Even with government help, the outlook is grim. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the number of travel agents will decline by almost 30 percent over the next decade.
“The pandemic has severely disrupted travel agencies,” says Fred Becker, an associate professor of hospitality management at York College of Pennsylvania. Travel demand has dried up during the past year, forcing many agencies to fold.
The pandemic has also left some travelers agentless, combing the industry’s wreckage in search of a new travel professional. And while many of the strategies for finding a travel expert are the same as before, there are some notable changes.
Larry Ayres is among those who lost their adviser. His longtime agent “simply left” after the pandemic started, he says. The agent belonged to a travel agency network, and Ayres was told that he’d get a new one.
“But it’s like starting all over,” says Ayres, a retired construction supply firm owner from Sioux Falls, S.D. “And it is our responsibility to retrain a new agent.”
Ayres says he’s looking for an adviser who understands the post-covid travel landscape and is an expert on the European cruises he favors. Mostly, he wants to feel safe when he starts traveling again, which he expects to do this year.
The travel adviser’s role has shifted dramatically during the pandemic. Consumers now depend on advisers not just for advice but also advocacy.
“Never before has the consumer-advocacy aspect of professional travel advisers been more important to the traveling public,” says Matthew Upchurch, CEO of the travel network Virtuoso.
A lot of people are like Ayres, according to travel agencies. Embark Beyond, a New York travel agency, reports that its client base grew by almost 450 percent in 2020. Roughly half of the new clients were responding to the agency’s marketing initiatives, managing partner Jack Ezon says.
Ezon says the other half were “referrals coming to us in search of a guardian.”
“They needed help navigating the complicated web of information, misinformation and changing entry requirements,” he says, “and they just wanted to have someone they felt they could trust.”
How do you find someone who will take care of you after the pandemic?
The fundamentals still apply. I outlined some methods of finding a good travel adviser in a previous column. “The same strategies that people used to find a travel adviser pre-pandemic are still in play and will continue after the pandemic recedes,” says Stephen McGillivray, chief marketing officer at Travel Leaders Group. Ask for a recommendation from a friend or a family member, and check other references before hiring a new travel pro, he says.
Here are some other methods.
Find a trusted directory: There are a few places online where you can find a vetted travel adviser. For example, Virtuoso’s Find a Travel Advisor page lets you specify the type of professional expertise you need. Travel Leaders allows you to search by geographic area and several other criteria. ASTA’s consumer website, TravelSense, also lets you browse its directory by agent specialty. Also, look for the Travel Institute’s Certified Travel Assistant or Certified Travel Consultant designation, which is like having a college degree in travel. Jenny Hagan, the founder of Atlas + Valise, a luxury travel agency in La Jolla, Calif., says agent directories are one of the fastest ways to find a qualified pro. She’s received dozens of referrals through the Virtuoso site, which displays detailed agent profiles and customer reviews. “So the new clients can really vet the advisers before reaching out,” she says.
Look for someone who can handle a crisis: Some travel advisers specialize in managing challenging situations. Look for a professional who has corporate travel experience or who plans lengthy, complicated itineraries, such as cruises or safaris. These professionals specialize in handling last-minute cancellations and unexpected twists for high-maintenance clients. “Whether it’s dealing with last-minute cancellations or getting a client out of a country before it shuts down, good advisers are quick-thinking and tenacious when they need to be,” says Alexandra Rice, founder of Gusto Travel in Newport, R.I.
Pay attention to the details: If you reach out to a travel adviser and get a lot of questions, that’s a positive sign. “Does the adviser take time to learn your preferences and ask about any physical limitations you may have that can affect your pace or ability to keep up with a group?” asks Marcia Simon, an adviser with Friendly Group Travel in Westbrook, Conn. Look for a lot of detailed health questions. Your new adviser may also charge a new-client fee of $100 or $200. Simon says that’s a sign the agent is serious about researching your travel profile.
Watch for red flags: Here’s one. You call a prospective adviser, and he tries to sell you a vacation package that flouts current public health advisories for travelers. “I can’t stress enough the importance of finding a travel adviser who won’t simply give you the easy answers you want to hear,” says Louisa Gehring, who owns a travel agency in Cincinnati. A competent travel adviser would never send you into harm’s way.
And one more thing: Make sure you like your new adviser. An agent can check all the boxes, but perhaps the most important one is that you have chemistry.
“A good travel adviser will be someone with whom you will form a relationship and will continue to use over time,” says Jordan Brady, owner of Journey Bound Travel Co. in Boston. “It’s important that you can trust them, they align with your interests and travel style, and you genuinely like them as a person.”