If there’s one thing we’ve learned from this disastrous outbreak, it is the undeniable value of a travel agent. Throughout the last month we have seen the world go from bad to worse with travel—both leisure and corporate—taking an unprecedented hit the industry hasn’t seen this side of 9/11. We have all seen the horror stories coming by way of social and mass media. Call hold times to online travel agencies (OTAs), airlines, and cruise lines are maxing out at 3-4 hours, only to be disconnected. Customers are supposed to be traveling within the week, but are unable to get a hold of anyone to cancel their vacation for a refund or travel voucher. Social media outreach to OTAs and airlines has proven effective to an extent, but how many travelers really know to utilize Twitter and Facebook for those purposes? To use the word “mass hysteria” may be overkill, but for the travel industry in the state that it’s in today, it’s right on target. That’s where we come in. Your trusty neighborhood travel agent—as a millennial, I prefer “travel consultant”, thank you very much. Yes, we’re still here. The online travel agencies haven’t taken over the travel world quite yet. In fact, we are still here en masse. Contrary to popular belief, travel agents were seeing significant growth in recent years. That is until now. The steep decline in sales over the last couple of weeks is staggering and the cancellations are even worse. But here’s the thing. We are doing everything we can for our clients, regardless of our losses. That’s our job. That’s what we are here for. Arguably most importantly, we’re answering our phones.
There is a common misconception out there that travel agents are just for the wealthy. It’s thought that our high fees can be avoided by taking advantage of OTAs and large market wholesalers such as Costco Travel that sell package vacations and cruises by the hundreds of thousands. The fact of the matter is that we generally don’t charge high added fees (if any at all) because all of that commission comes directly from our suppliers. Frankly, we are middlemen (and women). But we are middlemen that provide customized personal service. Most agencies operate similarly. The agent you get is the agent you work with from trip conception to welcoming you home. We pride ourselves on the personalized service that we can provide that giants such as Expedia and Costco just can’t do. Have you ever heard of an Expedia agent calling with a genuine interest in how your trip went? Hint, call-bots just don’t do that. All of this and more at little to no added cost to you seems almost too good to be true, but it isn’t!
As travel agents, we are trained in the art of crisis management. Generally, on a much, much smaller scale (broken ankle in London, canceled return flight from New Zealand, etc.), but we still handle these sorts of things every day. We are known to go above and beyond for our clients because they are our lifeblood and livelihood. And I’m not just talking about my agency. These are simply standards followed across the board in all agencies. So, with the case of the coronavirus, we are doing everything we can to make our clients feel safe whether or not they cancel. It’s times like these that we get added praise for our services, even when it’s to our detriment.
Let’s lay this out with an all too common scenario we’ve been seeing over the past couple of weeks. Picture having booked a $10,000 cruise vacation. Surprise! Coronavirus hits and you make the tough decision to cancel. You call your travel agent that sold you the package eight months ago. Two rings and you get an answer from a friendly voice you know. After some small talk and pleasantries, you let your agent know of your cancellation and talk options. It’s laid out for you in black and white. Here are your options, here’s what we can do. You get a call back by the end of the day saying it’s done and because your agent URGED (dare I say, insisted) you to buy the ever-important cancel for any reason insurance, you are getting a refund. Done. Easy. Due to this special circumstance, a future travel voucher was an option, but why not have the money back in your pocket? Sure, we, as the agents, had to wait on hold for an hour with the tour operator and/or the airline and possibly exchange a few emails, but that’s not your problem because that’s not your job. That’s what we are here for.
Now, how about this one? Picture having booked a $10,000 vacation. Surprise! Coronavirus hits and you make the tough decision to cancel. You first call the cruise line to inquire about your options. After a long hold, they tell you to call the big-market wholesaler because that’s who you booked it through. So, you call the number provided. Three hours of terrible music later there’s a click and then nothing. You’ve just been cut off. You finally get through after repeated attempts and the agent on the phone—someone who you have never spoken to before—informs you that there is no insurance on the package so it’s non-refundable. You opted out of the insurance because there wasn’t someone personally explaining its importance. It’s easier to click no than to say no. But, again, because of the circumstance you can get a voucher for future travel. That is $10,000 worth of a voucher tied up with an entirely unknown travel future and, of course, there are expiration dates involved. What happens when you’re finally ready to rebook? Get ready to wait on hold again, talk to yet another stranger, and have a high possibility of further frustration.
This is, of course, an extreme instance, but it’s happening every day to travelers all over the world. With “mass hysteria” comes mass confusion and it’s so vital to have someone there to give you peace of mind, especially in times like these. Two of the most important things we want to see protected—ourselves (and families) and our money. Why put that into something you can’t trust? The coronavirus has affected the travel industry in ways that will likely not see 100% recovery in years to come. But it’s also taught many travelers a lesson and that is the importance of a travel agent—travel consultant—if you will. In a do-it-yourself world that frequently leans more towards independence and automation, it could take an event like this outbreak to make us realize that customer service is still alive and well. We’re still out here ready to tackle these major travel issues with our clients’ best interests in mind. And, if I may say so myself, we do it well.