advisors deliver to their clients.
“We’re trying to move our clients to understand the difference between the DIY vacation and working with a travel advisor and the huge value that brings. We’ve been really working on, how do we communicate that — both on social media and on our websites — with our clients before they even work with us and then making sure they understand that there is a huge value and benefit to working with a travel advisor.”
Photo courtesy of Getty Images
Largay Travel has also been working on terms and conditions policies, she says. “We’re making sure we are protecting ourselves and letting clients know that sometimes we are at the mercy of our preferred partners; we’re also helping them to understand what it means to have preferred partners.”
Bottom line? “I believe that the future of the travel advisor industry is super bright because we’re evolving as an industry,” says Klimak. “Instead of focusing on discounting and price, we’re focusing more on that service level, which is what makes the difference. I’m really excited about the future.”
Melissa Lee, of Royal Travel & Tours, said that despite frustrations with refunds and cancellations, her agency has been working on maintaining relationships with clients through this crisis.
In initial communications, the agency checked in with its customers simply to see how they were doing. It eventually moved its messaging on social media to aspirational travel, to places the Royal team wanted to go when things open up again.
“In addition to updating clients on when things are opening and on changes to what our cancellation, refund and rebooking policies are, Royal Travel & Tours has been taking the time to educate our clients about general travel, and they are coming back to us,” said Lee.
“I think next summer is going to be our big return to normal,” she added.
We will get through this, even though the route to recovery seems awfully long. For inspiration along the journey, read what your colleagues are saying in the following pages. Be well.