And so it happened, that those places where we keep our suitcases and travel amenities in anticipation of our next trip, those houses actually became homes where we sequestered for weeks on end, contemplating this industry of ours, which has all but shut down because of COVID-19.
Despite the trauma of having their income streams virtually shut off and days filled with cancelling most of the trips they’d planned all year, most luxury travel advisors we contacted have barreled through the initial shock phase of the crisis and are able to speak quite confidently about just what they’re seeing on the current landscape.
We surveyed 600 travel advisors during the week of April 20 to get the pulse of their experiences during the COVID-19 crisis, and what they see for the future of luxury travel. The survey was conducted online over five days with travel advisors whose business comprises more than 50 percent luxury travel. Thirty-five percent were agency owners or managers; 51 percent were independent contractors; the remainder were employees.
How Did Agency Networks Do?
A strong majority (84 percent) of respondents are happy with the support their host agencies and networks had provided when COVID-19 closed down borders, air travel and hotels. Many comments cited strong communication and the ability of their networks to keep them up to date on federal relief options and supplier refund policies. Webinars, seminars, Zoom “office hours,” town hall meetings, daily briefings, flight cancellation support and assistance with client rebookings were also highlighted by those who were satisfied with their host networks, as were efforts on how to best prepare for the future. Providing constant moral support as well as the proper tools to work from home were also mentioned as positives.
Those who were unhappy with their networks said they had received no or poor communication and suffered from their network’s lack of personnel that were on hand to answer questions.
New Lists Circulating
We’d heard rumblings about certain vendors that didn’t provide stand-up service during the onset of the crisis, and indeed, 67 percent of survey respondents said there are suppliers they will not work with again because of their refund / cancellation policies. Destination management companies were also being criticized in Facebook groups for not providing refunds on a timely basis (or at all) and 46 percent of our respondents said they now have a list of DMCs they will not work with in the future. Anecdotally, some advisors said they would no longer book hotels through DMCs, only ground operations and excursions.
Cancellations Still Happening
Unfortunately, the vast majority of respondents (86 percent) were still seeing clients cancel future travel; many expect this to continue through the end of the year, although some indicated that things could pick up after the summer. The bottom line is that there is currently no clear answer, as it all depends on when borders open up, airlines start flying again and people are able to move freely about the world.
More than half of travel advisors (57 percent) are still getting requests for future travel; one said that the festive season looks promising, others were getting requests for November cruises, still others were getting requests for March 2021 and beyond. Weddings and honeymoons, as well as safari travel for 2021 were the subject of inquiries, as were family holidays for next summer.
New Business Practices Emerging
Having time to reflect on the chaos they had to deal with when travel essentially stopped in March and April, a hefty 54 percent of advisors surveyed said they plan to change their business model. One advisor who had been charging planning fees to new clients only said she will now be charging them to existing clients, as well as implementing change fees and cancellation fees. Another will now collect trip-planning fees before she starts working on an itinerary rather than at final payment. One advisor is holding off on booking international groups for the next year while another is shifting his focus to special-interest, small-group travel.
“We will not sell anything ‘non-refundable,’” said another. The bottom line was that advisors plan to be more transparent and discuss more fully their terms and conditions for fees and cancellations with their clients before any work is done.
Despite all this, hopes remain high for the future of luxury travel and 70 percent surveyed said they are optimistic. Asked if there were any silver lining to this temporary halt in business, we received nearly 400 responses. Spending more time with family and pets, taking long walks on the beach and catching up on reading and reflecting were popular responses, while one advisor said she was happy to just be able to clear her head: “I was working so many hours a day that it was really stressful. I have also had time to exercise more.”
Organizing files, both electronic and hard copy, was another popular activity while others said they’d finally created new systems to better keep track of each trip.
Other silver linings? Advisors hope that airlines will have cleaner airplanes and move seats further away from each other and that cruise lines will be more aware of food preparation and crowd control. “It should not have taken this for all that to happen,” one said.
Many luxury travel advisors contacted clients, not to sell, but to check in to see how they and their families were doing; of course, those conversations eventually led to future travel plans, which didn’t hurt. Some of these calls were conducted via Zoom, whose video capabilities provide a more personal connection.
What Matters Most
One advisor who is pregnant gained a generous amount of newfound time to plan for her newborn, while another who had just had a baby now has had plenty of time with her new arrival. “Previous to COVID-19, we were so busy I was unsure how I would actually give myself some maternity leave,” she said.
Several advisors said they were learning new languages and many said they were working on industry education, participating in webinars with suppliers and destinations.
All in all, despite the downturn in business, nearly every advisor said the quieter time was providing its benefits, allowing them to exercise, focus on their health and gain strength for the future. “I’m powering through these long days with a positive energy that travel will return and when it does, we won’t have any free time left for ourselves,” one respondent said.
It’s not all zen and peace, however; when we last checked in with our advisor audience, many were grappling with clients who, having secured trip cancellations (thanks to their advisors), were looking for their refunds, repeatedly making calls and sending emails in search of their money.