Am I ready? I check my COVID uniform. Gloves on? Check. Mask on? Check.
I jump out of the car, ready to run into the grocery store for a few essentials needed for the week. The masked gentleman two car spaces from me catches my eye, points to my car door and asks, “How are you doing?”
He’s pointing to the car decal for our small business, Lay Travel Group – Dream Vacations. “We’re doing okay,” I tell him optimistically. “We’ve been lucky to have more reschedules than cancellations. It’s a tough time, but people will travel again.”
This is the mantra. We will travel again. It may not look the same. It may happen slowly, but it will happen.
In the meantime, Chris and I focus on taking care of the clients whose travel has been interrupted this Spring and Summer. Rescheduling and recreating their new dream vacations for a different time. Some are traveling this Fall or Winter. Many are traveling next year.
This occupies much of our time currently. We are not the only Travel Advisors rescheduling with travel suppliers. Although we and our clients are, of course, the most important, the travel suppliers are trying to work with millions of people around the world whose vacations have been disrupted, so we often have to get in line and wait. We’ve spent many hours on hold listening to the beautiful music cut in and out (why is the music never clear?). However, aggravating this may be, at the end of this wait, we typically talk to one person who answers our questions, takes care of our needs, and assures us that our clients’ travel will be magical.
Despite this optimism, we know that person on the other end of the line is worried. They are worried about what is happening in the travel industry as a result of the pandemic. According to industry polling, travel has fallen 85% compared to a year ago. Less travel means less need for travel professionals. Yet, this person calmly answers angry, agitated calls daily, all while understanding the job may not be there tomorrow.
Top travel companies in the industry must cut employees in order to remain solvent. Disney earlier announced it would furlough 43,000 employees during the COVID-19 quarantine (they are now debating when to open again), cruise lines are not sailing and airlines have lost 1/3 of their employees who accepted early retirement or voluntary leave. Other top companies are cutting executive pay, furloughing employees and cutting hours to make it through this time.
This is the heavy, scary and disappointing news we are reminded of each day as we read updates from travel suppliers, hear from other Travel Advisors, and receive news through industry publications. Although faced with the daunting data and headlines, we are not scared.
Our business is young and not as impacted by the pandemic. We aren’t so established that we have employees to pay or commercial leases to maintain. We were just starting to see better-than-expected success in the months before coronavirus became a concern. Our expectations were appropriately realistic from the beginning of our small business adventure. We spent nine months researching the industry and making informed decisions before jumping in. We understood most new businesses don’t make a profit in their first few years, so planned accordingly.
As a result, we are not worried. We’re hopeful. We train and prepare for the time people are ready to travel again. The current situation will improve and we are confident people WILL travel again. We aren’t going anywhere. We’re going to survive this situation and be there for you on the other side, ready to help you see and experience the world.
Welcome to our new blog! We’re starting this blog to engage with our clients and prospective clients in a new way that allows for more in-depth, rich, content that we just can’t provide through brief social media posts. Our hope is those reading these blog posts will comment on them so we can have an exchange. We expect to share our thoughts about the leisure travel industry, destinations we find interesting or exciting, special offers we don’t want anyone to miss, or maybe some random thoughts, which could be its own form of adventure travel.
Anyway, for this first post, I’m definitely going to be talking about coronavirus and COVID-19. How could I not? It’s only the most significant thing happening right now and affecting the travel industry. We have had quite a few people reach out or just casually ask how the virus has affected business. Just today, we met with someone who wanted to know if people are still traveling. Answer: No; no one is traveling…that we know about. But, this is not a story of woes. This is a story of resiliency and hope.
In reality, the virus is terrible. People are dying. People are sick. The global economy is being severely impacted and there are concerns for people’s jobs and long-term financial health. There are whole companies going out of business and more expected to go out of business in coming weeks and months. But, for our business, it actually hasn’t been too bad. Some of that is dumb luck and timing. And a lot of that is because of our clients.
We are somewhat fortunate due to timing. Our business is still young and fledgling; we only opened our doors in June 2018. This is a business that grows mostly on referrals, and while our referral business has been good, we still don’t have a huge client database that keeps us constantly busy. We learned from our initial research before starting a travel agency, and from others in this business, that this is not a get-rich-quick business. It may not even be a get-rich-ever business.
We are paid, mostly, on commissions that are issued only once our clients are traveling. So, there is normally a long period between sale and revenue received. And, because it’s a business built on referrals, it takes years to really develop a solidly-performing book of business. Knowing these things has helped us be mentally prepared for this moment, even if we didn’t intend to prepare for this moment. I still have a day job to pay the bills while my wife Rose works the travel agency during the day and I work nights and weekends. So, for now, we’re not destitute. We know many other Travel Advisers are already trying to find side jobs and some are considering closing. Thankfully, we are able to continue working on growing our business as best we can at time when no one is wanting to do much business.
