Before Covid-19, São Paulo resident Claudia Glina regularly planned trips around Brazil and all over the world for her family, which includes herself, her husband and their two young children.
“I used to go online and book the hotels and flights because that seemed like the easiest route to take,” she says.
Then the pandemic happened.
After months of lockdown and no travel, the family was desperate for a getaway in August within driving distance of home but were unsure of where to go. Glina didn’t know what properties had reopened, and even if they were accepting guests, she had multiple questions about their safety and health protocols.
“I considered myself a savvy 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 who are willing to take some risk. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “travel increases your chance 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 traveling, their health and safety was on top of mind. For reassurance and to find the best options, they turned – for the first time – to a travel agent.
‘We felt safe’
The experience couldn’t have been better, says Glina. Their adviser, 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 within the past few weeks.
Glina chose the all-inclusive Tauá Resort Atibaia, located an hour from São Paulo, and the family spent five fun-filled days enjoying the property’s water parks and multiple pools. Ejzenbaum even surprised them with a welcome gift of a framed family picture and scored them a room upgrade.
“The resort did a fantastic job of following social distancing, and we felt safe,” says Glina. “I wouldn’t have felt comfortable going without Larissa’s expertise, and now, I can’t imagine traveling again without her help.”
Glina and are her family aren’t the only ones relying on an adviser for the first time to plan their trips. Some international travel networks and agencies report a rise in clients who have never used travel agents before since the pandemic started.
In the wake of Covid-19, these would-be travelers, according to advisers as well as the people using them, are relying on agents to have the insider knowledge on hotels, border openings and quarantine rules.
Advisers also report that these new clients, in an uncertain travel environment, are looking to them to protect their payments on future trips if they need to be canceled or postponed and be their advocate when negotiating for refunds.
A rise in first-time clients
To be sure, advisers, like the rest of the travel industry, have taken a serious hit in the past several months.
According to the American Society of Travel Advisors, business has slowed dramatically since March with most agencies in the United States seeing a 75% decrease in income in 2020 compared with last year.
Further, the United States had more than 150,000 travel advisers before the pandemic. Since then, close to 60% of travel agencies have furloughed at least half their staff.
Yet, despite the dip in overall business, inquiries from first-time adviser users appear to be on the rise. The majority of these inquiries are referrals from existing clients, according to the heads of large travel networks as well as individual advisers.
As an example, Alex Sharpe, the president and CEO of Signature Travel Network, which has more than 8,000 advisers internationally, says that the network has seen a 20% increase in new customers since last year. Most have never booked their trips through an adviser, he says.
“Of course they’re 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. “Did they give refunds or credits on canceled trips? Do they have generous cancellation and rebooking policies in place now?”
Navigating ‘the new world of travel’
Travel Leaders Group, a network with more than 45,000 advisers globally, is also seeing a rise in new customers – more so than it did pre-pandemic, according to President John Lovell.
“The top inquiry we get is from people who are saying that they have never used an adviser but think they need one now to help them navigate the new world of travel,” he says.
Ejzenbaum, the Brazil-based adviser, says she has picked up 15 new customers since June, when travel started to reopen. “Normally if I get six new clients in a year, it’s a lot. Fifteen in a few months is huge,” she says.
In Dublin, Ireland, Siobhan Byrne Learat, the owner of the travel company Adams & Butler, says that she is getting between five and 10 inquiries a day from new clients. Before Covid-19, it was around two or three.
“There have been a lot of horror stories in Ireland of travelers who have been gypped by travel suppliers when trying to get Covid-related refunds, and people are realizing that the ones using travel advisers have had better experiences,” she says.
The new clients calling her are mostly asking questions about potential destinations to visit and holding reservations on trips down the line by giving refundable deposits.
“I’m not selling more travel, but I am establishing new relationships,” says Learat.
Converted travel advisor loyalists
Like Glina of São Paulo, some of the travelers who have started to work with advisers recently say that they would book all their trips through them going forward.
Mary Grennan, who lives in Galway, Ireland, is working with Learat on a multiweek vacation to the United States for next summer.
“I tried to plan it on my own, but I want to visit so many different places and was having a hard time wading through all the possible destinations,” she says.
A friend referred her to Learat, and although Grennan was initially skeptical and assumed that she would pay more by using an adviser, she was surprised to find out that the trip would be less expensive overall.
“Some of the hotel prices she found are lower than anything I found online,” says Grennan.
Better still, the deposit she gave Learat is refundable until two weeks before the trip and can be converted into credit thereafter.
In another instance, Jackie Roby, a Boston resident, used an adviser for a trip to Riviera Maya 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 preselect the seats on their flight that would give them the most distance from others.
“Eric knew everything and saved us a lot of time and stress,” says Roby. “He’s now the trusted travel expert in our lives.”