By Hailey Benson
For Augusta Free Press
Until the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, travel agents had been sending their clients to destinations all over the world, and booking trips to once-in-a-lifetime getaways.
Since early 2020, “my revenue has dropped by just over 50 percent,” said Amber Benson, who, in addition to owning GototheMouse.com in Fishersville, is also my mother. “My primary business is planning vacations for guests to the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, and the theme parks were closed from mid-March into mid-July 2020. I also work on all-inclusive vacations to Mexico and the Caribbean, which became very popular last fall, but recently took a downturn due to new COVID testing and quarantine rules that were released by the Centers for Disease Control.”
Julie Arbelaez, the owner of Peace Frogs Travel/Outfitters in Charlottesville reported that in early 2020, “the usual onslaught of people planning their spring break and summer vacations was occurring, in addition to requests for fall cruises and winter holiday trips for the 2020 holiday season. As the coronavirus became a threat our clients started to cancel their upcoming vacations and our retail store basically went quiet. We have spent the better part of 2020 cancelling client trips, rebooking some for 2021 and 2022, and building an online store to sell our merchandise.”
COVID has changed the way that people travel, and “there is generally more caution across the board from travelers, both for domestic and international travel,” Benson said. “Americans are very limited on where they can travel internationally at this time, and new COVID testing rules further impact those destinations. There is a significantly larger focus on cleanliness and sanitation protocols, safety during travel including mandatory masking, social distancing requirements, and resort capacity/occupancy. It is very important to ensure that the guest will be as COVID-safe as possible at all steps of their journey, assisting with testing locations while in destination, relaying changes in travel requirements as well as destination rules, etc.”
Arbelaez added, “I’ve seen an increase in trips away from urban centers and more in the countryside and natural areas. Home rentals are on the rise and luxury vacations that offer a great deal of privacy and exclusivity are also having a moment. The private jet businesses are certainly being utilized more.”
Brandi Simmons, who owns Travel Leaders in Harrisonburg, said, “I think most people are more cautious with where they want to travel. Testing and filling out health surveys for travel is something everyone is getting used to.”
As for their willingness to travel during the pandemic, even though not all of the travel experts interviewed have been on a plane since COVID, they have all traveled.
Arbelaez, who has gone on two trips out-of-state, commented, “I felt both trips were wonderful because we took the same precautions while traveling that we do here in Charlottesville. I also limited stops on the road, packed all our food and brought plenty of cleaning supplies.”
Benson, who has traveled via plane, stated, “Every traveler has a different comfort level with travel right now. For me personally, I research my destination and ensure that I am comfortable with the procedures put into place there to mitigate COVID risk. While you cannot eliminate the risk of contracting COVID, many destinations and resorts have implemented steps that are more tightly controlled than what you would experience in your hometown.”
Simmons reported, “I personally am okay with travelling during the pandemic. I think everyone has to consider their own circumstances and make a personal decision.”
I asked the travel agents if they lived in another part of the country, if they thought their business would have been less affected by COVID. They all said no, and Benson added, “I think it could have potentially been more affected if I lived in an area that has had strict quarantines like Canada, California and the Northeast. My guests live throughout the United States, and I have seen those that live in certain areas be much less willing (or able) to travel than folks in our area.”
They all agreed that their clients have been either worried about traveling overall or the journey to their destination. Arbelaez stated, “I think going to an unknown place increases anxiety in general and so to layer on COVID-19 and all the unknowns associated with that creates a pretty strong barrier right now.”
Benson observed, “The worries that I hear the most about pertain not to the travel or vacation itself, but the procedures required to get to the destination (pre/post trip testing and quarantining after they return home), reduced activities available in the destination, or masking (either they don’t want to wear a mask or they want a mask mandate that everyone must).”
All of the agents reported that they have seen an increasing interest in traveling since the beginning of 2021, “I have had more travelers reach out in the last 30-60 days than the months prior,” Benson commented. “Again, it is about comfort level, and folks are looking to put a trip on the schedule for their families, whether it be for a vacation soon or later this year.”
Arbelaez also noted, “Since mid-January we have seen an uptick in interest and I’ve even booked trips for this winter for several clients who are vaccinated and just ready to go somewhere.”
Simmons added, “The beginning of January brought a lot more inquiries but with the new CDC mandates that went in effect Jan. 26, 2021, all inquiries for international travel have come to stand still and most were postponed for a later date.”
