Luxury Travel Advisor recently gathered several travel advisors together on a virtual call to garner their insights on current market conditions. VP/Editorial Director Ruthanne Terrero was joined by Ted Bradpiece, Explorer Travel Services; Cate Caruso, True Places Travels; Kimberly Floyd, Boca Raton Travel, a Frosch Agency; Camille Cutrone Holubar, Vista Travel Consultants; Marion McDonald, Brownell Travel and Sandy Pappas of Sandy Pappas Travel, an affiliate of Travel Experts.

Following is an edited version of the discussion.

Ruthanne Terrero: What are you seeing from your clients in terms of their intent to travel, their sentiment on travel in general?

Sandy Pappas, Sandy Pappas Travel: I’m crazy busy as I’m sure everybody else is. We are getting a few questions about the Ukraine situation, but not really having anybody cancel. I’ve had a few people pause their planning. I had someone ready to give a deposit for Spain and they said, “Oh, I’m a little nervous about Ukraine. What’s the cancellation policy?” 

I was apprehensive, thinking, “Here we go again,” because travel insurance language is such that war or an act of war is not covered. I feel like that’s a deja vu of the pandemic, there was similar language. I had one potential new client text me and said, “You know what? I’m going to hit the pause button.” She hadn’t paid my planning fee yet. She said, “We’re not going to commit. Maybe we’ll wait another month and if we can’t get availability because we waited, so be it. We’ll do it next year.”

I still continue to get inquiries every day. I’d say maybe 15 percent will say something about Ukraine. I would have expected it to be like 50 percent. 

I’m not bringing it up [with clients], although once someone starts to move forward, I always do recommend travel insurance and ask them if they’d like me to get them a quote. I’m now putting in my email signature, “Just FYI, travel insurance doesn’t provide coverage for war.”

Sandy Pappas
Sandy Pappas  (Sandy Pappas Travel)

Ruthanne Terrero: Ted, let’s hear from you. What are you seeing?

Ted Bradpiece, Explorer Travel Services: It’s been busy and we’re getting a lot of requests for Europe. We actually have an incentive group going to France in April. No one has mentioned Ukraine. They’re more concerned about whether the travel restrictions will still be in place. And they’re all happy to hear that pretty much throughout Europe, restrictions have been dropped. The big sticking point is that the U.S. still [has its policy about testing coming back into the country]. It’s not preventing anybody from traveling, but they’re all struggling to figure out how they’re going to handle the testing coming back.

Sandy Pappas: Where are you based?

Ted Bradpiece: I’m in Santa Clarita, California.

Sandy Pappas: I do find it interesting because I’m here in Atlanta. I have a lot of Southeast clients, but I also have a lot of Northeast clients. It’s more the Northeast clients who still ask about the COVID restrictions, versus the Southeast clients, who have been traveling for a while. They don’t even ask anymore. They’re like, “I know you’ll update me because it’s probably going to be different the day before we leave.”

Ruthanne Terrero: That’s a very good point Sandy. You bring up geography. When there’s a crisis, attitudes toward travel often depend on which region you’re in.

Ted Bradpiece: It makes a huge difference. We deal with clients all over the place. And right now we’re starting to get initial feelers for the South Pacific and for Australia since they’ve announced they’re opening. There’s a huge pent-up demand across the board. And as more of the stricter Asian countries open up, I think people are getting more and more comfortable with pulling the trigger.

Kimberly Floyd
Kimberly Floyd (Boca Raton Travel)

Kimberly Floyd, Boca Raton Travel: I’m at Boca Raton Travel right in downtown Boca Raton. And it’s funny, Sandy brought up geography. We are incredibly spoiled in Florida and local clients are as well. But I haven’t had any cancellations because of Ukraine. I’ve had questions from clients traveling on river cruises, on the Danube. We’re kind of watching and monitoring how those countries [on the itinerary] are handling the situation. And we’re very, very busy, which has been great.

Cate Caruso, True Places Travels: I am based in Vancouver, Washington—the other Vancouver—but it’s still the Pacific Northwest, though. And much like my colleagues here, we’re very, very busy. We are actively engaged in booking travel at the pace that we were seeing at the end of 2019. We do rolling forecasts each quarter; at the end of 2021, we compared where we were in 2019 for the pipeline and we were right there. We’re also tracking to blow away our numbers in 2022 and beyond. We are staffed up and prepared for the influx and we are just cooking along. We’ve had one cancellation or postponement for a client that was going to do a family routes trip in Poland. People still ask about restrictions, but they’re very glad to hear that the restrictions are easing up and we tell them, on an hourly or daily basis, that these restrictions are going to get easier and easier. 

Like all my colleagues, we’re crossing our fingers and hoping that the U.S. will just do away with that return test for vaccinated travelers. 

