As the travel industry stumbles forward with mass flight cancellations, chaos at airports and five-star hotels offering three-star services at seven-star prices, travel agents, or travel advisors as they have rebranded themselves, are shining through, helping their customers navigate the bumps.
The proof is in both revenues, which are exceeding pre-Covid-19 levels, and most of all, new clients. Advisors report up to half of their customers are using professional travel planning services for the first time.
They arrive frustrated after spending hours on hold with suppliers and online travel agencies, known as OTAs, where the personal touch is often computer-generated phone bots.
During the first half of 2022, sales for Virtuoso, a global network of luxury-focused travel agencies with an estimated $30 billion in annual sales, exceeded record-setting 2019 levels by 2%. What’s more, future bookings are tracking 47% ahead of pre-pandemic levels.
“If you step away from what we do, you would be nuts to do it yourself, (clients tell us), ‘I can’t spend an hour and a half on the phone to the airline for a change you can make in five minutes,’” says Anthony Goldman, Joint Managing Director of Goldman Travel Corporation, an Australia-based member of the group.
He says first-timers come to advisors either via referrals of friends, often in need of “rescues” after well laid and paid plans hit a pothole.
Speaking at the Virtuoso’s annual conference being held this week in Las Vegas, Beth Washington, the Founder of Washington D.C.-based Travel Guild, says, “Clients are willing to spend more for a good trip,” adding, “To take a trip and just Google search; you don’t know the quality and current status (of what is being offered)…We are finding a lot of people who are coming to us. People are willing to pay.”
That’s likely because consumers are getting tired of being disappointed and, in some cases, misled. For example, selling spa and suite packages without disclosing the spa was only open for limited hours. According to research by the American Society of Travel Advisors, only 47% of consumers say hotels and resorts are back to normal, and 71% say travel planning has become more complex. The result: 43% say they are more likely to use travel advisors.
“The industry is dancing on the edge of a cliff…people who don’t use advisors come back feeling upset and let down. It’s bad for the industry,” says Jack Ezon, Managing Director of New York-based Embark Beyond. “Hotels need to be honest. Sometimes being vulnerable is endearing. They are hiding behind ‘because of covid,’” he says.
Matthew Upchurch, Virtuoso’s Chairman, says his advice to suppliers is, to be up front about service levels. “A lot of clients will give you leeway if you are transparent. It allows the customer to make informed decisions.”
Washington says it now takes twice as long to plan trips. When clients call, it’s a complex ballet of figuring out hotel availability, making sure desirable rooms can be had, and whether the airlines have seats on corresponding dates and, of course, the price. For example, Goldman says the cost of business class flights between the U.S. and Australia has doubled compared to pre-pandemic levels.
Moreover, advisors no longer just book hotels and send bon voyage wishes. Good advisors consider it standard to help clients secure restaurant reservations and appointments at the spa.
Washington says she understands it can be difficult for suppliers. She notes that changing regulations and employment levels can mean a hotel has to adjust what services it is able to open on short notice.
Advisors say that makes their role even more critical. Through their longstanding relationships with executives at the hotels they book, advisors get insider knowledge on which restaurants are open, what services are still suspended and when they might be restored.
“Prior planning prevents pretty poor performance,” says James Turner, CEO of Sevenoaks, England-based 360 Private Travel.
How soon will things get better?
Upchurch says the general manager of a luxury hotel in a major European city recently told him, “One of the fundamental problems of the travel and hospitality industry is (hotel) owners will spend $10 million on a new cigar bar, but what they are willing to pay the staff is shocking.”
Upchurch predicts, “There is going to be a separation between those organizations that treat their people well. It will take a while, but it will happen.”
In the meantime, consumers are flocking to travel advisors to help them figure it out. Virtuoso research shows its clients are six times more likely to trust the recommendations of their advisors than those from a friend.