When asked what precautions they take now as business owners, and what precautions they recommend for their clients, they all talked about many changes they have made in the last year.
“As a business owner, the pandemic and resulting changes in travel have required me to change my approach to service fees. I have been in business for over 13 years and have not typically charged any service fees to my guests. Fees are becoming more prevalent in the industry,” Benson said, “largely because of the revenue impact we’ve all suffered in the past year. Most agencies receive their revenue directly from the supplier, such as the Walt Disney World Resort or the particular cruise line. The guest doesn’t pay any markup or additional fees for using the agent’s service, and often gets a better price and much better service using an agent that specializes in the particular product or destination.”
Benson continued, “However, that agent is not paid by the supplier until after the guest returns home from their vacation; most agents do not receive a salary of any sort, only this commission revenue. That means that for all of the vacations that were cancelled last year, and that continue to be cancelled, the agent has spent their time working with the guest, booking and servicing that guest, and then cancelling the guest, all with zero revenue. This has been very tough and caused the closure of many agencies. As a result, I have implemented nominal change and cancellation fees on all Walt Disney World vacations as of Jan. 1. While not something I wanted to move forward with, financial stability for my agency is necessary to continue to support those who are traveling now and will be traveling in the future.”
As for new recommendations for her clients, Benson stated, “I always recommend that a guest uses a trusted travel agent for their vacation plans. This doesn’t mean that a quick weekend getaway to a nearby city needs an agent, but many other places will be a much better experience for the guest if they have a trusted advisor on their side. Using an experienced agent is so much more important now with the changing landscape of travel. So many guests I encounter now have no idea that there are restrictions and requirements, unavailable experiences, potential quarantines, limitations, etc. and I want to ensure they have all the information they need to make an informed decision about travel.”
“I am still grappling with the lessons learned from losing a year and a half’s worth of business due to something entirely beyond my control. As a travel advisor,” Arbelaez commented. “I would tell my clients that they need to do a bit more planning in order to truly have a ‘vacation’- a word which to me means an opportunity to truly relax, unwind and experience something new. In the past, I would encourage clients to plan as little or as much as they wanted, based on personal preference. Now I’d suggest stepping up the preparation and planning so any COVID-related restrictions/policies don’t derail your grand adventure.”
Simmons spoke about new requirements and suggestions for her clients. “Each client has to sign off on terms and conditions, which include COVID mandates for traveling. We recommend you follow all CDC guidelines, and stay isolated so your chances for being exposed before travel are less. Travel insurance or a pre-departure cancellation coverage has always been recommended but because the situation is fluid and most international destinations require it now, we are including it in our quotes.”
All of the travel agents I spoke with thought that neither the effects of 9/11 or the 2008 recession came close to the effects of COVID on the travel industry. Even though the pandemic had a large impact on the industry, “I am seeing more and more guests looking to travel very quickly (such as over spring break) or farther out into the fall,” said Benson. “I do already have some mid-2022 trips on the books but most of my inquiries lately have been for 2021 travel. The requests are definitely starting to pick up but we are still far from a normal year. Typically, February and March are huge months for bookings as families start to think about scheduling their vacation time.”
“Hawaii and Alaska are very popular for this summer,” Simmons noticed. “In other words, are they booking to travel in the next few months, later this year, next year, etc. I have made reservations recently for travel in June and July. I am also working on trips for 2022 and 2023.”
Arbelaez’s, clients, however, have mainly started booking for this fall and out to 2022.
If you are looking to book a trip to get back out into the world after a whole year of staying at home, one of these fine travel agents would love to help you out! You can visit their websites, listed below, and request a price quote for your vacation. Just remember that traveling now will not be like traveling two years ago; there will be many changes, such as mask wearing, to be aware of. Make sure to ask your travel professional what kinds of things you should be aware of that have changed since COVID. Happy traveling!
Amber Benson, GototheMouse.com: www.GototheMouse.com
Julie Arbelaez, Peace Frogs Travel/Outfitters: www.peacefrogstravel.com
Brandi Simmons, Travel Leaders: www.travelleaders.com/harrisonburgva
Hailey Benson is an 11th-grade student at Staunton Montessori School in Fishersville who is participating in an internship with Augusta Free Press.