There is a roller coaster in Hersheypark called the Storm Runner, famous for bringing passengers from standstill to 72 miles an hour in two seconds flat. That’s really what it feels like to be a travel agent right now – we’ve spent a year at a standstill, and now we’re screaming through cobra curls and barrel rolls.
When the pandemic started, all my job was to cancel reservations and chase after refunds. I spent March and April 2020 undoing all the work I had done in the previous six months. Over the next year, my business fell 97%. Then the vaccine became widely available, and we left.
I have two main types of clients: For my day job, I am a salaried corporate agent who works with universities to facilitate their research, study abroad, athletics and conference trips. Budgets are low and the work is fast. My second job is as a commission-based leisure agent, in which I work mainly with high-end clients. For these travelers, hotel rates typically start at around $ 350 per night and go up to $ 12,000 or more per night.
All the agents I know are overcapacity. Fellow agents tell me they get calls from clients trying to book their first post-vaccination vacation while still in the chair with the needle in their arm. Over the past three months, I have responded to more inquiries from new leisure customers than usual in a year. My work with the haves has always been very sensitive and time consuming, but it’s a challenge I’ve become good at. Now, with the virus shattering all standards of my work, I feel like a newborn agent again.
The first problem is the question of supply. The travel industry contracted during the pandemic due to lack of demand and is now struggling to cope with an increase. Car rental companies sold off their inventory in 2020, leading to a nationwide rental shortage. Hotels are struggling to recruit staff amid this dizzying demand. Airlines are canceling and rerouting their flights more than usual, so booking a flight is rarely a unique prospect at the moment. And that’s just domestic travel – with international travel from the US, I feel like I’m trying to play darts while blindfolded. More than ever, each country and region has different visa restrictions, quarantine, testing and vaccination requirements. One wrong move, and customers are stuck halfway around the world.
There are new rules every step of the way. Some countries or territories offer flights, but the resorts are still not open. Some resorts are open, but they have closed activities like their kids’ clubs or spas. Every airline has revised their refund and exchange policies several times over the past year, and each is doing something slightly different. Tour operators have new rules. I don’t even know where to start with travel insurance. Officers realize that they do not know nothing. Nothing is true unless you’ve confirmed it recently and directly, and it often takes persistence just to get someone on the phone. Five times a day, my fellow agents and I send each other a message, “Can you verify this exchange for me?” I want a second set of eyes to make sure I’m doing it rightâ¦ â
The thing we talk about the most with my fellow officers is how long the research takes now. I recently checked out 81 separate Caribbean resorts just to find three that had availability. Mid-range or luxury resorts that were reliable and affordable in the past suddenly tripled their rates. I could spend a dozen hours, send dozens of emails, and make several phone calls for a clientâ¦ just to finally pay for a $ 2,000 trip to the Outer Banks. As an agent who relies on vendor commissions, I only clean up about $ 40 for every thousand a guest spent on hotels. This means that I can earn less than the minimum wage by booking these kinds of trips when they end up taking a long time.
I recently checked out 81 separate Caribbean resorts, just to find 3 that had availability.
And that’s when people actually book. Often times I spend hours researching various accommodation and flight options, only to get customers to ghost me. It’s always been part of the job, but it happens a lot more these days. Customers are faced with the shock of stickers, as well as an ever-changing news landscape that makes them eager to travel one day and nervous the next. Everyone wants to go, unless they don’t? It can feel like clients take all of their late-quarantine indecision and desperation and drop them on our knees. And the mountains? Maybe the beach? Is there a cabin in the woods, far from people? What is safe, what is affordable? We travel agents, experts in knowing international guidelines and how to get a good deal on a room, find it hard to figure it out ourselves.
This also applies financially. Commission agents are only paid after about a month after travel happens, so the money is dribbling while the workload is a tsunami. I have been so underwater over the past three months that I have closed my business to new clients. The agents to which I usually send my overflow lead to also having closed to new customers. I even have trouble following existing clients. I am working to restructure my hobby business from scratch, so that I can actually do quality work again without ever writing another email that says, “I’m so sorry for the delay in respondingâ¦”
After a year of dead silence, that’s a good problem to have. I’ve decided to focus on the aspects of being a travel agent that bring me fulfillment, like a girls’ trip I recently booked for three freshly vaxxed best friends. They were meeting for the first time in a year and a half. I worked with the hotel to create an oasis of magic, beauty, fun and rest for them, where they could reconnect and enjoy each other’s blessings. It was a joy to plan. I was happy to be there.