October 28, 2021

ilpuntontc

Just Do Travel

Iowa travel agencies continue to ride a pandemic roller coaster

6 min read

David LaMere of LaMere Family Travel gathers research to be presented to clients while on a tour of covered bridges in Indiana as he works in his office in Coralville on Wednesday. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

As much or more than many other sectors, the travel industry has been hard hit by the effects of the pandemic for more than a year and a half. And the role they are playing in assisting consumers and business travelers is a bit of a roller coaster, Corridor travel agents said.

When the pandemic first became evident in Iowa in March 2020, travel came to a near standstill.

“It’s been a very rocky road in this industry,” said David LaMere, who has spent more than two decades working in the travel industry.

His plans to launch his own travel agency — LaMere Family Travel, based in Coralville and covering the Iowa City area — were put on hold from early 2020 until this April, when many pandemic restrictions began lifting and LaMere thought the timing would be right to open his doors to clients.

His initial business model involved purchasing tour buses, which LaMere is grateful he had not yet done when the pandemic began affecting travel.

“That part of the travel industry came to a screeching halt,” he recalled.

“I know a lot of very large motor coach companies that have been in the industry for 50 or 60 years and they closed up shop and called it retirement time.”

No doubt, travel took a big hit in 2020. Linchi Kwok, Collins College of Hospitality Management associate professor, noted on the Hospitality Net’s website that according to the International Civil Aviation Organization, global air traffic dropped from 4.5 billion in 2019 to 1.8 billion in 2020.

He added that “hotel room revenue was cut in half, from $167 billion to $85 billion. Hotels were running at about 44 percent occupancy in 2020, down from 66 percent in 2019.”

But while many planes, trains, cruise ships and automobiles sat relatively empty, consumers didn’t abandon working with travel advisers early in the pandemic, local experts noted.

“Our staff was actually very busy then processing cancellations and doing bookings to reschedule trips for both corporate and vacation travel, so we remained pretty busy for a period of time,” said Duane Jasper, CEO of Travel Leaders/Destinations Unlimited which has offices in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.

“I think we all had a different sense of when this pandemic was going to be over,” Jasper said, noting that at one stage he thought travel might be affected for a few months’ time.

“And now here we are almost going on a couple of years.”

Jasper said many travelers who had trips planned in mid-2020 bumped them back several months, and have even needed to move them a second time — or more — as variants of the virus have complicated pandemic recovery.

“We’ve actually helped people move their vacation plans three and four times over the course of the last 18 month,” he said. “That’s what we’re dealing with a lot today.”

Jasper and LaMere said working with travel advisers can be particularly beneficial in the current travel climate, as guidance on requirements continue to change and it’s time consuming to keep up.

“You may have a good understanding of what it takes to get into a particular country today, but that could change in a couple of days,” Jasper said.

He said his agency is working with previous clients, but also with many people who have not used an adviser in the past.

“We are working with so many suppliers and monitoring so many websites to make sure that we’re up to date. It’s an ongoing effort because it is a constantly changing,” he said.

“Things can take a sharp turn and change quickly,” LaMere agreed.

“I’m probably doing one webinar a week with updated code regulations, just keeping up with what country is open, what countries are closing, what restrictions are in place.”

Through his agency, LaMere also serves as an agent for travel insurance, which he said is growing in popularity with consumers.

“Travel insurance is one of the things that I recommend that everybody traveling now look at because of the ups and downs of the pandemic,” he said.

He said he knows of people who have lost airline ticket money because they booked a flight before the pandemic, moved it within a year — still but were unable to take the flight and now cannot get a refund from the airline.

Plus, he said he’s had many people come up to him, at a meeting, for example, to ask for travel advice during these uncertain times.

“In these technological times, we see a lot of people saying they can just go through Expedia or Travelocity and figure out their own plans for a trip,” LaMere said.

“But I always tell people that travel agents always have an advantage over going that route because there are so many intricate pieces that you aren’t going to get through those sites. And people are starting to see that now.”

“They may have had a lot of issues getting their travel dollars refunded or trips rebooked when they were going directly to the supplier,” Jasper added.

“Obviously as an agency that’s in the business, we have different channels and different resources and quite a different set of experiences and knowledge in terms of how to help people work through that system. So what we’re seeing a lot more people come to us and people are booking trips mostly of which is for next year.”

International travel is of growing interest for next year, Jasper said, as borders open up and there is a consistent process developed for moving from one country to the next. In fact, his company sent 30 people to Italy this past week.

“Our biggest challenge was finding a place for all of them to get tested 72 hours in advance of the trip,” Jasper said. “So we know that travel can be done now, it’s just not an easy thing to navigate right now.”

LaMere has started to see tour bus travel pick back up.

“Now every time I have a meeting in the Quad Cities or wherever I get on Interstate 80, I’ll probably pass three or four buses. It’s not the 20 or 30 that I used to pass in that hour drive (pre-pandemic). But there are people traveling with smaller groups.”

As for full recovery of the industry, only time will tell it seems, much as the rest of the pandemic has played out, they said.

“We’re busy booking a lot of vacation travel right now, but we were down (in 2020) to about 10 and 15 percent of normal activity,” Jasper explained.

“We did see a little bit of a rebound back in July, and we’re definitely moving in the right direction. I’d say now we were probably operating at about 50 percent of our normal business.”

With the delta variant, he added, “business has leveled off or maybe even taken a slight step backward.”

Jasper and his team work with about 80 companies across the Corridor to plan corporate travel, which has been slow to return to pre-pandemic levels of activity.

“Companies were starting to bring people back into the office in June and July and people were traveling more frequently, but those plans have been pushed off as well,” he said.

LaMere said at this time in the year he’d have his whole 2022 group travel schedule planned, but so far he’s only booked a few things through March of next year.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow and sometimes I feel like I’m constantly chasing my tail,” he said.

As for the upcoming holiday season, Jasper believes travel will be at about 50 percent of normal unless there are some significant changes with the delta variant or a significant increase in vaccination rates.

“I don’t know that I see any significant changes to increase travel between now and the end of the year,” he said.

But the travel industry is likely to pick up at some staged, Jasper said.

“As soon as this variant is under control,” he said, “we know that there is an appetite and a demand for travel.”

David LaMere of LaMere Family Travel gathers research to be presented to clients while on a tour of covered bridges in Indiana as he works in his office in Coralville, Iowa, on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Mementos of appreciation from clients are seen in the office of David LaMere of LaMere Family Travel as he gathers research to be presented to clients while on a tour of covered bridges in Indiana as he works in his office in Coralville, Iowa, on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)