Get Us in Your Inbox
What is it like to be a travel professional in a time where we are not encouraged or able to travel? Due to the COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) pandemic, we’re living through an unprecedented situation with no playbook — and it’s OK to be anxious. But travel advisors are not alone in this; more than ever, we should be connecting with one another. Together, travel professionals, travel suppliers and travel media can make sense of this situation and, at the very least, take solace in the fact that we’re all encountering similar challenges.
TravelAge West is doubling down on our commitment to serving the advisor community with content focused on navigating the coronavirus outbreak. And we’re kicking off this initiative with a series on how agents are adjusting to this unique time.
In this first story of our series, Steve Orens, president of Los Angeles-based Plaza Travel and a member of the TravelAge West Agent Advisory Board, discusses how he has been setting up his agency to weather the storm.
What have been the biggest changes in your day to day?It’s crazy where we are and how much things have changed in just a few weeks. My days are now filled with answering questions and supporting staff in ways I had never imagined. I don’t think I remember what I did all day before this all happened. As company president, I understand that staff and clients look to me for advice, guidance and support; and based on the tone in the office and that of the emails I get, I am doing just that. I send out messages to keep everyone in the loop, have conference calls and put up video messages on our private Facebook group.
Aside from connecting with and supporting staff, I find myself making tough financial decisions on a daily, if not hourly, basis.
Tell us more about the financial decisions you’ve had to make to keep Plaza Travel afloat.My goal is to reduce expenses as much as possible and figure out how much I’ll need to supplement the company in the coming months. Initially, I looked at all expenses and saw where I had to make cuts. After the initial and quick cuts, I dove deeper into our expenses to see where I might find more opportunities. Each little cut adds up to big numbers. Some of my decisions have not been easy, but my responsibility to the company, staff, myself and my family gives me the confidence and strength I need. I have been very successful at reducing expenses and am feeling comfortable about getting to the other side of this.
What has helped you quell anxiety? I’m lucky to be involved in a few industry groups. These groups of my peers have provided me support and guidance over the years, and at no other time in my career have they been more instrumental. The email conversations between groups of my peers inspire me, support me and provide me with ideas I may have missed. We all work toward the support and benefit of each individual member. I can’t imagine an industry where peers are more supportive and caring, and I’m extremely grateful for that
What has your agency done to calm clients and postpone their travel?We have many clients calling with questions and concerns. We can’t tell them whether to go or not, but we can provide them with guidance and advice. We don’t make the decision for them; we just do our best to ensure they have all the information they need to make the best choice for themselves.
However, one thing we encourage them to do is to not cancel right away. From the very start of this, I have urged my staff to talk their clients through the initial knee-jerk reaction of canceling right away. I urged my advisors to lay out the different financial scenarios and costs of canceling or changing too early, and we advised clients about those specifics.
People want to explore the world, and while this is a big bump in their planning and bucket lists, it, too, will pass.
For example, we had many clients wanting to cancel their Princess Cruises’ sailings right away. Unfortunately, Princess had one of the most publicized locations of COVID-19. For our clients who waited to cancel their upcoming cruises, the line had a very generous offer: Not only did it provide up to a 225% future cruise credit, but it also provided commission to the booking agency on both bookings. One client even stated: “Where else could I earn such a high return on my money?”
Clients who canceled too soon did not get the same benefits.
Have all suppliers been this understanding?We did have some suppliers hold a firm line on refunds, future credits and cancellations. While waiting helped resolve many of these issues, I did have to push a few of our suppliers to get them to understand that we have strong partnerships, and I expect our partnerships to be strong not only in the good times but in bad times, as well.
Most of our suppliers have made great accommodations and have been extremely supportive. Those are the suppliers we appreciate and value the most, and those are the partners we’ll be calling first when start booking again. Their kindness, support and generosity will not be soon forgotten.
What can you do now in terms of setting up your agency for future success?I think the demand for travel has hit bottom, but once this passes, it will start to head back up again — hopefully to record levels from pent-up demand. To start, we are working with our local partners to get some great specials and benefits to help people travel again. From there, we’re continuing to expand to more destinations. In this downtime, we are planning for the future, cleaning up some things that we let slide because we were always too busy, and starting some things we always wanted to get off the ground.
When travel demand comes back, we’ll be ready. People want to explore the world, and while this is a big bump in their planning and bucket lists, it, too, will pass. In the words of one of our late industry icons, Michelle Morgan: “Onwards and upwards.”