Industry Update
Opinion Article22 June 2020

How are Travel Advisors Responding to the COVID Crisis?

By Larry Mogelonsky, Managing Director Hotel Mogel Consulting Limited

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Mogelonsky

The current pandemic is a defining event for the travel industry. What was considered ordinary is now highly complex, if even feasible. But like any watershed moment, it's also an opportunity for innovation.

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To discuss the future of travel, I conducted a roundtable with five veterans who have been through 9/11 and the 2008 financial meltdown including:

  • Michael Kroeker, President of Bonaventure Travel
  • Carton Montaut, CEO of Carlton Montaut
  • Kyle Oram, CEO of KVI Travel
  • Mel Stewart, Manager of Maritime Travel
  • Lola Vassiliadis, General Manager of Cruise Holidays Oakville

How do you see the role of travel advisor changing in the post-COVID environment?
Montaut:
Moving forward, the role of the TA will be much harder. We truly believe the worth of a TA will be more widely known and people will use one to eliminate the fears of booking on their own and for the assistance and expertise they provide. We will continue to be valued TAs to our clients helping them navigate any new policies and rules that may be implemented by each country as they open their borders as well as those for airlines, resorts and cruise lines. Online will be for looking, TAs will be for booking. It is no longer good enough to assume that clients know their options and have a clear understanding of the rules, policies and conditions related to their purchase.

Stewart: Clients will expect us to have more detailed destination information concerning health safety and requirements. This experience has certainly proven the value of travel agents to the public. We were receiving calls daily from stranded PAX who couldn't reach their airline or online booking agent to assist them with changes. What is that old saying? Fear is the strongest motivator but for the shortest period of time.

Oram: You don't know what you've got until it's gone. I anticipate that travel agents will be given more value than before, as trusted personal guides who can help navigate clients through difficult times such as we're currently experiencing. The dangers of online and direct bookings are being exposed as clients are finding themselves on hold for hours and often without any support or answers. Travel agents must also now be much more educated in providing the safest options for clients and able to provide alternative travel plans for those who prefer to avoid crowds.

Kroeker: I think that the travel consultant will be more important than ever after COVID has passed. Clients really relied on us during the initial crisis and will need help navigating once things normalize. There have been so many changes to airlines, tour operators and insurance provider's terms and conditions the average consumer will need help trying to decipher all the changes, and this is almost impossible to do online.

Vassiliadis: This pandemic has shone a light on just how important it is to have a professional in your corner helping you get through all the issues that arise when you suddenly have a major setback in your vacation. Recently, it was helping clients get back home and sort through the changing information surrounding refunds and future travel credits. On this end of the equation, our advisors worked tirelessly to assist their clients with new flights, hotel rooms when required, liaising with tour operators and cruise lines, and extending insurance coverage. We even reached out to family members to advise them of their loved one's status and the return plans we have put together for them. This is what a good travel advisor does no matter the situation.

How can travel advisors assist customers in their hotel selection?
Kroeker:
As a President Circle member of TL Network, we have access to all the hotel programs that they offer. As an IATA appointed agency, we can book fantastic rates through the Worldwide Hotel Program in the GDS. We also have a competitive edge as we have fantastic rates and the amenity offerings of the Select Hotels and Resorts program.

Vassiliadis: The biggest thing is to get a good understanding of what the customer wants from their vacation or business trip such as what amenities they need or how important location. Asking open-ended questions and listening are key to helping them choose the hotel that best meets requirements.

Montaut: By keeping up to date with each brand's policies and the amenities they offer, we can match them with the best hotel for their needs. The choice of properties can be overwhelming, and TAs will have to learn to advise recommendations and selections based on what the client needs or wants and not based on price.

Oram: We have access to hundreds of thousands of properties, and with our extensive training and back-end connections, we are equipped to find what is right for our clients, whether it be big brands, boutiques, villas or private properties.

Stewart: We aim to support hotels that have posted procedures for disinfecting rooms and public areas as well as information on room turnover and social distancing. For example, some hotels are now renting rooms on alternate floors as well as making hand sanitizers, wipes and gloves readily available or facilitating contactless check-in and check-out.

How can travel advisors work more closely with their suppliers to support the industry?
Oram:
Be Ambassadors. Travel agents need to lead the way by traveling as soon as possible. We need to post pictures and videos at each destination, proving to the world that they are safe and that wellbeing is our natural state. Next is brand loyalty. Certain suppliers have proven their loyalty to the TA community and to our clients. It is vital that agents return that loyalty while continuing to provide the very best travel and vacation options.

Stewart: There is bad will between TAs and suppliers because of the ever-changing policies and misinformation to clients, all understandable since these were such unprecedented circumstances. However, and biased I am, I hope suppliers will reach out to travel agents to ensure all clients have been properly credited and provide accurate, client-appropriate documents.

