As more destinations, attractions and resorts reopen, travel advisors are funding their own fam trips, documenting their experiences online and trying to educate their clients about what travel looks like in this new COVID era.
“We’re not being stupid. We’re not saying the world is normal,” said Whitney Norman, owner of Sun Lover Travel, based in Arizona. “But we’re also showing what is and isn’t possible as things change, because those clients who do want to travel, they aren’t certain where they can go and what their trip will be like.”
Norman’s agency had no fewer than four agents traveling over the last two weeks, mostly visiting Mexico and the Caribbean. They are documenting what airline and airport safety protocols look like, as well as airport transfers and resort arrivals. Norman herself was preparing for a return trip to one of her favorite destinations, Los Cabos, Mexico, when she took time out to speak to Travel Market Report.
So far, the feedback her agents have been receiving from their social media posts “has been great,” Norman said. “We have a very large amount of people on the books in August and a destination wedding too.”
Shelli Nornes, President and CEO, Romance Travel Group, recently spent seven nights in the Riviera Maya, Mexico, splitting up her stay to include three different resort partners.
“It’s not unusual for me to travel to Mexico multiple times each year, so this trip felt natural, a way to get back to some sort of normalcy,” Nornes said. “It’s also a way to prove that no, there is no travel ban, and no, the borders are not closed. This trip symbolized so much to me personally. Knowledge, experience and partnerships are priceless.”
Meanwhile, Cate Caruso visited Utah’s Wasatch Mountains, staying at the Lodge at Blue Sky, a 3,500-acre ranch about a 35-minute drive from Salt Lake City Airport. Caruso, Owner and Principal Travel Designer at Portland-based True Places Travels, made her first trip following the lifting of travel restrictions because she wanted to educate herself.
“We’re all trying to figure out what this next chapter will be like,” said Caruso, who posted on social media about her trip to help educate clients following her. “I have some clients who are ready to travel, and they just want to know what they have to do. There are others on the opposite extreme, who may never travel again, and that’s sad. And then there are those in between.”
Other advisors are being more cautious, both for their clients and themselves.
“I’ve gotten a few questions about traveling to destinations,” said Sherryann Charlton, owner of Sherry Destinations Travel. “I break it down like this. We don’t know what is happening with the virus, so we cannot determine what will happen next. So, traveling now and posting on social may not be an indication of what things will be like a week from now.”
Charlton is especially concerned for smaller islands that may not have the hospital capacity to handle a large surge in sick vacationers. “I don’t personally feel comfortable having you, my client, going there so soon. I think we need to give the islands, the resorts, time to figure this out. We have to educate clients this is not business as usual.”
Advisors reached by Travel Market Report said they were being extremely careful to depict the true experience of traveling during the pandemic, including taking selfies inside airline cabins, and discussing what airport and resort health and safety protocols look like.
“I have done my best to paint an accurate picture of what clients can expect,” Nornes said. “I documented my experience at the airport and have shared what it is like being at the resorts. I have tried to highlight the changes, because that seems to be the biggest question.
“For example, swim up bars are closed, but pool butlers are busy bringing trays of drinks and no one is going thirsty. Occupancy is low, so restaurants are condensed, but menus are rotated daily, and no one is going hungry. The resorts have all done an excellent job sharing their safety protocols, so I’m sharing their message.”
“We’re expected to know the answers to our clients’ safety concerns, their health concerns, the travel insurance details,” said Sherry Sanders, Beyond Travel, Springfield, Missouri. “You don’t want to create fear, but you need to have the right conversations to approach the topics.”
“I think everyone is intrigued and encouraged, and I am not seeing people saying you’re being irresponsible,” Caruso said of herself and other advisors who have taken similar trips. “What I do is try to be thoughtful and tell a story. And give a sense of what it feels like. If I have done that properly, then I feel like I’ve done my job.”
Most suppliers and destinations are holding back
Most advisors said they have not heard from suppliers offering fam trips, and none of the suppliers TMR contacted said they are organizing fam trips to specifically educate advisors about health and safety protocols.
“I think no one wants to jump the gun,” Charlton said, because if there is a second lockdown, destinations and suppliers would lose that marketing investment.
Brad Dean, CEO at Discover Puerto Rico, said his organization is currently focused on getting the island reopened and communicating clearly to travelers and travel advisors. The island officially opens to tourism July 15.
Over time, Dean said, Discover Puerto Rico will try to organize members and resources to reintroduce the island destination to advisors through fam trips.
“Travel advisors are at the forefront. You have a heightened responsibility and set the consumer’s expectations,” Dean said. “They are essential to the recovery of travel and tourism in every destination, because they’re not just a great promoter of travel, they are a validator.”
He noted how during normal pre-Covid times, “we had an idea of what to expect when traveling. But now, even for the most experienced traveler, the situation is changing, so the advisor’s experience and validation is critical.”
During a recent American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) webinar, Hilton Hotels’ Veronique Deblois, director of global travel partnerships at Hilton Hotels, instructed travel advisors to contact property sales directors for fam rates and site visit policies.
Karisma Hotels & Resorts has been educating advisors about its “Peace of Mind” program mostly through its website and webinars. Fam trips won’t start until this fall, said Marilyn Cairo, VP of Global Sales of Premier Worldwide Marketing, LLC, Karisma’s exclusive worldwide sales and marketing representative.
For now, agents looking to educate their clients about Karisma’s Peace of Mind protocols can download e-brochures, and co-branded social media assets. Karisma’s sales team also have been helping answer questions about national travel restrictions, Cairo said.
Advisors are informing and inspiring clientele
By informing objectively, advisors are letting clients make decisions for themselves. Ashley Morris, CTA, owner and travel designer at Alpaca Your Bags Travel, in Warrensburg, Missouri, recently visited ATELIER Playa Mujeres, because she needed a break from the lockdown, but also to post on her Instagram feed.
“People are asking questions like ‘How is the resort going to deliver on their promise?’” Morris said. “’How many restaurants are open? How about the spa?’ It’s our job to help tell that story.”
“The response has been excellent,” said Nornes. “I read of lot of ‘jealous!’ and ‘take me with you!’ responses. I had four clients ask to schedule calls with me upon my return to talk about booking their vacations. Clients in my Facebook groups are asking questions and really connecting with me.”
Given that younger consumers appear the most likely to return to travel first, Matthew Petrie, President, BVA BDRC US, a consulting firm, advised travel agencies to use video where possible, especially if they have clients who are younger.
“For Millennials and GenZs, it does have an impact. And if younger people plan to travel with older generations, it will be important for those travelers to show their older family members your videos,” he said.
Sun Lover’s clientele is heavily weighted towards Texans, so Mexico is making up about 90% of the company’s business during this reopening phase.
“I posted my agents’ pictures on our social, and clients were going crazy. They had so many questions,” Norman said. “We could see the initial demand, so when AIC Hotels began offering great agent-only deals for their Hard Rock and Unico properties, the bookings started rolling in. We had like 25 in just a few days.”