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Lean Times for Travel Agents

How bad are things for travel agencies? 30% may be out of business because of pandemic-related travel restrictions, says expert

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Stay home summerDespite pre-pandemic growth in travel, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ employment outlook for growth for the travel agent occupation is negative 6% through 2028. On average, all occupations are expected to grow by 5% during the same time period.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics cites internet research and booking as the reason behind the decline; however, pandemic travel restrictions may abruptly shutter many agencies as well.

“They say 30% of agencies will go out of business as there’s no money coming in,” said Lynn Kiestner, travel agent with Canalview Travel Service, Inc. in Fulton. “There’s nothing that any one agency can do differently. If people aren’t traveling, they’re not traveling.”

She thinks that this year, more people will travel domestically or just stay home.

Like other travel agents, Kiestner is helping clients reschedule their travels. So far, her count is about three dozen canceled and rebooked trips.

“I’m not comfortable re-booking until I’m sure everything is settled and safe,” Kiestner said. “Cruises keep pushing out. It’s hard to plan anything until you’re sure they’re open. You can book something for the future but you don’t know if things will change.”

One factor complicating travel is that modes of transportation and places of lodging and entertainment have reduced their capacity to enable social distancing. This means fewer travelers can book at a time.

“The normal flights I’m putting clients on change daily,” she said. “I had someone book a trip for August and their trip has changed three times. There’s no consistency right now until everything gets situated and under control, unfortunately.”

Though she calls the current situation “bleak,” she believes that in time, the travel industry can recover. In the meantime, agents like Kiestner are working to adjust to changing times — both because their destinations have different rules and because travelers remain wary of coronavirus.

At Via Mondo Travel and Wellness in Skaneateles, owner Rosemary Mondo had specialized in travel to Italy, as well as Down Under travel to New Zealand and Australia. These days, she’s shifting to road trips and wellness trips. A yoga instructor, Mondo has traveled to many health spas in the region and can speak firsthand about where clients can go for a much-needed break.

When the pandemic threatened to shut down travel abroad, she had to work quickly to get her clients home.

“One of my clients was in Budapest in April and I got them a one-way ticket before things closed,” Mondo said. “You had to do it fast and they got back and were fine.”

Typically, she receives a retainer for trip planning that she applies to the trip once it’s booked. For those forced to cancel their trips, she will apply the retainer they’ve paid to their future trip — even though that means doing the work all over for nothing.

“I’ve already lost thousands of dollars in canceling trips,” she said, “but I understand money is tight. I know these people will travel again so I apply their fee to a future trip. I don’t want to feel they’ve lost any of it.”

Mondo said that a bright spot in the crisis is that those who opt to travel would definitely benefit from using a travel agent.

“A lot of agents say doing it alone online is far more difficult now,” she said. “We added another layer of value. More and more people want to go to a travel adviser because of that.”

Agents who stay abreast of COVID protocol news can help their clients make more informed decisions about where to travel and, as these protocols change, adjust their plants more easily.

Mondo also said that travel agents can help clients snap up deals for future travel, some as attractive as 20% off or free excursions. She hopes that post-pandemic, more people will turn to travel agents as sources of travel information and as a convenient means of navigating travel information.

Bozena Piatek, travel agent with APR Travel, Inc. in New Hartford, said that the agency still receives steady stream of inquiries, but fewer for international trips because of travel restrictions.

“Mainly, we’re dealing with some rebooking and cancellations,” she said. “We’re not seeing as much domestic travel because people aren’t comfortable to travel right now. Even domestic travel, it’s very reduced as far as flights. Some destinations aren’t accessible from Upstate New York. We may make a reservation and sell the ticket and then the airline cancels the flight so we have to start again.”

She hopes that the pandemic will underscore the merit of using a travel agent. People booking for themselves have to deal with their own cancellations and rebooking, for example. Once travel restrictions began, Piatek said that many travel websites shut down their phone lines and would not help customers rebook.

“I have a lot of calls from people who are stuck,” Piatek said. “They can’t get in contact with the online agencies. I think we’re going to see a lot of clients coming back to travel agents because they always have a lifeline with us.”

Caution is the policy at Captain Lori Cruises and Vacations in Seneca Falls, according to owner Lori Gnau. Since regulations keep changing, she’s not booking anything but trips with organizations with the most straightforward refund and rebooking policies.

“I can’t in good faith push anything for the next six months,” Gnau said.

She’s even cautious about booking trips for next year, and advises travelers to stick with larger, well-known companies to avoid losing their money should the company go out of business. But anyone booking now for 2022 or 2023 can snap up some good rates.

“Get something that’s refundable,” Gnau said. “It’s fun to have something to look forward to.”

For now, Gnau said that trips to Virginia Beach are popular, since it’s perceived as healthier than hotspots like Myrtle Beach.

Kiestner of Canalview Travel said that the Caribbean is starting to open up, but each island adheres to different rules as far as what’s required to enter the country. Cruise lines are on hold until at least the end of September.

Mondo said that some of her clients are still traveling, but changing their destination to a place with which they feel more comfortable, such as going to Mexico instead of Ireland.

“There’s nothing that any one agency can do differently. If people aren’t traveling, they’re not traveling.”

Lynn Kiestner
Travel agent with Canalview Travel Service, Inc. in Fulton