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When Drew Bigda left work for a five-day ski trip, the U.S. travel industry was on solid footing. When he returned, shelter-in-place orders were in effect for most places.
The chief business development officer at The Resort at Paws Up in Montana immediately knew that travel was going to be different for the foreseeable future.
“I came home to a different world,” he said.
Travel advisors and suppliers across the country share this sentiment. The coronavirus sent shockwaves across the industry seemingly overnight. In its destructive wake were airlines, resorts, cruise lines, theme parks and more. There was an economic freefall felt around the world.
From a family travel planning perspective, the timing of the virus’ impact really couldn’t have been much worse. The first quarter of the year is typically a boom time for family travel advisors, as winter-weary travelers plan spring break getaways and summer travel.
“It was a very busy January and February booking period because the economy was doing so well,” said travel advisor Betsy Donley, a Virtuoso member and independent affiliate of Camelback Odyssey Travel. “People were enthusiastic and comfortable traveling, and everything was hunky-dory.”
But by mid-March, the boom was over. Clients began requesting cancellations for trips that were coming up fast, including many that had been years in the making.
“We’ve canceled hundreds of thousands of dollars in family trips,” Donley said.
Among her cancellations are a family trip for 16 people on an Alaskan cruise; luxury adventures booked on small ships to Tahiti; and getaways to Europe.
“This happened the week before spring break,” said Cristina Buaas, co-owner of River Oaks Travel. “We canceled 95% of our booked spring break vacations.”
The future looked grim, too. A survey conducted by MMGY Global found that the percentage of leisure travelers who said they were likely to travel domestically in the next six months had dropped from 82% to 39%.
Suddenly, instead of creating dream vacations, family travel advisors and suppliers found themselves untangling intricately woven bookings while attempting to manage their own financial and emotional survival.
“We spent a lot of time calming the nerves of wary travelers and just saying, ‘Bear with us, we’re all in this together,’” Bigda said. “For the first two or three weeks, it was a pretty hectic scene.”
Ninety-five percent of the summer clientele at Paws Up are families. Most of them are large, multigenerational groups that require months of client coordination. When the outbreak began, the Montana property didn’t know if there would be flights for guests, or whether they would be allowed to stay open and welcome visitors when they arrived.
Family travel is certainly different this year; Chatham Bars Inn in Cape Cod, Mass., expects to see family travel return this summer.Credit: 2020 Chatham Bars Inn
Paws Up has a range of accommodation options for families.Credit: 2020 The Resort at Paws Up
The small size of Tahiti’s properties should appeal to post-pandemic visitors.Credit: 2020 Conrad Bora Bora Nui Resort
Chatham Bars Inn wants to give guests a positive travel experience.Credit: 2020 Chatham Bars Inn
Unlike Any CrisisSimilar scenes played out across the country: Advisors and suppliers jockeyed between calls to clients and calls to each other as they tried to figure out how to handle a crisis for which no one could have prepared.
Even advisors who survived previous crises — including 9/11 — are unanimous in their assertion that the COVID-19 pandemic is altogether different.
Donley was an advisor when 9/11 rocked the travel industry in 2001, and Buaas recalls trying to manage concerns around Zika. But both say those experiences did little to prepare them for what they are facing now.
“I think that this will be its own reality,” Buaas said.
Bigda says that customer concerns around COVID-19 do remind him of some of the calls he took when wildfires were threatening the ranch a few years ago. Like the current situation, he had no way of predicting where the fires would spread and if the situation would get better or worse.
“Like then, a lot of what we’re doing is just trying to reassure people and let them know that we’re going to take the best care of them,” he said. “We told them we were going to make it work, and that we’re not going to put anybody in danger.”
Like then, a lot of what we’re doing is just trying to reassure people and let them know that we’re going to take the best care of them. We told them we were going to make it work, and that we’re not going to put anybody in danger.
Poised for a ComebackIt helps to recall that after many economic and international tragedies, family travel has been among the first sectors of the travel industry to rebound. After 9/11, families actually began to travel more. They wanted to spend more time together and saw the value of making memories.
