The end of online booking? The pandemic has proven that a travel agent is your best friend

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The internet has been a boon to travelers. We’ve become adept at researching and booking travel online, scrolling through photos of hotel rooms and short-term rentals to find the most appealing ones; Compare flight prices to get the best deal and email tour operators directly to review itinerary details.

Enter the pandemic. Many of us have endured the disappointment of repeated cancellations and the pain of trying to negotiate credits and refunds.

“When things go wrong, the website doesn’t solve the problem for you,” says Fiona Dalton, of Virtuoso Travel in Australia and New Zealand.

COVID-19 has complicated travel, but it’s not the only issue travelers may face in an uncertain future. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest climate report, released as Lismore disappeared underwater, warns that the frequency, severity and unpredictability of fires, floods, heat waves and drought will increase if we continue on a warming trajectory between 2 and 3 degrees. This is happening now, not some distant time in the future. This results in more delays, cancellations and destinations made inaccessible by natural disasters. If you don’t like bumpy flights, hang in there.

And with Russia’s heinous invasion of Ukraine, we now have an international conflict to factor into the risk equation.

Having a trusted travel advisor in your pocket is starting to sound like a sensible plan (“advisor”, not agent, being the preferred word these days.)

Travel agencies have been the hardest hit of all professions in the past two years. Businesses fell off a cliff, with a 90% drop in revenue in 2020 as the effects of the pandemic took hold. The carnage was visible everywhere in the empty storefronts of suburban shopping streets.

The closest independent agency to me is now a flower shop. Another has become a laundromat. Another is a discount designer clothing store. The travel industry has lost a lot of expertise as advisors have found work in other professions.

Despite having no income and no means to plan for an unknown future, many independent advisers worked tirelessly for their clients, negotiating refunds and re-booking trips. Most did it for free.

Independent travel counselors (not those working in large retail chains) typically charge a fee for preparing itineraries or for “concierge services”, such as arranging all aspects of a travel, from transfers to restaurant reservations, but it’s not much different from paying the fees of a financial advisor. costs. You buy expertise. And for someone to sit on the phone for hours if necessary for you.

Fiona Dalton says the loss of jobs in the industry means airlines and other travel companies have less manpower to help customers with their requests (anyone who has recently been put on hold for service airline customer understands this all too well.) “Never before has the human connection been so important,” she says.

Virtuoso is an invitation-only collective of independent advisors from around the world, many with specialties such as cruises, family travel or honeymoons. advisors draw on their collective knowledge and relationships forged over time with hotel general managers and tour operators to deliver a highly personalized guest experience. This means that if something goes wrong, there is a real person and a network on the ground.

Over the next year, Virtuoso customers are expected to spend three times their 2019 travel budget. Much of it sits there in convoluted travel credits with different expiration dates. Travel advisors need to be strategists to make sense of it all, says Dalton.

I’m highlighting Virtuoso here because the collective took the break from travel to emerge more proactive in encouraging good choices in conscious travel. He commissioned and published a white paper that looked at the sustainable future of the travel industry and found that 82% of Virtuoso customers actually want to travel with a lighter footprint.

Recognizing the leadership role that an army of 20,000 Virtuoso Travel Advisors can play, the organization has deepened its mission to make sustainability a bigger factor in consumer choice when planning trips. Virtuoso defines sustainable travel as travel that celebrates and honors culture, supports local economies, and protects the planet.

Called the “Conscious Return,” it helps travelers make better choices by promoting suppliers that exemplify sustainability leadership, like Intrepid and &Beyond. “We try to make the conscious choice to work with partners who care about us,” says Dalton. “If we don’t do it now, we may never have another chance.”

In the future, your travel consultant will not only be your booking agent, your concierge, your confidant and your security expert, he could also be your conscience.

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Twitter @missleetulloch

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