The rapid spread of the coronavirus has kept most countries scrambling to contain the pandemic and protect their citizens, billions of whom are under “stay-at-home” orders.
That has left most people feeling unsure about what’s happening each day, let alone what the future might hold. But one thing’s for sure: when those orders are lifted, people are going to want to get out of the house in the worst way.
That means travel. And travel agents like Christina O’Toole are hoping they can weather the storm to book all those trips when the pandemic subsides.
“I’ll continue to do this because it’s what I love, and it’s an industry I believe in, and this too shall pass,” said O’Toole, an independent contractor with Avenue 2 Travel, which has a Sewickley, Pa., office.
Whole new world
The $2 trillion CARES Act economic stimulus package included billions in loans for small business owners and independent contractors in the travel industry. The Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loans are both operated through the Small Business Administration, and the Emergency Stabilization Fund lists “ticket agents” among those eligible for relief in the aviation industry.
With airline passenger traffic dropping by more than 90 percent, cruise ships idled, theme parks shut down and most of the world under travel bans, travel agents have been left with virtually no new business.
However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t still busy.
“For weeks, travel advisors have been working around the clock, getting clients home from far-flung places, rebooking postponed dream holidays, and assisting companies who are postponing and cancelling meetings and events,” Zane Kerby, president and CEO of the American Society of Travel Advisors, said in a statement.
Despite the notion that travel agents have become an anachronism with the advent of the Internet and massive travel booking sites like Expedia and Priceline, many travelers still seek a personal touch when it comes to organizing trips.
The ability to directly call a person and figure out options in the middle of a crisis is part of that appeal. Unfortunately for agents, those services don’t necessarily generate new income.
“We have the ability to move funds or trips to 2021,” O’Toole said. “I’ve moved spring break trips to Hawaii to January. So we are doing work, but we’re not making any money because everything is being postponed.”
Consumers who booked travel via websites are reportedly running into brick walls when trying to get refunds from online travel agencies for a number of reasons, not least of which was the sudden escalation in reaction to COVID-19.
“The Wednesday Tom Hanks said he had coronavirus and the NBA season got shut down was panic day,” Hussein Fazal, the chief executive of SnapTravel, told the New York Times. “Everyone in the U.S. started panicking, we saw a spike in volume and then the travel bans came.”
Perhaps the most frustrating element for travel agents is that they must abide by the ticketing policies of their partners, and those policies have been in turmoil since the start of the pandemic as companies have tried to appease tens of millions of customers while also staying afloat financially.
That leaves agents like O’Toole stuck in the middle.
“The amount of conversations I’ve had in emails around the ticket values and the validity of the ticket with the airlines has been monumental,” she said.
But while most people have essentially written off spring travel, and the busy summer season is still in doubt, many in the travel industry are recommending consumers take advantage of rock-bottom prices to plan trips in the later part of 2020 and into 2021.
“It’s definitely worth a look at booking now for the future, because once this all lifts, the demand is going to outpace supply and [it’s] better to be ahead of that curve,” Joshua Greenberg, a travel advisor with Ovation Travel Group, told Readers Digest.
When that happens, O’Toole, who has spent more than 30 years in the travel industry, says she’ll be raring to go.
“This is the worst thing that we have been confronted with that has taken us down to the bare bones,” she said. “Someone hit the restart button, because I’m ready to get back to work.”