When Felix Brambilla saw people crowded at Key West bars in June after the city reopened to tourists, he worried about the risk of COVID-19 spread.
As the owner of a Coral Gables-based travel agency, Brambilla has pivoted his business to focus almost exclusively on U.S. travel since the COVID-19 pandemic dried up his usual international clientele. The pivot has been largely successful; he’s kept all 38 of his employees. But with travel, even domestic, comes COVID-19 risk.
In an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19 while keeping the tourism business afloat, his travel agency, Overseas Leisure Group, is offering a $250 credit for people who get tested for the virus within 72 hours before their trips. Since the program, dubbed the “Responsible Traveler Challenge” launched last month, 218 travelers have taken advantage of the credit, Brambilla said.
Sharon Hendeles, 33, of Los Angeles is one of those travelers. She and her husband planned an RV trip to Yosemite National Park for mid-August with their two small children. Hendeles said getting tested for COVID-19 before traveling, is the “responsible thing to do.”
“If you have it you shouldn’t travel,” she said. “A lot of people are traveling and don’t know if they have it. I would like to know if I have it because then I’m helping control the spread.”
The $250 credit can be used to reimburse any travel-related expense, even groceries, or be donated to a charity of the traveler’s choice. Travelers also get access to a COVID-19 screening app that asks them questions about their health and possible exposure to the virus.
Brambilla, whose business has weathered past crises including the September 11, 2001, attacks, said the COVID-19 pandemic is the most difficult business challenge he’s faced so far. He normally books trips for international travelers to the U.S. as far as seven months in advance. Overnight, he had to cancel and refund thousands of trips in March.
“We thought we had seen it all,” he said. “We thought we were the kind of company that could react to everything.”
After surveying 7,000 people through a network of travel agencies in April, Brambilla and others determined that if there was to be a pandemic travel business comeback, it would certainly be domestic. The company quickly pivoted to marketing U.S. travel to U.S. tourists. Within six weeks, Brambilla said, the company recovered 60% of bookings. Dude ranches, park glamping and RV trips are among the most popular.
“We came out of the ruins,” he said.
But seeing the mask-less travelers descend on Key West made him worry about the potential impact of traveling on the country’s effort to limit the virus. In mid-June, just as the Keys opened back up, the daily case and death counts in Florida and around the country began to climb.
Brambilla acknowledges that even with a negative PCR test within 72 hours of travel, someone might unknowingly spread the virus during a trip. But, he said, testing before travel can reduce that risk, and it’s a risk he thinks is worth taking. Many hotels and airlines are offering more flexible cancellation policies with limited or no cancellation fees, so a traveler who tests positive can change arrangements.
“You either stay home and lock yourself in or you have the need to breathe and you try to plan it with the greatest care,” he said.