Travel agents highlight impact of COVID-19 pandemic

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 6,328 views 

Monroe and Debby Corwin of NWA Getaways Dream Vacations recently traveled to Mexico with 10 travel agents to experience the safety protocols in place at resorts there.

The travel industry came to an abrupt halt because of the COVID-19 pandemic as travelers canceled or rescheduled trips, yet travel agents said when travel returns, it will come back strongly.

Through May, the pandemic has contributed to an international tourism loss that’s three times greater than the global economic crisis in 2009, according to the World Tourism Organization. That translates to a decline of 300 million tourists and $320 billion lost in international tourism receipts.

Frances Mayo, owner of Around the World Travel in Fayetteville, said she started her business 30 years ago, and the past three years have been her best years. She started 2020 on pace to exceed 2019, but she expects to do the least business this year since she started her agency.

Business has declined about 90%, she said.

“March 12 is the date … when everything blew up in my world,” Mayo said. “Spring break was 10 days later. I had 42 trips on the books, and some of that may have been 20 rooms as one booking. And 42 out of 42 canceled.

“I have not had a single client since March that traveled as planned. They have all either canceled [or] some have rebooked for next year, particularly like my Europe river cruises. Others that were going internationally changed destinations, like Florida.”

Industry impacts include the fear of travelers contracting the virus while traveling, uncertainty over the safety of destinations, and closure to U.S. travelers. A week after the Bahamas reopened, U.S. residents were banned from entering the country, said Mayo, noting a similar story in Europe.

“International [travel] is pretty much off the table,” Mayo said. “I’ve got some clients scheduled to go to Cancun [Mexico] next month, and I’ve had a few clients go to Florida. The panhandle area, those beaches … are where everybody wants to go. Traveling is domestic right now.”

Destin, Fla., has become an increasingly popular destination, and she said clients are paying more to travel there this year than they were in 2019.

Clients are less price-driven amidst the pandemic but more focused on safe areas, and she pointed out Cancun, which has limited resort occupancy to 30%.

Frances Mayo

“At what point people feel safe traveling again, I think there’s going to be a huge pent up demand,” she said. “As soon as somebody turns on the green light and says you can travel again, I will make up for a lot of what I’m losing this year.”

Mary Barrett of Bentonville, an independent agent for Cruise Brothers, said many people have been canceling their vacations instead of rescheduling. As a result, she has been working for free because she’s paid after people return from the trip.

“People are still traveling; they’re just doing it differently,” Barrett said. “Instead of going on a cruise for their Christmas vacation, they might be driving to the beach.”

People are staying closer to home when they travel and going camping or renting a recreational vehicle. Without clients, Barrett has taken the opportunity to catch up on training and certifications.

Tracee Williams, agency manager for Destinations in Fayetteville, said the travel industry has likely been the most impacted by the pandemic and accounts for one in 10 jobs globally.

All the trips Destinations booked since mid-2019 have been canceled or rescheduled. As a result, agents have not received payment on those trips. Its four full-time agents and nine independent contractors continue to work without pay to take care of customers and see they receive refunds or credits.

“We’ve lost millions of dollars,” said Williams, adding that some trips have been rescheduled, but the majority have been canceled.

The loss of revenue has been the most significant impact on the industry, with airlines operating at low capacity and hotels without guests because people can’t travel, she said. Destinations, owned by Fayetteville-based logistics provider Airways Freight Corp., specializes in trips to Europe, Mexico and the Caribbean. Europe looks to be closed to U.S. residents for the year, possibly longer.

“We have a significant amount of reservations for 2021 and even 2022,” Williams said. “People, if they were allowed to travel, probably would be going to different places.”

This summer, the most popular destinations have been road trips to national parks, including Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, she said. Some are taking advantage of deals for trips to Mexico, which doesn’t require a person to take a COVID test or quarantine upon arrival. Caribbean countries are starting to reopen, but many require U.S. travelers to provide a negative COVID test within 72 hours of arrival.

Terry Jackson, franchise owner of Cruise Planners in Springdale, said her bookings had fallen about 50% for 2020, but many of her clients have rescheduled their trips instead of canceling.

She said the pandemic has led people to see the value of travel agents instead of handling travel planning themselves. She’s had reports of people who booked trips online and had to wait on the phone for hours and sometimes not get through to someone.

Terry Jackson

“My clients knew that I was going to be there to take care of them,” Jackson said. “I was able to stay ahead of it for them. Many of the vendors have offered very good rewards for booking future travel versus canceling — sometimes getting a good 25% return on your money for traveling later.”

Debby Corwin, franchise owner of NWA Getaways Dream Vacations in Springdale, also highlighted the value of travel agents. The company has four agents.

“We get them the best value and service in good times and take care of all the details when changes are needed,” she said. “People aren’t traveling much right now, which is our source of income. Many people are unaware that we only get paid when the clients travel.”

In July, she and 10 other Dream Vacations travel agents went to Mexico to see the safety protocols that are in place.

“While there, we visited three resorts, and between them and the airlines, they practiced the highest levels of cleanliness and guest protection through wearing PPE,” Corwin said. “Resorts in Mexico are currently capped at 30% occupancy. While masks weren’t required in most areas, the low occupancy made social distancing extremely easy in the public areas.”