We’re very, very confident and very optimistic about 2022. And especially seeing that people don’t seem to be as unnerved about this situation in Ukraine and Russia, tragic as it is. I think the pent-up demand is just pushing people to keep moving on with their plans.

Ruthanne Terrero: And it’s almost like really grab the opportunity while you can.

Cate Caruso: Yes. Our mantra is “carpe every damn diem” right now. Pardon the language. But this is the moment. 

Marion McDonald, Brownell Travel: I’m based in Memphis, and I’ve never seen anything like it. I mean, my people are going bigger than ever before. I confirmed an Italian villa for somebody yesterday and a huge Iceland trip for $20,000. I’m very, very blessed. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m feeling a little bit overwhelmed as I’ve had all kinds of spring break fires to deal with, but what an amazing huge spring break. And as far as Ukraine goes, I would say that some are “proceeding with caution.”

I know a lot of my colleagues don’t do this, but whenever possible, I creatively package the air through wholesalers to get that CFAR (cancel for any reason) insurance. That’s just huge, especially for these elderly clients. I think that CFAR makes it a lot more manageable. 

I’ve told people about the air to Europe, that it’s non-refundable, but I’ve also told them, “Have you seen the upgrade?” I just sold a family of eight business class tickets to Italy and they paid the $500 extra premium for the refundable fare.

[As far as destinations go], I’m hearing France, France, France. It’s hands down, my number-one right now.

Marion McDonald
Marion McDonald (Brownell Travel)

Sandy Pappas: And Greece is mine.

Ted Bradpiece: Italy for me.

Cate Caruso: Italy and France are what I’m seeing. And I feel a little bad for Australia and New Zealand because New Zealand just announced their border is open. Australia is open. I know their time will come, and I want to send bookings that way, but everybody wants Europe right now.

Ted Bradpiece: I get that. Everybody knows that Europe has dropped the entry requirements, whereas Australia, New Zealand and Asia are still going with vaccinated only. It makes a huge difference in people’s mentality. They’re like, “I’m tired of restrictions. Just let me go.”

Ruthanne Terrero: Camille, speaking of Europe, I know usually you spend quite a lot of time over there. What are you seeing?

Camille Cutrone Holubar, Vista Travel: It’s been very positive with Italy, France and Austria. As for river cruise, we are sold out of all of our groups. We have several high-end honeymoons going this year to Italy. Thank God, we were able to get space at San Pietro, Villa d’Este and all of the honeymoon spots that people are requesting. What I did notice with clients is that they are spending a lot more money. They’re not really questioning price. As far as Florence goes, we’re using more and more hotels that have apartments within the hotels for families that are traveling together. The second they’re available, you have to grab them because they’re within some of the great properties. That has been the newest trend, getting all the families together. We have families going to Amsterdam together. We have families going multi-gen to Italy. 

I’m very upfront with my clients. I’ve spent a lot of time in Italy and I have to say, I never really feared anything over there. If you’re compliant and you listen to what the government is doing, you’ll be fine. 

The only thing I can say that’s stopping clients from booking Europe is the return COVID test. As soon as they do away with that, I’m hopeful. I know that we’ll be back to 2019 numbers with Europe. Clients are again booking high-end cruises in the Mediterranean. So I’m excited about that. My only problem is sometimes the high hold times when you’re trying to get through to certain companies, it’s hard. Even if you’re booking all-inclusive air with certain companies, it’s not easy on our end. It takes a lot of extra work.

As an agency owner, I’ve been working 24/7, trying to get more staff back on board and getting some more ICs to work for us because we are just busy. 

Camille Cutrone Holubar
Camille Cutrone Holubar (Vista Travel Consultants)

Ruthanne Terrero: What is surprising you about your clients most of all these days in terms of spending and attitudes?

Ted Bradpiece: I think it’s become more about “I want to go now because I haven’t traveled for two-and-a-half years.” They have all this money saved up. It’s “damned with the cost.”

There’s so much pent-up demand.

The problem is finding the right type of supplier for the clients. That’s really where the issue is coming now. It’s not about their willingness to spend or their willingness to go, but to be able to put them in the right properties and get them seeing the right things. A big part of it is that villas are very difficult to come by right now.

These are clients who maybe go to Italy and France every year. They have been there, done that. And now they’re looking to get together with family that might be all over the country and they all want to go to France or maybe to Tuscany but trying to get a villa is just so difficult right now.

Ruthanne Terrero: Any other surprises?

Kimberly Floyd: Yes. We’re finding clients are having to become more tech savvy. And these are clients who have not touched the technology. They’re used to us doing all of the work for them, but especially certain demographic have absolutely surprised me and stepped up. Some still struggle with it, but we try and help as best we can.

