During the summer of travel hell, travel advisors make a big comeback

LAS VEGAS – Call it the summer of travel hell, call it Airmageddon, or say something unprintable in the family newspaper. Whatever your preferred tenure, recent airline cancellations, staff shortages, lost luggage, and unsettling COVID-19 restrictions have helped boost a profession long considered extinct: the travel consultant.

“All of a sudden, I feel like I’m trendy again,” said Susan Bowman, a Toronto-based travel consultant. “It’s been a remarkably busy summer, and I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon. It’s been a renaissance for us.”

At last week’s Virtuoso Travel Week, the annual gathering of 5,000 luxury travel consultants in Las Vegas, the talk wasn’t about customers lost to websites like TravelCity and Expedia. Instead, for the first time in nearly a decade, scuttlebutt was about cutting customer lists as record demand, full schedules, and the need for travel advisor balloons. It’s the biggest thing in the industry since travel agents officially rebranded themselves as travel advisors in 2018. Agent or consultant, the main thing is they are swamped.

This is a logical response to the current travel environment. Vacationers are tired of spending hours over the summer talking to live airline customer representatives, fighting hotels for refunds, or rebooking cruises with each new COVID-19 outbreak. They want someone else to do it.

“People can book trips for themselves, but, as they realized this summer, that also means dealing with all the things that can go wrong along the way,” said Teresa Ford Chopp, founder of Boston-based Boost Journeys. “But if we book it, we fix it. I started my company in 2016 to help people plan beautiful trips, but now I’m also a travel therapist. At least once a weekend, I get a call from a client worried about travel. . So now, we’re not just designing trips for them, we’re also taking care of all the logistics. We’re focused on every detail and helping with the COVID contingency plans. This is a new role for us.”

Chope, who works in luxury travel and is part of the Virtuoso consortium of agencies, skipped last week’s Las Vegas conference because she was too busy with clients. But it’s not just the luxury market that’s flooded with new and returning customers. Alan Osgood of Marlborough-based Atlas Travel is also seeing an influx of holidaymakers who have decided to leave the potential odds to someone else. Atlas is currently hiring to meet demand.

“If you book online, who do you call to help you get your money back? Or, who do you call to rebook the trip for another time? Those people who weren’t dealing with a travel professional, how about trying to take care of themselves?” It was painful and time-consuming, learned very quickly,” Osgood said. “We have cruises that we’ve booked and rebooked. You lose count after a while.

It’s an unusual and welcome change for a profession that has spent years battling the notion that it’s as relevant as a telephone operator or the CEO of Friendster. As third-party booking sites (known in the industry as online travel agents or OTAs) have proliferated over the past 20 years, the number of travel agents has dwindled. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of full-time travel agents in the United States has fallen from a high of 124,000 in 2000 to about 74,000 in 2014.

The bureau puts the number of full-time travel agents at 70,000 in 2019 and predicts the industry will lose 25 percent of its workforce by 2029.

But this summer presented challenges that even the most seasoned DIY traveler had a hard time stomaching. The trip came back faster than anyone expected. The result was a holiday dumpster fire.

Americans are traveling — and in some cases, higher than pre-pandemic levels. The US Travel Association found that vacation spending in July 2022 surpassed July 2019 numbers despite inflation and higher airfares. Dozens of studies have found that most Americans have traveled, or plan to travel, before summer ends. In one of the most recent studies, from the travel website The Vacationer, 80 percent of Americans say they will travel this summer.

Boston writer Karen Winn, who is in her early 40s, was one of those vacationers who turned to a travel consultant when the odds and restrictions of traveling with her extended family in Sicily seemed unsafe. A 2021 study by the American Society of Travel Advisors found that 81 percent of inquiries were from first-time customers like Winn.

“I’ve never used a travel agent before,” Winn said. “But between getting hotel rooms and figuring out flight options, it was clear I needed to try one. I was overwhelmed.”

When the Biden administration removed the COVID-19 testing requirements for foreign travel, the floodgates really opened to European destinations. Describing European airports as “hellscapes” didn’t stop Americans from packing their suitcases—suitcases that were likely lost in the stampede.

Passengers wait in a long line to check in and board flights at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam on June 21, 2022. Peter DeJong/Associated Press

Inflation, political unrest and viruses have not slowed the thirst for travel. Nearly 70 percent of Americans say they will travel this summer “no matter what,” according to a study earlier this month by McKinsey & Company, a global consulting management company. The same study asked, “Imagine you won $10,000 in the lottery. How would you spend this cash?” The answer to number two was travel. (The top answer was saved.)

Those numbers, along with staffing shortages, make for some depressing scenarios. So frustrating that even travel advisors are finding themselves in the pinch. Clients came back, but many counselors left during the pandemic.

In Tennessee, InteleTravel consultant Michelle Schrader said her bookings are up 300 percent over 2019. In Ohio, travel consultant Crystal Teter of Go See Travel has fielded more inquiries in the past six months than in the past three years. Consultants are trying to keep up and adapt to the new needs of travelers.

“Our work has changed dramatically during the pandemic,” said Beth Washington of Washington, D.C.-based agency Gateway Guild. “So where a trip might take X number of hours to plan, it can take twice as long with both passenger questions and concerns, and an hour and 45 minutes on hold with the airline or company when there’s a problem.”

As a result, consultants – especially in the luxury sector – have had to be more judicious with their client lists. Most consultants make the bulk of their income from booking incentives offered by cruise ships, hotels and tour operators, not from their clients. But depending on the trip or agency, planning fees are involved. Consultants we spoke to hope that clients will see the value their expertise can create even after the current deluge is over.

“Every time something happens — SARS, 9/11, COVID — the mentality is, OK, this is going to kill the travel industry and it’s going to be the end for travel advisors,” said Osgood of Atlas Travel. “But we’re very resilient. Every time we come back, we come back stronger because we learn something new about the business, and we learn how to do more with less. I think this summer’s message is that, once again, we’re back. .”

Christopher Muther can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and Instagram @chris_muther.

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