Advisors are reporting that families are making it clear that they will not forego their holidays or extended social groups forever. And when they are ready to go, domestic travel will be the clear frontrunner. According to a May 27 Longwoods International study, only 1% of people are planning to take an international trip as their first trip since the pandemic hit.
“We’ve started to see people looking to travel with their families again,” Bigda said.
He also noted that the size (37,000 acres with a maximum of 240 guests) and remote nature of Paws Up likely make it more attractive to cautious guests.
“Some guests are saying, ‘If we’re going to shelter in place, let’s not do it in our apartment in New York amid the masses,’” Bigda said. “They want to get out of the city and spend some time in the wilderness.”
Simon Rodrigues, director of sales and marketing for Chatham Bars Inn in Cape Cod, Mass., anticipates travelers will seek out experts before they travel. He asserts that clients will want advice on vacation options that satisfy concerns about safety — without sacrificing a good time.
“We expect families will be seeking destinations where there will be a wide selection of outdoor activities, including beaches, nature trails, biking and hiking,” Rodrigues said. “Options for outdoor dining at restaurants, as well as convenient and creative picnics or to-go meals will also be interesting to families.”
Rodrigues adds that what has always made travel important to families — building connections, togetherness, nature, memory-making — will continue to draw them in the year ahead.
“People have had time to reflect during the past few months and have changed some of their priorities,” he said. “They’re realizing that they want to check off things from their bucket lists, spend more time with family and friends on vacations and share their favorite destinations with their children.”
People have had time to reflect during the past few months and have changed some of their priorities. They’re realizing that they want to check off things from their bucket lists, spend more time with family and friends on vacations and share their favorite destinations with their children.
And while the Longwoods International study shows that travel to an international destination is not likely to occur any time soon, Kristin Carlson, managing director for Tahiti Tourisme in the U.S., suggests that advisors can eventually expect travelers to go farther.
“Families will be looking for safety first, but also adventure,” she said. “The fact that the islands of Tahiti offer small resorts — the largest in the country has fewer than 250 rooms — will likely prove attractive.”
Nurture Your RelationshipsEncouraging families who may be hesitant to travel will require a light touch that starts by staying connected to them during this period, advises Donley of Camelback Odyssey Travel.
“I think keeping engaged with clients is the most important thing we can do right now,” she said.
Her clients have been receiving the company’s newsletter each week, which includes inspiration and information.
“At the very least, the client wants to know that you’re still around,” Donley said.
Advisors should also take a pause on aggressive marketing strategies, adds River Oaks Travel’s Buaas.
“I think it’s fine to talk about your purpose and your role in navigating clients through this crisis, and to put out PSA-type information, but it’s not the right time for pushing sales,” she said.
Suppliers agree. Carlson says Tahiti has developed a phased media plan approach.
“We’re looking at different messaging strategies for the various stages of the crisis,” Carlson said. “There is something different for the outbreak itself, the improving situation and then when the recovery begins.”
A humanity-first approach is vital for Chatham Bars Inn, as well.
“To avoid potential insensitivity, we have been highlighting the positive news, along with sharing images and past experiences guests have enjoyed,” Rodrigues said. “We’re avoiding actively promoting specials and various packages.”
Equally crucial to future success will be maintaining relationships with suppliers, Buaas says. Even though some of her trusted supplier contacts are furloughed, she tries to keep them in the loop on bookings.
“We realize the importance of those relationships because they really help us create special experiences for our clients,” she said. “When business is back, they’ll be back, and we want to protect their role in the space.”
And she has no doubt that day will come.
“We will be just as needed in a post-COVID world as we were in a pre-COVID one,” Buaas said.
For Bigda at Paws Up, the crisis has helped remind him that his relationships with advisors are critical to any future success.
“Travel advisors are some of my best friends, and their clients are some of their best friends,” he said. “It’s a personal chain of relationships that you don’t want to jeopardize or put in danger. I believe that this is going to have a lot of people turning to travel advisors. The unknown of it all is going to lead people to look for a little more guidance when they travel, and I think that’s going to benefit the advisor world.”
Tahiti Tourisme’s Carlson agrees.
“We all feel discouraged sometimes,” she said. “But I think having an incredible product or destination, a passionate team with the ability to be nimble and solid support from the travel advisor community will go a long way in being able to weather this storm.”