During a summer of travel hell, travel advisors make a grand comeback

LAS VEGAS – Call it the summer of travel hell, call it airmageddon or call it something that can’t be printed in a family newspaper. Whatever your preferred term, the recent flurry of airline cancellations, staff shortages, lost luggage and fluctuating COVID-19 restrictions have helped develop a profession many thought was in decline: the advisor to travel.

“Suddenly, I feel like I’m fashionable again,” said Susan Bowman, a Toronto-based travel consultant. “It’s been an extremely busy summer and I don’t see it slowing down anytime soon. It’s been a rebirth for us.”

At last week’s Virtuoso Travel Week, an annual gathering of 5,000 luxury travel advisors in Las Vegas, the talk wasn’t about customers lost to websites such as Travelocity and Expedia. Instead, for the first time in nearly a decade, the scuttlebutt was about record demand, full schedules and shrinking customer lists as the need for travel advisor balloons. It’s the biggest thing to happen in the industry since travel agents were officially rebranded as travel advisors in 2018. Agent or advisor, they’re screwed after all.

It’s a logical response to the current travel climate. Vacationers are tired of a summer spent waiting for hours to speak with airline direct customer representatives, fighting hotels for refunds or booking cruises with each new variant of COVID-19. They want someone else to do it.

“People can book trips for themselves, but as they found out this summer, that also means dealing with all the things that go wrong along the way,” said Teresa Ford Chope, founder of Boston-based Boost Journeys. “But if we reserve it, we fix it. I started my company in 2016 to help people plan beautiful itineraries, but now I’m also a travel therapist. At least once a weekend, I get a call from a customer worried about a ride. So now, we are not just designing trips for them, we are also taking care of all the logistics. We are focused on every detail and help with COVID emergency plans. This is a new role for us.”

Chope, who works in luxury travel and is part of the Virtuozo agency consortium, skipped last week’s conference in Las Vegas because she was too busy with clients. But it’s not just the luxury market that’s awash with new and returning customers. Elaine Osgood of Marlborough-based Atlas Travel is also seeing an influx of holidaymakers who have decided to leave the potential hassles to someone else. Atlas is currently hiring to keep up with demand.

“If you book online, who do you call to help you get your money back? Or, who do you call to rebook travel at a different time? Those people who weren’t working with a travel professional learned very quickly how painful and time-consuming it was to try to take care of it on their own,” Osgood said. “We have cruises that we have booked and rebooked. You lose count after a while.”

It’s an unusual and welcome change for a profession that has spent years struggling with the perception that it’s as important as phone operators or the CEO of Friendster. While third-party booking sites (known in the industry as online travel agents or OTAs) have proliferated over the past 20 years, the number of travel agents has declined. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of full-time travel agents in the United States fell from 124,000 in 2000 to about 74,000 in 2014.

The bureau put the number of full-time travel agents at 70,000 in 2019 and predicted the industry would lose 25 percent of its workforce by 2029.

But this summer presented challenges that even the most seasoned DIY traveler found difficult to overcome. The trip turned around faster than anyone imagined. The result was a holiday dumpster fire.

Americans are traveling at — and in some cases, higher than — pre-pandemic levels. The US Travel Association found that vacation spending in July 2022 surpassed July 2019 figures, despite inflation and higher airfares. Dozens of studies have found that most Americans have traveled or plan to travel before summer is over. One of the most recent studies, from travel website The Vacationer, found that 80 percent of Americans said they would travel this summer.

Boston author Karen Winn, who is in her early 40s, was one of those vacationers who turned to a travel advisor when the hassles and constraints of a trip with her extended family to Sicily began to seem insurmountable. A 2021 study by the American Association of Travel Advisors found that 81 percent of inquiries were from first-time customers like Winn.

“I’ve never used a travel agent before,” Winn said. “But between getting hotel rooms and finding flight options, it was clear I had to use one. I was shocked.”

When the Biden administration lifted the COVID-19 testing requirements for foreign travel, the floodgates really opened to European destinations. Descriptions of European airports as “hellscapes” didn’t stop Americans from packing their suitcases—suitcases that were sure to get lost in the ensuing chaos.

Travelers wait in long lines to check in and board flights at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam on June 21, 2022. Peter Dejong/Associated Press

Inflation, political unrest and viruses have not slowed the thirst for travel. Nearly 70 percent of Americans said they would travel this summer “no matter what,” according to a study earlier this month by McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm. The same study asked, “Imagine you’ve just won $10,000 in the lottery. How would you spend this money?” The number two answer was travel. (The main answer was saving.)

These numbers, along with staff shortages, have created some frustrating scenarios. So frustrating that even travel advisors are finding themselves on edge. Clients have returned, but many advisers have left during the pandemic.

In Tennessee, Michelle Shrader, an advisor with InteleTravel, said her bookings are up 300 percent in 2019. In Ohio, travel advisor Crystal Teter of Go See Travel has had more inquiries in the past six months than in three previous years combined. Advisors are trying to keep up and also adapt to the new needs of travelers.

“Our work has changed dramatically during the pandemic,” said Beth Washington of Washington, DC-based agency Getaway Guild. “So where a trip might have taken X number of hours to plan, it can now take twice as long, both with questions and concerns from travelers, and also spending an hour and 45 minutes on hold with an airline or a company when there is a problem.”

As a result, advisors—especially those in the luxury sector—need to be more judicious with their client lists. Most advisors earn most of their income from booking incentives provided by cruise ships, hotels and tour operators rather than from their clients. But depending on the trip or agency, planning fees are involved. Advisors we spoke to hope that clients will continue to see the value their expertise can provide, even after the current deluge is over.

“Every time something happens — SARS, 9/11, COVID — the mindset is, well, this is going to kill the travel industry and it’s going to be the end of travel advisors,” said Atlas Travel’s Osgood. “But we are so resilient. Every time we come back, we come back stronger because we learn something new about business and learn how to do more with less. I think the message this summer is that, once again, we’re back.”

Christopher Muther can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and Instagram @chris_muther.

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