Before the advent of the internet and the proliferation of self-service, travel agents were the go-to resource for vacationers. Assembling itineraries, booking lodging and liaising between customers and providers were hallmark features making the agent’s concierge-style service so appealing. As time went on, using travel agents became less popular, despite their flair and how easy they made vacationing. Many today book their vacations directly online or go through larger providers. The agency model has endured the changes of the last few decades, and after the difficulty of the pandemic, many consumers returned to the travel agent, no doubt in search of the kind of personalization that made these services so inviting in the first place. As the industry recalibrates, examining the successes and challenges of the agent provides steps for the path ahead.
In the initial fallout of the pandemic, the travel industry began to thin. With flights halted and the idea of a vacation a distant memory, it felt unlikely that pre-pandemic activity would return. One-third of the 9 million direct travel jobs were lost at the onset of the pandemic in 2020, with 1.1 million remaining lost in 2022. However, in 2022, many are acting on a renewed desire for travel after restrictions were lifted and vaccines became widely available. 47 percent of consumers surveyed plan to travel this holiday season, with air travel seeing an uptick in interest from 2020 and 2021. Corporate travel saw a significant decrease as well, with global business travel contracting 52% in 2020.
A Look at Agents
Throughout 2021 as destinations reopened and interest grew, travel agents organized trips, accounting for local health guidelines and factoring in amenities like an on-resort medical staff. This welcome boon reinvigorated the need for customized services. Navigating local restrictions posed an additional challenge, one customers themselves weren’t keen to approach. Tendencies established before the pandemic may no longer serve travelers’ needs.
Marketplaces offering self-service opportunities are useful for those with the time or desire to sort through and filter options. However, services that curate accommodations based on needs are attractive too, especially for those placing people in multiple units and needing to arrange housing without added hassle. Using travel agents allowed customers to outsource the work of organizing arrangements, and leave it to the experts, ensuring the litany of details coming out of a trip would be taken care of.
The Modern Playbook
There are many takeaways from the last few years. Being flexible is paramount for both travelers and agents. While the early disruption of the pandemic has faded, the possibility of delay or recalculation should be accounted for. Remote work and work-from-anywhere policies remain in effect, so the kinds of amenities travelers seek may change as well. Things like access to dependable internet were always important in our connected world, but are all the more so in the wake of the pandemic. For example, according to reporting from Bloomberg, U.S. workers are settling in Mexico at unprecedented rates. International travel is back on the table, and consumers should source solutions that are able to account for the kind of movement, no matter the length of stay, they desire.
Lessons in Leadership
At the onset of the pandemic, travel workforces were essentially cut in half. Specifically, housing coordination, stay-at-home orders and other health protocols made going into a house or an apartment to evaluate the space untenable, nor was a large majority of the country looking to make a move. Our team had to help clients in healthcare find that much-needed housing to respond to spikes in COVID-19 cases. This required our housing coordinators to essentially serve as public health experts at times. On top of that, safety guidelines were constantly changing and varied across states and municipalities. This experience was a test to many in the travel sector, requiring quick thinking. As a leader, I had to maintain focus and put healthcare workers first, keeping in mind the work supported critical efforts.
In the end, the travel industry has yet to fully recover from the impact of the pandemic, but signs of growth are many. However, the playbook has been rewritten. With international travel back on the table, the scope of an agent’s work has widened to include verifying local health information. Through the early days of the pandemic, recovery has been possible and will continue as consumers seek personal services that handle their needs prior to, during and beyond their travel.