It’s not exactly a deluge, and the money isn’t exactly rolling in, but travel advisors are seeing enough of a jump in inquiries and actual bookings to give them hope – and keep them busy.
“Things are definitely looking up. I feel like we’ve turned a corner,” said Disney specialist Meredith McCutcheon, owner of Magic Minus the Mayhem in Rochester Hills, MI.
“I’m seeing the glimmers. For sure, it’s better than it was a few months ago,” said Laney Sachs of Ortensia Blu Travel Adventures in Stamford, CT.
“We’re seeing demand starting to knock on the doors. People are getting itchy to go away,” said Gary Pollard, CTC, president and CEO of Ambassador Tours in San Francisco. “We’ve seen a pretty substantial uptick since December,”
‘Get me out of here’
The upswing – not yet strong enough to be called a surge – is fueled in part by a newfound sense of safety as more people are vaccinated against COVID. “Now that the vaccines are coming, people are saying, ‘Okay, let’s go!’” said Anita Bornemann, owner of Professional Travel Service, Inc., in Kirkland, WA.
McCutcheon sees the same dynamic. “People are starting to feel more confident and a lot more comfortable now that the vaccines are rolling out.”
Some clients are simply desperate to get away – almost anywhere will do – and the sooner the better. “They don’t even care anymore; they just want to go,” Pollard said.
In Michigan, where COVID case numbers are currently low, McCutcheon believes there’s a push to get out of town while the getting is good. “I think in the back of everyone’s head is [fear of] another surge, so it’s, ‘Let’s do it now, while we can.’”
McCutcheon is a Disney specialist, so her close-in bookings, most for just three to four weeks out, are to Disney’s Florida destinations. What’s different this year is that she’s not getting the usual multigenerational bookings. Because of COVID, she explained, “there’s a whole different level of concern when you’ve got people of all ages.”
For non-Disney travel, McCutcheon’s business partner is getting requests for spring break trips to “wherever is open.” Although she normally sells a lot of international, this year she’s booking late March trips to the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Florida Keys, and Florida beaches.
Pivot to Mexico
Lisa Phillips of Simply Travel in Shakopee, MN, said she was hearing from people who are “sick of the cold, tired of being indoors and of not having traveled for so long.” It’s enough to keep her busy, though “not anywhere near normal.”
“Most people are starting the request with domestic options in the next 30 to 45 days. I’ve had a lot of inquiries for travel to Florida and USVI, Puerto Rico, or Hawaii. But once they find out how much it is to travel domestically and the limited availability for March, they reconsider Mexico.”
So far, Phillips is mostly getting just inquiries. “Few have booked, and some are still on the fence trying to decide if they want to take the risk to travel internationally, knowing they could potentially be stuck there for an extended time. They’re not ready to commit. Maybe they never will,” she said.
Still, Phillips was heartened when one recent week she found herself working on a multigenerational family trip for the 2021 winter holidays and two wedding groups for winter 2022. “That is the busiest I’ve been in almost a year!”
All-inclusive stays in Mexico are proving to be an appealing alternative for some of Bornemann’s cruise clients. Her Mexico bookings have included multigenerational trips. “People are getting older, and they want to create memories with their children and grandchildren. I guess we can’t all just sit and wait.”
Valerie Edgemon of Edgewood Travel in Savannah, GA, had what she called a “pretty big” week earlier this month. She sold travel for late February and March to Four Seasons properties in Hawaii and Baltimore, as well as luxury properties in West Palm Beach, San Antonio, and Costa Rica.
Others looking far ahead
If roughly half of the inquiries are for close-in travel, the other half are from customers thinking far ahead.
“People are planning way in the future – most for 2022 and ’23,” Pollard said. “A lot of it is cruises; destination-wise, it’s anywhere and everywhere.”
Pollard said he’s seeing more interest in luxury cruising than usual, as concerns about safety protocols and other COVID-related issues outweigh attention to price.
Laney Sachs said that when it comes to international travel, “2022 is where it’s at.” She’s been working on several requests for next year, including to Portugal, Africa, Italy, and Aruba.
Closer in, she’s keeping her fingers crossed that a “really nice” inquiry for a three-week trip to Italy this fall will pan out.
Sachs had planned to escort two small groups to Italy last year and has rescheduled them for this fall – again, fingers crossed that they’ll be able to travel. Recently, travelers are showing more willingness to commit. “There are people for sure saying, ‘I’ll go.’ That’s new.”
Doesn’t fill the coffers
Travel advisors may be busier these days than they have been in a long while, but because of how commissions work, it may be a long while before they see any financial payback.
“We’re busy, but a lot of it is just servicing existing clients that couldn’t go in 2020 and now they’re not able to go in ’21. The sad part for advisors is we’re working for free. We’re doing all this with no income, possibly for another year,” Pollard said.
Still, as Sachs said, there are glimmers.
McCutcheon, the Disney specialist, said that in February she would see the biggest paycheck she’d earned since last March. “I fully anticipate that this year will be better than last year.”