Why Travel Agents Matter More than Ever in 2023by Laurie Wilson /
Last February, Diana Hechler, President of D Tours Travel (member of Ensemble) worked with a family of three on booking their long-anticipated vacation to Peru. But the trip fell apart in late December.
The client was scheduled for the classic Machu Picchu visit, with time in Cusco, Lima, Rio Sagrado (for acclimation to the altitude), and the Hiram Bingham Train back from Aguas Calientes. All the hotels were five-star properties, mostly Belmond hotels. The departure from New York was December 26th, 2022.
And then…President Pedro Castillo Terrones of Peru was impeached for a third time in early December, and after issuing a notice that he was going to rule by decree, he was arrested and thrown in jail. His supporters protested, and as those protests grew larger and became more violent, train service was canceled (which is essential to reach Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of the citadel), the airport in Cusco shut down and LATAM canceled flights to Cusco (again, essential for a visit to Machu Picchu, when you begin in Lima.)
Hechler had actually consulted the Belmond Peru staff when she was at ILTM Cannes in early December, and her contact had reassured her that everything was fine and that the protests were insignificant. Of course, in time, that turned out to be wrong, and hundreds of tourists became stuck in Aguas Calientes.
Hechler called her client to fill them in on what was happening in Peru, and frequently updated them on the situation. She consulted with the DMC in Peru and decided that December 16th would be the “fish or cut bait day” to determine if the situation in Peru would stabilize. But on December 15, it became clear that this trip could not proceed safely; her partner in Peru agreed, as did her client, noting that they preferred a refund, not a credit.
The family had still hoped to continue their tradition of traveling during the December holiday, and Hechler was tasked with arranging a last-minute vacation. She knew that finding two rooms in a warm-weather destination on such short notice wouldn’t be easy to pull off, so she shifted her focus to a city in a non-traditional vacation destination—the French Riviera. She proposed five days, including New Year’s Eve, in Nice at Le Negresco (the five-star hotel overlooking the Bay of Angels), and then two days in Paris for a “fun ending” and a non-stop flight back to New York.
Hechler checked Le Negresco and, yes, they had two rooms overlooking the Mediterranean for five nights. She also checked with her favorite Left Bank hotels in Paris for Jan 1 to 3, and found availability there, too.
Thanks to Hechler’s frequent visits to Nice and Cannes while attending ILTM, Hechler knew that there was an excellent chance of nice weather—not exactly warm, but mid-60s and sunshine. And plenty of opportunities for day trips to Monaco, Antibes, St. Paul de Vence for its Fondation Maeght art gallery, Eze and Cannes, all reachable by train. She advised her clients that she wouldn’t have enough time to arrange the day trips in advance with private cars and drivers and prepayments, but she knew that the concierge at Le Negresco could do that once they’d arrived.
She notified the hotel that her clients were coming, and inquired about New Year's Eve dinner that required reservations and if so, book it.
The family had a fabulous trip—the weather was good, they were busy with activities and their rooms overlooking the sea. And when is Paris ever not a good idea, she says. Also, a few “nice, but firm” emails to Hechler’s partner in Peru, resulted in a full refund for the Peru trip.
“This is why travelers need a professional advisor,” says Hechler.
There are of course many challenges that advisors are up against, not just political like the Peru situation, but snafus like the recent Southwestern and FAA System Shortage debacles. And then, there’s the often-confusing insurance matter.
“Travel advisors are extremely well-versed in travel insurance,” says Laura Heidt, Insurance Desk Manager at Brownell Travel. “They have detailed knowledge of what is covered and, more importantly sometimes, what isn’t covered.”
For instance, in the case of travel disruptions, each policy typically differs slightly with varying rules and exclusions.
“With Southwest, the failure of the crew system would not have been covered, but a weather delay is a covered reason that can fall into trip cancellation or trip delay,” says Heidt. “That’s important because the airlines themselves have no responsibility for your hotel room or food if you get stuck somewhere due to weather.”
Travel advisors are also wise to new insurance policies and can impart important advice to clients. “There’s a type of coverage that I expect will get more and more popular, given all the ongoing disruptions we’ve seen in travel this last year,” says Heidt. “Most people know about CFAR (Cancel for Any Reason) insurance, but IFAR (Interrupt for Any Reason) insurance is becoming increasingly popular. If your flight path is interrupted more than 72 hours after your original flight, and it was intended to get you to a time-sensitive event, like a wedding, or a cruise ship departure which you can no longer make, IFAR offers a higher level of refund on the rest of your trip.”
COVID Game Changer
COVID, of course, changed the perception of a travel advisor practically overnight, creating new demand for their services.
“Travel advisors are now in more demand than ever,” says Kenroy Herbert, founder of LeviticusLifestyle & Travel and chairman of the board of directors for the Anguilla Tourist Board. “In fact, the role of the travel advisor has changed significantly, specifically in the luxury travel market.”
Not only do advisors help plan trips, says Herbert, but they also help travelers navigate a world that almost seems new to them post-COVID and specifically in countries that are constantly changing and updating restrictions.
Additionally, luxury advisors provide counsel on everything from private chefs to luxe transportation, and experiences, he says. “Their roles with clients go beyond simply transactional, they get to know clients on a deeper level, and the relationship stems beyond that of an agent, but also a trusted friend. Travel advisors are tasked with making a vacation more than just a trip.”
Louise Baer, Destination Specialist, at Kensington Tours, says she is personally invested in each trip, from start to finish, noting a recent example where a client contracted COVID in South Africa and was unable to fly to Zimbabwe. “Their international phone was not working, and it was over the weekend, so I set up a zoom call with them and we chatted through some options,” she says. “I was able to get them a special rate to stay where they were and managed to get them a full refund on the piece they were missing.” She also arranged daily COVID testing for them.
Ultimately, the client gave a five-star review and promptly booked another trip. “That makes everything worth it,” says Baer.
Often, it’s the little things that matter most
“What I think will surprise people who have not used an advisor before is that they will get some additional perks and benefits from using an advisor whether it's an upgrade at their hotel, early check-in or late check-out, or perhaps a little surprise waiting for them in the room upon arrival,” says Hechler, D Tours Travel.