Camille Cutrone Holubar: Until COVID is somewhat manageable, we are making a back-up plan during the planning stages. For the clients going to Italy, we have to tell them, “If somebody in your party tests positive for COVID, you have to stay there. This is where you’re going to be, and this is how much it’s going to cost.” We are preparing them, even our honeymooners, that you may have to stay if you test positive. If they do away with [restrictions], that will be great. But that is a big thing with us. And I have to say some of the properties in Bahamas that we send a lot of families on winter break to had some great options and took great care of clients. But with Europe, I have been with people who have tested positive and they could not come back. You have to make sure you’re transparent with your clients on that. 

But I agree with what Ted was saying about the villas. In my case, people want to be in a villa-type [setting], but I have to find them a property that has something like that within a luxury five-star property. But with Italy, there’s so many options. My advice to everybody is talk to the hotels and say, “What do you have besides your normal hotel? What villas are within the property or what apartments are within the property?” And then as a travel agent, from the agent side, you can feel more rested knowing that your clients aren’t stuck in the middle of a villa in the middle of nowhere. And if something does go wrong, there’s no hotel staff there to come to the rescue, even for scheduling COVID tests.

Ruthanne Terrero: Any other surprises or any comments on client sentiment?

Marion McDonald: I’ll echo what Ted said. My people are feeling what I call “vacation deprivation syndrome,” I’ve never seen anything like it. I have a tagline on my still unpublished website, but I put it on all my Insta feed posts… “Because someday usually means never.” 

In the last year and a half, so many people have lost so many family members. I have a new client who said, “I had a health scare and I got through it and I’ve got a lot of money. I’m almost 70. I want to take my grandchildren skiing.” And he spent 50 grand on the penthouse at the Stein Eriksen skiing with the grandchildren.

I’m seeing a lot of this and I attribute it to vacation deprivation. They’re just going bigger and better than ever. I’m just shocked at what people are willing to pay and I’m so happy to be on the receiving end of that.

Cate Caruso: I’m definitely seeing the same thing. I mean, even clients who were maybe a tiny bit price sensitive before, are just throwing that out the window now. And it’s a good thing too because Europe is not inexpensive. I mean, try to get any decent hotel on the Amalfi Coast for June, July, August. You can start at 1,500 euros for a little room in the back, with no view. I’m preparing clients now by saying, “Look, just be prepared for sticker shock. It’s a good thing you’ve got a healthy budget because you’re going to need it.”

Ted Bradpiece: What’s surprising me now is really the sticker shock on airfares. It’s not where you used to have 24 to 48 hours before things would jump. Prices are jumping every five or 10 minutes now as this whole situation plays out. And I’ve got clients that are notorious. They’ll do the trip, but they’ll hesitate on the airfare. And so they’ll call me a half hour later and I’ll say, “Sorry. We can’t do it for that price anymore. It’s going to be three grand more now.”

Ruthanne Terrero: Do you have any secrets you can share about alternative places to go that would be suitable for a sophisticated traveler who can’t get into their favorite iconic destination?

Ted Bradpiece: For me, a lot of it is Colonial Mexico. I have some great suppliers down there. And particularly around festive where we can get them involved in the local communities and some of the traditions that they have down there that you just don’t experience anywhere else. As we said previously, they are more open to that. First, it’s a little bit more cost effective and second, it’s definitely not a “been there and done that” destination.

Cate Caruso
Cate Caruso (True Places Travels)

Cate Caruso: I’ve got a flip side to that for festive to get people off the beaten path, by sending them to the big city. 

How about Christmas in Paris, in Southern France? We’re doing some of those things. Christmas in London or Wales, rather than your standard festive stuff. We’re really thinking outside the box and combining that desire to get to Europe with a festive concept. We’re doing more of that this year. This is definitely a year to get creative with what you can offer.

Sandy Pappas: Along those lines, I’d not previously booked Turkish Airlines much, but Turkish Airlines business class prices are great. I have a family of six and we were looking all over Europe, where can we get the best fares for a family of six that wanted to fly business. That’s how we came into it with Turkish Airlines. They are going to Malta and then Istanbul. 

Cate Caruso: That’s brilliant. I love that idea of using the best business class airfares on these secondary airlines, which are fabulous and then figuring out your destination around that. Great idea, Sandy.

Marion McDonald: I do a lot of London and Paris Christmas. Westminster Abbey for Christmas Eve carols and services. You have to mark your calendar to get that for the client. And then we end up with Paris fireworks on the Champs-Élysées or the Eiffel Tower [for New Year’s]. I’m actually going this year. I do the London/Paris combo quite a bit for the holidays.

Ted Bradpiece: Instead of Westminster, you might want to consider King’s Cross. It is beautiful. It’s Kings Cross Oxford. It is a beautiful service, not as commercial as Westminster Abbey and it really is an amazing experience.

