How dealing with travel agents may be different in 2021

There is a lot of pent-up demand. When it will begin? Nobody knows

pent-up travel demandThe travel industry fell off a metaphorical cliff last March, and it’s been largely that way since. But we don’t yet know if getting out of the depths will be a gentle climb. Or with pent-up travel demand will it take a steep path heading straight up?

Travel agents know that at some point travel will REALLY start opening up again. There’s just so much pent-up demand. Except we don’t know when that point will happen. And how quickly it will go from almost no one wanting to travel to everyone wanting to travel. In parts of the country, we’re already closer to the latter.

Pent-up travel demand calls for increased travel prices

For many travelers, calling or emailing a travel agent will be a part of that travel recovery process. Even with the limited business I’ve done in the last 12 months, there’s been a fair amount of people who generally don’t use an agent. However, most have wanted advice to navigate travel in a pandemic world.

There are continued predictions of travel agents or advisors going away. Somewhere between 65,000 and 100,000 Americans reportedly worked as travel agents before the pandemic. (The reason the number potentially varies so much is the number of independent contractors in the industry, which is hard to track.) The exact numbers may change, along with other things.

The pandemic and the end of change fees gave us a chance to reexamine our travel

Almost all travel agents still in the industry made it through the last year with some combination of savings, and/or other jobs. Work hasn’t gone away completely, because clients either have been trying to get refunds or postponing trips. In many cases, they changed travel and changed again, and again. One of my clients started out planning a fall 2020 river cruise and is now on her third revised booking… this time for 2021 Christmas markets. Another client trying to visit elderly parents in New York changed her trip seven times.

Once again, there is hope on the horizon. Due to pent-up demand in much of the US, travel has already picked up. (Side note, I hope all these unvaccinated Spring Break travelers don’t start us on another surge.)  And the travel industry agents are cautiously optimistic. But clients could see some changes.

There will almost certainly be fewer agents, at least for a while

You are being secretly taxed at airportsMost salaried agents that I know have been furloughed, and large agencies have at most maintained a skeleton staff. And while there’s no way of knowing, at least personally I know of some furloughed agents who have found other jobs. Will they come back? Not sure.

With fewer agents, it might not just be finding someone you may have used in the past, but it may be harder to find any human when you want travel planning help. Some of this may be short term as people return from furloughs or hiatuses, but we don’t know yet how many will return. We agents ourselves are seeing this with tour operators and cruise lines. One of my favorite companies, Classic Vacations, had to send out an email blast last week with tips for dealing with what are currently long hold times.

Expect more fees — especially cancellation fees

Some agents charged fees on top of airfares, hotel, and supplier room rates in 2020 for cancellations. Others, including me, felt bad about instituting a fee we had never thought of before the pandemic, so we didn’t do it. But now, when I and most agents I know have been booking clients for travel this summer and fall, we’ve told them upfront, if you do cancel this I’m going to charge something for my time. (Now, to be fair, in some cases in 2020, travelers did offer to pay and that was welcome.)  In addition, it now just takes much longer to book most trips, both with explaining regulations and researching changes with destinations and hotels.

Travel agents may be more selective in accepting bookings

Some agents have been this way for years, either in only doing niche travel or only dealing with high-end clients. One successful woman I know basically dealt with the issue by charging large fees upfront. Although many of us have routinely taken on many requests that weren’t particularly profitable. Almost everyone I know in the business loves to travel. We enjoy planning it and have joked that some of it is pro-bono. But especially if things get busy again, it’s likely we won’t be able to afford to do those kinds of trips going forward.

Join UsWe don’t have a crystal ball

Sure, some things we know — when there might be fewer children at a resort, the difference between high and low season, how early you might need to head to a tourist attraction. It’s been a source of amusement for years that clients ask us to predict the weather or when airfares will change. I’ve even been asked when the cherry blossoms in DC will actually bloom, etc. But if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that we have no idea what even the next few weeks might hold.

Travel agents work because we love to travel

Yes, it’s been a rough year. And, at least during the beginning of recovery, we might ourselves be traveling. But when we respond to requests, we’re going to be really happy planning your trips!

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