About $481 billion has been lost in the travel industry this year to date, according to the U. S. Travel Association. For travel agents and their agencies, the effect is hard to miss.
In a world where the COVID- 19 pandemic has battered a wide array of industries and their employees, one industry in particular has taken a beating.
The U. S. travel industry has experienced billions in lost revenue since the spread of the virus launched a global response resulting in restrictions, border closures and mandates confining many to their homes.
About $481 billion has been lost in the travel industry this year to date, according to the U. S. Travel Association (USTA).
For travel agents and their agencies, the effect is hard to miss.
Jamie Clements, a Temperance-based travel agent who owns and operates an agency with her husband, TC, said the pandemic’s impact on business has been emotionally and financially draining.
“It feels like it has been a two steps forward, one step back situation for the traveling industry,” she said.
Toll on an industry
The Clements of Temperance launched their business — Cruise Planners TC and Jamie Clements — nearly eight years ago, transitioning from careers in law enforcement.
TC, a former Bedford Township trustee, will soon take office as the Republican representative of the 56th District, which covers most southern county communities.
“We always like to joke we traded homicides for holidays,” Clements said.
Boasting more than 1,000 clients in the area, Clements said she and her husband enjoy being able offer guidance and advice in helping people make lasting memories.
They also build relationships with customers, learning their likes and dislikes, often helping to shape milestones like anniversaries and other special days.
“I get to travel vicariously through every client I get to send on a trip,” she said. “It’s exciting to help them make memories. We get to know them.”
But the pandemic has taken a heavy toll, she said. She and TC had set aside money prior to the pandemic, which is what has sustained the business.
“We’re going to be okay financially, but that stems from savings we had put aside,” Clements said.
Jamie’s agency is commission-based, meaning it doesn’t charge outright fees for services. Instead, revenue is generated through referral fees received from venues and transportation companies.
Most travel agents operate the same way, Clements said, adding the structure is similar to how online services like Expedia and Travelocity make their money.
About 71% of travel agencies and agents face closure or job loss as the pandemic rages on, according to research from the American Society of Travel Advisers (ASTA).
More than three quarters of the association’s members have experienced furloughs or loss of employment as a result of the slowdown in travel, many citing a lack of revenue or access to relief funds, according to the organization.
Tax revenue for state, local and federal entities also suffers as a results. According to USTA, such entities have lost out on $61.8 billion typically generated from the travel industry.
Using their knowledge
Despite some forecasts for the industry being dire, Clements says travel agents perform a necessary function, especially during the pandemic.
“The normal do-it-yourself (travelers) who hop online don’t know what’s open,” Clements said. “We have the best information because it’s our livelihoods.
“We have to stay on top of restrictions.”
For those concerned about traveling, agents also can provide valuable information about transportation services that adhere to social distancing guidelines or prioritize safety.
“We know which airlines are blocking off seats and which ones are packing people in like sardines,” she added.
Right now, resorts, venues and airlines that are able to operate are offering price incentives to attract travelers looking for a sense of escape, Clements said.
She recently booked a trip to the Caribbean for a group of people whose total cost is about $1,600 less per couple compared to a year ago.
“Resorts and destinations (in the Caribbean) are open for business, and they’re happy and excited to welcome visitors,” she said.
The benefit of using an agent is that they will be able to quickly identify ways to mitigate the cost of a trip, she said.
“There is a misconception a travel agent will end up costing you more money,” Clements said. “We pride ourselves on helping you to save money.”
Governmental restrictions wrought by the pandemic are on the rise domestically and abroad.
One trend Clements has seen is a steep drop-off in travel to popular destinations like Europe and some spots in California. Cruises, a once popular and reliable travel venture, have similarly dried up, she added.
Clements said, for the most part, agents aren’t even booking spots on ships until Christmas next year or later.
“We’ve had to move so many cruise (bookings) — I’m not even looking at the spring or summer,” she said. “It’s pointless to get people’s hopes up.”
There’s also been a steep decline in travel to Canada, which has closed its border to those traveling via car, according to Clements. Given Monroe County’s location, the neighboring country also was a frequent destination for local travelers.
But there is opportunity for traveling, Clements said, adding that it is a common misconception that everywhere is closed for business.
“The travel industry is still open for business,” Clements said. “You can still go and sit by a pool and have a drink. There is still opportunity for a reasonably, close-to-normal travel experience.”
Clients are primarily booking travel to destinations in the Caribbean and Mexico, as well as some theme parks in Florida, according to Clements.
Clement said her agency has been booking a surprising amount of holiday travel, with many clients seeking some kind of break after months of being relatively stationary at home.
“They don’t care about the cost or the deal, they just want to be gone for Christmas,” she said.
When it comes to whether or not it’s safe to travel, Clements said it’s not a simple yes or no answer.
“Everybody’s situation is different,” she said. Agents “are not naive to the fact the virus is real. … I don’t want anyone to feel a false sense of security.”
But for clients seeking to quarantine or socially distance in a sunnier or warmer place, the primary concern is whether they are of good health and have assessed their unique situation, Clements said.
“I would feel comfortable assisting them with making those travel plans,” she added. “If you don’t fall into a high risk category … you might be a good candidate for getting some travel in sooner or later.”
Clements is certain the travel industry will rebound with vaccinations on the horizon and the prospect of a return to normalcy not far behind.
But she knows some agents and travel businesses may not be as fortunate as her and her husband’s agency.
“I’m concerned for travel agents who didn’t have the kind of rainy day fund that my husband and I have,” she said.
According to ASTA, as people are able to more widely travel, it could take anywhere from three to 12 months for business income to near pre-pandemic levels after bookings pick up.
About 40% of Americans do not plan to travel until a vaccine is available, USTA’s most recent report said. But 62% of Americans plan to take some kind of trip within the next months.
As vaccinations gain approval domestically and internationally, agents are increasingly more excited about business recovery.
USTA’s most recent report found 43% of those professional felt an increase in hope last month compared to 38% in October.
Clements says some clients are looking forward to wider traveling opportunities in the future. But she’s not looking to give a false sense of hope.
Clients “appreciate our honesty,” she said. “There is a sense of passion that the summer of 2021 may bring us some containment (of the virus), which will be a bright spot for travel.”