We are also very fortunate that our clients really love to travel. Typically, these aren’t folks who just look to go on their annual vacation like it’s a “to-do” item on a checklist. These are not impetuous people who book and cancel on impulse. Our clients, like us, have a passion for travel or have at least dreamed of it. They love to see new vistas, touch history they’ve only read about, try new foods, and experience cultures different than their own. Others are people who have never traveled. They’ve dreamed of travel, but for various reasons, it has never happened. We have worked with couples married for decades who finally find themselves in a position to go on an adventure. We have worked with honeymooners who just want an exciting or romantic getaway before starting their married life routines. And, we’ve had some people who want to take a milestone vacation to celebrate another huge event, like retirements and 50th wedding anniversaries. For these people, their dream vacations are truly dreams – not just a week away from the house and jobs. So it is understandable that, thankfully, none of our clients have cancelled their vacations, despite COVID-19 concerns. Instead, they have all rescheduled for later this year or for next year. That has been fantastic because it means we can still help them experience the world and fulfill their dreams. It means that even in the face of a global pandemic, people are still hungry to explore, adventure, and experience life around the world.
Even still, the rescheduling can be a gut-punch for someone who has never really traveled and they were just about to do so. One couple has only ever traveled to visit family, but this time, they were going to a luxurious, all-inclusive, Caribbean resort. Another couple celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in February and were celebrating further with a European river cruise in April so they could experience the tulips blooming in the Netherlands. Another client was planning to visit Italy, her first overseas vacation, but now she is concerned her health will not be well enough to travel next year instead. For these people, we are rescheduling. But, still, they are heartbroken. We understand and our hearts ache along with them. We’ll do everything we can to help them achieve their dreams, but with some unfortunate delay.
I’m especially pleased our clients have been willing to take some risks with their vacation dollars and trust us to help them through this. That is only possible because we take the time to build relationships with our clients. We don’t simply take their vacation orders and click on a screen to make these vacations happen. We take the time to understand our clients, their travel styles, their concerns, and, my favorite part, we celebrate their vacations with them. I like to think it is because of these relationships and the trust we have developed with our clients that they are patient and willing to work with us through all the complexities and time it takes to resolve their travel concerns in the face of this pandemic. As a result, we have successfully avoided, so far, cancellation or change penalties for our clients. By taking time to see how the virus situation develops and working with our suppliers to understand their policies and temporary policy changes, we’ve been able to reschedule vacations and usually gain additional amenities, credits, or discounts for our clients.
We only have three more itineraries to reschedule, for now, and they are probably the most complex. One is a custom itinerary for Italy and Austria, another is a custom itinerary in Germany, and the third is a group tour of northern Italy with an extension in London. Each of these involves multiple suppliers, each with its own policies. It’s likely we won’t be able to avoid a penalty on some parts of these itineraries, but because we’ve patiently waited for policy updates from suppliers, we’re in a very good position to minimize those penalties and maybe offset them with credits or other benefits for our clients on the rescheduled vacations.
Regarding our business, overall, the virus has been impactful, but not devastating, thankfully. We began to see our business significantly grow in sales at the end of 2019. And in January this year, we were thrilled to sell more travel that month than in all of 2019. Of course, news of coronavirus was growing louder in the background. We were working with clients on potential sales we expected to close in February that would have exceeded even the January numbers. But, alas, everything came to a halt. We went from the best sales month ever in January to zero sales in February. In March, so far, we have sold one vacation to someone wanting to take advantage of coronavirus-driven cruise bargains. So, yes, business has been impacted, but it was at the right time for us. We weren’t yet accustomed to the great sales numbers we were seeing and not yet accustomed to the income those sales would generate. So, really, nothing has changed for us.
We are using this “down” time to examine the strong growth we saw at the end of 2019 and early 2020 and try to understand it better so we can get back to it when virus concerns fade. We’re using this time to do additional training with suppliers and learn about destinations. We’re altering our marketing and social media strategies and trying hard to generate more engagement with our clients, including through this new blog. We want them to know we’re here for them once they’re ready to start traveling again. Part of our marketing shift has been to stop talking about 2020; we just don’t expect it to be a good year. But, we’re finding people who do still want to plan vacations for 2021, so that’s where we are going to focus most of our attention.
Along the way, we hope that we can use this blog, our social media channels, our email messages, our direct mail pieces, and our one-on-one contact with clients to offer our services, share our knowledge, inspire their travel dreams, and encourage them to plan for the days when they can travel again. When that time comes, we’re going to be here…stronger, smarter, more prepared, and eager to help our clients realize their vacation dreams. Whatever those dreams may be, we are going to also use this time to maintain our relationships and build new relationships because we know we will get through this situation and we will do it together. We are better together.
Thanks, everyone, for asking about us. We’re doing well. Please take care, wash hands, stay healthy, and keep dreaming.