Marion McDonald: I have a master sheet of the most popular things I’m going to be selling and when I must book them. I do a lot of national parks these days because you remember I did that whole Great American road trip. I’m the queen of national parks. I even put myself on the lottery for Wimbledon tickets, things like the Queen’s Cup, which is a great backup to Wimbledon. It’s the week before. I have it on a master list because you don’t want your client to be disappointed. And I know I’ll get the calls.

Ruthanne Terrero: How are you guys dealing with the influx of business? Are you trying to staff up?

Cate Caruso: There are three other people on my team, not ICs; I call them my associates and they each have different roles in the business. One handles reservations, primarily one handles itinerary design, another is more of a concierge. Anyway, long story short, we filled a position last year seeing where things were going with the business trends.

There are four of us handling it and we’re all getting pretty maxed out. And we hope to add a couple of more people this year. But in addition to that, seeing the forecast that was coming in, we put a new project management system in place last year, and that is a lifesaver. It’s not an industry specific project management tool. It’s more designed for other types of industries, but it’s completely customizable and we’ve set it up to just help us manage all the moving parts. We’re comfortable. We have the capacity to continue to bring in new business experts. Our new business comes from referrals and sometimes from the website and we’re not advertising. That’s how we’re handling it.

Sandy Pappas: I need to hire somebody. I can kick myself because when I had the time to hire somebody and train them, I was gun shy. I didn’t want to pull the trigger because who knew. First there was Delta, then there was Omicron. You know what I mean? And now I’m just drowning and don’t have the time to find somebody and train them.

Marion McDonald: I’m a solo operator. My sweet assistant who was very part-time and living in Spain has gone on to become an IC within our Virtuoso network. I literally work 24/7. I desperately need somebody.

Ted Bradpiece: We’ve brought in a couple of experienced ICs with the proviso that they will be taking some of the overflow. Nothing too much client facing because they have their own books of business. But just some of the back-office stuff that they’re able to take on, they’ve already agreed to that. That was one of the caveats for bringing them on board.

Sandy Pappas: How did you find them? May I ask?

Ted Bradpiece: They are good friends of mine. And they actually approached me. One went through a very ugly separation from her agency. And the other one was slowly transitioning, had moved to Florida, and then his father passed away and he took a leave of absence and decided that he no longer wanted to go back to the other agency and really wanted to put the money in resources in rebuilding his own book.

Cate Caruso: I love that idea of bringing in ICs and then part of your contract, having them handle some of the back office and the accounting, as part of the entry process. That’s a really good idea.

Sandy Pappas: Cate, how did you find your people?

Cate Caruso: I got lucky. It’s a combination of just kind of thinking it through and putting the message out to the universe and working my networks. One of them was through a virtual assistant system. And so I would encourage you to think about hiring a virtual assistant because that’s a really great way to get your help right away.

Ted Bradpiece: I’ve got a lot of friends who have virtual assistants. They’re in love with them because they don’t pay it for a full-time employee, it’s as needed. And it’s really been a lifesaver for them.

Marion McDonald: At Brownell, we have this incredible team back at the office who can provide services like invoicing. It’s amazing. I pay them an hourly, but usually what takes me a lot longer, they can do it in like half an hour. That has served me well sometimes if I need a quick, like I said, invoice or something. And they put it on my monthly billing statement and that is a blessing.

Ruthanne Terrero: How about 2023? Are people booking long term?

Kimberly Floyd: I have three reservations confirmed for 2024.

Ted Bradpiece: I’m just about to get three incentive contracts signed for 2024. And when we do incentives, we do very high end. So we’re dealing with things like river boat charters. We’re doing Four Seasons hotels. 

Kimberly Floyd: I’ve noticed that my family business has increased. Especially the multi-gen business. And I think that definitely was an impact of COVID and not being forced to be together but being lucky to be together and enjoying each other again and now looking forward to doing it and getting out in the travel world and being together.

Cate Caruso: For 2023, we have mostly cruises we’ve done with FCCs. But we do have cruises on the books for 2023 and safaris. Those are usually things we book pretty far out. But we work with long-term travel plans. We always have kind of a three-to-five-year rolling plan. We’ve got placeholders for 2023, 2024, spring break, summer, whatever. And then when we get to a booking window, then we start booking. But actual reservations are just safaris and cruises right now for 2023.

Sandy Pappas: Most of my demographic actually is families because before with Travel Experts, I was with an agency that specialized in families. And so most of my clients are families and then I get referred to other families. I have one Africa trip for 2023. But otherwise, my clients are much more last minute because they need to find dates around a child’s internship, job or camp. It’s various reasons for different ages.

Ruthanne Terrero: Thank you everybody for your time. I’m so delighted about the strong return to business, and I think we’ve all learned a few insider secrets along the way! Thank you again.

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