Daniela Harrison, a travel consultant and director of marketing at Avenues of the World Travel in Flagstaff, Ariz., has been creating dream vacations for more than a decade. She knows the tricks of the trade to resolve just about any issue and ensure client satisfaction. But the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the game for Harrison — and nearly every advisor in the country, for that matter.
For travel advisors, pandemic-related woes started early last year, with a slew of cancellations and rebookings. But that was just the beginning.
“We are now going into the third or fourth round of big cancellations,” Harrison said. “When the pandemic first broke, all suppliers took a step back and said, ‘Just take care of the clients, and we’ll figure it out later.’ Now, it’s a different story. We’re seeing big problems arise with vouchers and insurance.”
Indeed, the pandemic has created an array of unique problems for advisors.
“Navigating pandemic bookings and cancellations has been challenging,” said Terry Bahri, luxury travel designer at TerryB Luxury Travel, a Los Angeles-based affiliate of Ovation Travel Group. “We went from a promising travel year to basically zero — and on top of that, dealing with cancellations, refunds, credits and insurance that won’t cover cancellations due to the pandemic.”
While there is no single solution for such complex issues, savvy travel advisors are finding new ways to deal with them — and they are also learning valuable lessons that, with any luck, will better prepare them for the future.
These are some of the tactics that today’s travel advisors are using to overcome pandemic-era challenges.
Working Supplier Connections
When it comes to resolving client problems today, “it’s all about relationships,” said DeeAna Archer, owner of Archer Luxury Travel, an Ensemble agency in Sugarland, Texas. “I’ve been in the business for 16 years now, and I’ve formed a ton of relationships that have really helped me and my agents. Honestly, we are copying people on things that they normally would never be included on. I’m CC-ing vice presidents and all kinds of people to make sure that things get taken care of in a timely manner.”
Harrison, however, is concerned about how much longer she will be able to work those relationships to resolve pandemic-related issues for her clients.
“I’ve called in a lot of favors, and there are only so many left,” she said.
To get a handle on when to press suppliers, Harrison often finds herself gauging which of her clients are more likely to accept unexpected changes, and which might leave her client roster if things do not turn out as planned.
Customer Service and Communication
Communication with clients is more important than ever before, according to Harrison.
“We’re very open when explaining the options, and that we’re getting as clear an answer from the suppliers as we can,” she said. “We try to resolve issues before the client even knows there’s a problem.”
I’ve called in a lot of favors, and there are only so many left.
For Leslie Tillem, a luxury travel advisor at New York City-based Eltee Travel, a division of Tzell Travel Group at Global Travel Collection, empathizing with clients is key, even under normal circumstances.
“I’ve always been my clients’ advocate no matter what,” she said. “I will sometimes say to my client that I can only do so much, but I work for my client, not for tour operators and not for hotels. I’m here to protect them — get them the best value for their money, whatever that may be. I’m also here as a therapist when they are upset and know they need to rant. I will never patronize a client. I am being paid to take care of them.”
Seeking Legal Advice
Advice from legal experts can be especially valuable during the pandemic. The first step toward protecting a travel agency at times like this is a written agreement, according to Jeffrey Ment, managing partner at Ment Law Group, a firm that specializes in travel and tourism law.
“I always tell travel advisors that you need to have a clearly defined role with your customer — a contract,” he said. “You need to clearly outline what you’re doing, what you’re not doing, what your responsibilities are and what they aren’t.”
Ment said the pandemic has cast a spotlight on the general lack of comprehension about liability.
“What was strikingly obvious during the pandemic was that the customers often don’t seem to know much about suppliers’ terms and policies,” he said. “And that became a weak link in the travel agent model. We need to do a better job of sharing a [supplier’s] policies with the traveler that relate particularly to money and the exchange of money and refunds.”
Refunds, Vouchers … and Commissions
Sandy Pappas, owner of Sandy Pappas Travel, a Virtuoso agency in Atlanta, has advised some clients to delay canceling trips if they want a full refund.
“I’ve told my clients, ‘It’s up to you, but ultimately, if you really want your money back, hold out until you get closer to the departure date,’” she said. “Probably 50% of my clients held out and waited, and we were able to get them refunds; the other half got credits.”
What was strikingly obvious during the pandemic was that the customers often don’t seem to know much about suppliers’ terms and policies.
Patience has been a necessity for those who are getting refunds, according to Victoria Zindell, a luxury travel advisor at Luxury Ventures Travel, an independent travel agency of Protravel International and Global Travel Collection in Corona del Mar, Calif.
“With some of the major cruise lines, refunds have taken nine or 10 months, which has been really tough on clients who have lots of money tied up,” she said. “We’ve had constant check-ins and questioning about refunds. We have to reassure clients that they are going to receive refunds, but it’s out of our control and we can only do so much.”