Kroeker: Our office has worked closely with our preferred suppliers throughout the COVID crisis. Suppliers that have had our back through the crisis are the ones we will continue to support once things start to get back to normal. Our preferred partners have stepped up with webinars, training and recovery plans for once things open again.

Vassiliadis: Key is education. Knowledge is power and the more you know the more power you have. Now is the time, while the travel industry is at a standstill, to increase your knowledge of the products you sell and would like to sell. Advisors should immerse themselves in webinars and online training courses. There is a plethora of information available from every aspect of the industry - tour operators, cruise lines, hotels, excursion companies, airlines and so on.

Montaut: Moving forward, suppliers need more flexibility in their booking conditions so consumers can book with confidence and not worry about losing funds. TAs must learn to communicate more and build closer relationships with their various business development managers (BDMs). COVID-19 has proved to all Tour operators and suppliers how TAs have supported them. They in turn need to respect and support the TAs. BDMs and the TAs bear a joint responsibility in maintaining a relationship that supports the consumer.

What can hotels do to capitalize on their TA-client relationships?
Vassiliadis:
They provide the most up-to-date information on their properties. What measures are they taking to keep our clients safe? What changes can the customer expect to see when they arrive at the property? What protocols do they have in place should another crisis happen?

Oram: They must help get TAs out to explore their products. In cases where occupancy is low, offer free TA accommodations to entice agents to explore their properties and gain firsthand knowledge of the experience offered at their properties.

Montaut: Hotels and resorts should stop offering perks to lure clients to book directly with them and bypass the TA. They also need to act on special requests put through by the TAs like birthday celebrations, anniversary or milestone celebrations. TAs are very loyal to those that treat guests well.

Kroeker: Hotels are going to have to work with us to capitalize on our existing relationships with our corporate clients. Working with the agency channel to promote programs like the WWHP and Select will be paramount in rebuilding the business.

What will it take to revive the cruise industry?
Stewart:
For ocean cruises, especially large ships, they will need to reduce capacity, provide detailed health safety procedures and ensure social distancing, while all-inclusive may help to entice some PAX.

Montaut: They got the ugliest media coverage during COVID-19. The industry will need to instill confidence in the public regarding their safety while cruising. They must make their disinfecting protocol public as well as increase measures to screen guests before they board ships. For this, seeing is believing. The consumer needs to see people cruising again without any of the negativity and fears associated with cruise lines. This can be done with a strong partnership created between TAs and cruise lines. There are millions of avid cruisers and they are out there waiting to start cruising again.

Vassiliadis: Cruisers will always be cruisers and they are not deterred by the negative press cruise lines have received throughout this pandemic. They know the steps the cruise lines will take to make sure they are safe and happy. First-time cruisers will be more reticent to try a cruise right now. Until they see family members, friends or coworkers return without any incidence they will stick to land vacations. The onus will be on us - the travel advisors and the cruise lines - to make sure the cruising public knows how well the ships have been sanitized to ensure their safety. And then it takes time.

Kroeker: Our preferred cruise partners have really stepped up through the crisis, many offering additional future cruise credits up to 125% of our client's initial booking which is fantastic. I believe that the small cruise companies will become more attractive to consumers; smaller luxury lines will benefit as they offer lower passenger counts along with higher levels of service. Mass market companies will have to strategize by altering venues onboard so that they can practice social distancing. I also believe that things like the self-serve buffet and inside cabins will be a thing of the past.

How important is experiential travel in future travel advisor activities?
Vassiliadis:
We have seen quite an increase in experiential travel and expect this to keep growing in 2021 and 2022. Today's travelers are looking for more than just immersing themselves in the culture and history of the places they are visiting. They are looking for more in-depth personal experiences, whether it be cooking classes in Tuscany, shopping with the chef from your cruise ship, wine tastings in Portugal, cycling along the Rhine, photography in Vietnam or voluntourism in Latin America.

Kroeker: Experiential travel will be very important in future TA activity. Smaller groups or individuals focusing on sustainable, enriching experiences with purpose will definitely impact the future of travel. There will always be a market for leisure travel but, if anything, this pandemic has brought light to the fact that we need to pay closer attention to our surroundings.

Montaut: TAs will have to get out there to learn and experience more destinations, resorts, cruises and so forth. Going forward, I feel clients will depend more on TAs to book their vacations. They will want our assurance to send them somewhere they feel safe but yet have the full experience of a new culture and destination. People are going to invest their travel funds more wisely. There will be more of a purpose to travel and to meet up with friends and loved ones to celebrate a milestone.

Stewart: Since it generally involves close contact, health safety procedures will always be paramount. Experiential travel will become much more attractive since it involves smaller groups and can put a familiar group together. It will probably be 2022 at the very least before people are comfortable traveling to third-world countries but I can see specialized small group travel finding a very lucrative niche market.

Originally published in Canadian Travel Tress on Friday, May 22, 2020.

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