What is the state of the travel agency community after almost seven months of the coronavirus pandemic ?
Given the massive pressures imposed on small businesses by shutdowns and travel restrictions, some agencies undoubtedly have closed their doors.
The revenue declines are devastating. An ASTA survey in early August said that 90 percent of advisors reported that revenue was down by 75 percent or more, compared to 2019. The same survey found that 71.3 percent said they might have to shut down within six months without additional relief.
“Regardless of what is done by the government, travel agencies and the travel sector in general have been without new business departing in cruise, and little in land, for six months,” said Debbie Fiorino, chief operating officer of Dream Vacations, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. “That is a strain that any business would have a hard time dealing with. The best thing that can protect travel agencies from closing is resumption of travel.”
Mark Meader, senior vice president of industry affairs and education at ASTA, said the organization does not have numbers on how many agencies may have closed.
“While we do not have specific data on the number of storefront agencies that have shut down as a result of the pandemic’s business impact, we are aware anecdotally of some mergers and acquisitions,” he said. “While not a new phenomenon – some may have been in play prior to the pandemic – impacts from the pandemic may cause some to study such options.”
Of course, the majority of travel advisors today are working from home, their car, the coffee shop, wherever. And the home-based may be better able to weather the pandemic, although the lack of income threatens all agencies.
“In general, yes, those agencies who don’t have overhead that includes a lease for brick-and-mortar certainly have one less significant expense,” Fiorino said. “In general, those agencies who also had no debt, savings for catastrophic events, and took immediate steps to conserve cash are the ones that are better off. Of course, better-off is a relative term in this crisis.”
High rents are tough to deal with during these times, as numerous stores and restaurants also are finding.
“Storefront travel agencies on Main Street are swimming against the current and unfortunately, many will not be able to stay above water,” said Michelle Fee, CEO and founder of Cruise Planners , an American Express Travel Representative. “Some might close down their Main Street agencies, with those large overhead payments, and join up with a host or franchise. Once you are in travel, it’s in your blood, it’s hard to totally walk away.”
Fiorino’s three brands – Dream Vacations, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. – have few storefront agencies. “We have some that have decided to move back and work from home, and some who are holding onto their storefronts,” she said. “We have not seen any of the few storefront agencies actually shut down their franchise.”
Jeff Anderson, co-president of Avoya Travel , said the Avoya network, made up of independent contractors, has “experienced low attrition rates since March,” when the travel shutdowns began.
“While Avoya was prepared for remote operations due to its hybrid business model, most agencies were not ready for a complete shutdown like the world has experienced,” he said. “Regardless of the model (brick-and-mortar, traditional call centers, and even some internet-based call centers), if the home-based technology and operational model wasn’t established prior to COVID-19, it was a very daunting and expensive task to do so while trying to service travelers during a crisis.”
More than one of the experts cited in this story mentioned the resilience of the travel agency community , which has endured and grown after past challenges. As Fiorino put it: “Travel agents will not only survive this, they will thrive .”