Travelers who got vouchers, meanwhile, may later find themselves in a quandary, since many vouchers expire after one year. The matter is even more complicated for travel packages that involve multiple suppliers, according to Harrison.
“We’re a luxury travel company focused on customized trips, so for us it’s not uncommon to have seven or eight different suppliers involved,” she said. “When you look at all those different suppliers, everyone has different rules and regulations.”
Fortunately, Harrison’s headaches have decreased in recent weeks.
“Some of the travel insurance companies have lifted the 12-month date change restriction — temporarily — so we have an easier time making these adjustments,” she said. “We were even able to reinstate some vouchers to use for the second time now. There is some light at the end of the tunnel.”
As reservations are canceled and rebooked — sometimes multiple times — advisors may find themselves repeating the same tasks, but without earning any additional commission.
To avoid losing time and money in the future, Archer is encouraging clients to schedule some types of travel — especially cruises — in 2022, rather than this year.
“I tell clients, ‘These cruise ships aren’t sailing until the end of 2021, so we need to put you on a cruise for 2022,’” she said. “I don’t want to do three times the work.”
Lessons for the Future
If experience is the best teacher, then travel advisors have learned an awful lot since the start of 2020. How will those hard-earned lessons affect the way agencies will operate moving forward?
Pappas said the pandemic has given her a clear understanding of which suppliers are worth her time.
“Most advisors will have memories like an elephant about suppliers who they want to work with — those who were flexible and tried to come to an amicable or agreeable position to make it as equitable and fair as possible for everybody,” she said.
We have to reassure clients that they are going to receive refunds, but it’s out of our control and we can only do so much.
Zindell is emphasizing the positives of booking now, as prices and cancellation policies have become more attractive. For some types of travel today, “there’s very little money down required, there’s tons of flexibility and cancellation may be up until the day of travel or 30 days prior,” she said. “I aim to give clients something to be excited about and look forward to, realizing that they are not in a financial commitment that would make them nervous.”
Harrison, meanwhile, says she is having supplier conversations that are decidedly different from pre-pandemic times.
“We have completely changed the way we are vetting suppliers,” she said. “We’re asking questions about when the final payment is due and how set the deadline is. Are we able to push it back so we don’t have to fight with the supplier in six, nine or 18 months? If there is a voucher, how long will that be good for? What if clients have a voucher, but by the time they can use it, they can no longer travel for medical reasons — will the supplier make exceptions for a doctor’s note? What if the same trip is no longer available in 2023, and there’s nothing else that will make them happy?”
One of Harrison’s biggest concerns is what will happen in the post-pandemic years.
“What happens once everything is back to normal, and everybody forgets what rules we had in place back in 2020 when everything was crazy, and the people who made the decisions are no longer there?” she said.
Harrison has already had to rely on recordings of conversations with suppliers just to prove what sales reps had promised, so she wonders what will happen when those recordings no longer exist.
“I think they only keep recordings for two years,” she said. “But am I going to have these same battles for the next five years?”
The pandemic has put a spotlight on the need for travel insurance, but has also revealed how it may not be sufficient to protect clients during uncommon times. Laura Heidt, insurance desk manager at Brownell Travel in Birmingham, Ala., addresses some of the biggest concerns. (Want to know more? Catch Heidt on TravelAge West/Travel Weekly’s Trade Secrets podcast.)
Q: How can travel advisors be sure that their clients are getting the coverage they need during the COVID-19 pandemic?
A: If you become ill, that is a covered reason for every underwriter with insurance; it is not just one particular company. They look at it just like any other illness, [and it] can apply to the traveler or to an immediate family member. So if [the traveler] is diagnosed and tests positive and is certified by a physician, that would be a reason to cancel. The tricky part is that most policies do not cover cancellations due to travel restrictions in a destination. That is where a client might want to consider a Cancel For Any Reason (CFAR) policy, because then clients are able to cancel if they have a fear of traveling or a destination says that it is closing the borders again. But they do not receive 100% back on that CFAR policy. It varies from 50% to 75%.
Q: How difficult is it to transfer insurance policies today, after a cancellation?
A: Before COVID-19, they would say it was a one-time transfer, but now most of the insurance carriers are allowing at least two or three transfers. They would rather the policy be transferred than have an individual asking for their money back.
Q: What is the best way to protect trips that involve multiple suppliers and a range of different components?
A: If you buy insurance from a supplier, they only cover you for their specific portion of the trip. That’s one reason why it is always best to look at third-party insurance.
Q: Should advisors recommend specific policies and insurance providers?
A: We have three carriers that we work with. We say to clients that we would like to provide a quote, and with that quote we give them a description of the coverage for the policy they are purchasing. That’s what we advise, so the liability is not just on that agent. Basically, you are supplying information to that traveler for them to be well-informed about what is covered by that policy. We also say that if a client has specific questions, they should talk directly to the carrier or the call center.