Journey advisers: Your secret trip weapon throughout the pandemic

(CNN) – Before Covid-19, Claudia Glina, who lives in São Paulo, regularly planned trips through Brazil and around the world for her family, which includes herself, her husband and her two young children.

“I used to go online and book the hotels and flights because that seemed like the easiest way to go,” she says.

Then the pandemic happened.

After months of lockdown and no travel, the family was desperate for an August getaway within driving distance of home but wasn’t sure where to go. Glina didn’t know which properties had reopened, and even when they did take in guests, she had several questions about her safety and health records.

“I considered myself an accomplished traveler, but I couldn’t get the information I was looking for online,” says Glina. “I was lost and overwhelmed trying to plan a simple vacation.”

Traveling during the pandemic is a personal choice and for those willing to take some risk. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Travel increases your chances of getting and spreading Covid-19. Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from Covid-19.”

While Glina and her family were open to travel, health and safety were paramount. For the first time, for reassurance and to find the best options, they turned to a travel agent.

A travel agent arranged a trip for Claudia Glina’s family of four to a resort not far from her home in São Paulo.

Courtesy of Claudia Glina

“We felt safe”

The experience couldn’t have been better, says Glina. Her advisor, Larissa Camhaji Ejzenbaum, the owner of Larissa Travel Designer, was recommended by a friend and presented them with a list of family-friendly resorts that she had personally visited in the past few weeks. Glina chose the Tauá Atibaia all-inclusive resort, an hour from São Paulo. The family spent five days of fun, enjoying the property’s water parks and multiple pools. Ejzenbaum even surprised her with a welcome present of a framed family picture and obtained a room upgrade.

“The resort did a fantastic job tracking social distancing and made us feel safe,” says Glina. “I would not have felt comfortable without Larissa’s expertise, and now I cannot imagine traveling again without her help.”

Glina and her family aren’t the only ones to rely on an advisor for the first time to help plan their trips. Some international travel networks and agencies have reported an increase in customers who have never used a travel agency since the pandemic began.

Post Covid-19, according to advisors and the people who use them, these potential travelers are relying on agents for inside knowledge about hotels, border openings and quarantine rules.

Consultants also report that in an unsafe travel environment, these new customers want to protect their payments on future trips if they need to be canceled or postponed, and need to be their advocate in negotiating refunds.

Consultants can provide calm areas and firsthand experiences in vacation spots such as Cancun, Mexico.

Consultants can provide calm areas and firsthand experiences in vacation spots such as Cancun, Mexico.

Donald Miralle / Getty Images

An increase in first-time customers

However, like the rest of the travel industry, consultants have taken a heavy blow in recent months.

According to the American Society of Travel Advisors, business has slowed dramatically since March, with most agencies in the United States seeing income drop 75% year over year in 2020.

In addition, prior to the pandemic, the United States had more than 150,000 travel agents. Since then, almost 60% of travel agencies have taken at least half of their employees on leave.

Despite the decline in overall business, inquiries from first-time consultants appear to be increasing. Most of these inquiries are referrals from existing customers such as the heads of large travel networks and individual consultants.

For example, Alex Sharpe, President and CEO of Signature Travel Network, which has more than 8,000 consultants internationally, says the network has seen new customers increase by 20% since last year. Most have never booked their trips through an advisor, he says.

“Of course they are interested in a property’s health and safety guidelines, but they also want to know how certain hotels and tour operators have responded to customers since the pandemic,” he says. “Have you given refunds or credits for canceled trips? Do you now have a generous cancellation and rebooking policy?”

Navigating the new world of travel

The Travel Leaders Group, a network of more than 45,000 consultants worldwide, is also seeing an increase in new customers – more than before the pandemic, according to President John Lovell.

“The most important request we get is from people who say they have never used an advisor but think they need one now to help them navigate the new world of travel,” he says.

Ejzenbaum, the Brazil-based consultant, says she has gained 15 new clients since June when the trip began again. “Usually, if I get six new customers in a year, it’s a lot. Fifteen in a couple of months is huge,” she says.

In Dublin, Ireland, Siobhan Byrne Learat, owner of the travel company Adams & Butler, says she receives between five and ten inquiries from new customers every day. Before Covid-19, it was about two or three.

“In Ireland there have been a lot of horror stories of travelers gypped by travel providers while trying to get refunds related to Covid, and people are finding that those who use travel advisors have better experiences,” she says.

The new customers they call mostly ask questions about potential destinations and hold reservations for travel across the board by making refundable deposits.

“I don’t sell trips anymore, but I’m building new relationships,” says Learat.

Jackie Roby and her husband David (pictured) recently booked a trip to Mexico through a travel agent.

Jackie Roby and her husband David (pictured) recently booked a trip to Mexico through a travel agent.

Courtesy Jackie Roby

Converted Travel Advisor Loyalists

Like Glina from São Paulo, some of the travelers who recently worked with consultants say that in the future they will book all of their trips through them.

Mary Grennan, who lives in Galway, Ireland, is working with Learat on a multi-week vacation in the United States for next summer.

“I tried to plan it myself, but I want to visit so many different places and I had difficulty wading through all possible destinations,” she says.

A friend referred her to Learat, and although Grennan was skeptical at first, assuming she would pay more with an advisor, she was surprised to find that the trip would be cheaper overall.

“Some of the hotel prices she found are lower than anything I found online,” says Grennan.

Better still, the deposit she gave Learat will be refunded up to two weeks before the trip and can then be converted into credit.

In another case, Jackie Roby, a resident of Boston, used a counselor for a trip to the Mayan Riviera and the Yucatan that she took with her husband in July.

Their agent Eric Hrubant, the founder of CIRE Travel, booked their hotels, arranged excursions and transfers, and even helped them pre-select the seats on their flight that would give them the greatest distance from others.

“Eric knew everything and saved us a lot of time and stress,” says Roby. “He’s the most trusted travel expert in our lives now.”

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