January 19, 2021

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Just Do Travel

Travel Agency Groups Optimistic About the Industry’s Return in 2021

4 min read

As 2020 inches to a close – good riddance! – what will the New Year bring for the travel industry?

As we’ve confirmed during the pandemic, the travel industry and its trusted stalwarts – professional travel advisors – are incredibly resilient and ready to get back to work, into the skies and onto the world’s waterways.

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We talked to several top executives of host agencies and a franchise operation about what they expect in 2021 for the industry and its travel agents. Not surprisingly, the word “optimistic” was used several times.

“I’m extremely optimistic about 2021. My personal opinion is that the first quarter is going to see travel rebound in a strong way for a couple of reasons,” said Susan Ferrell, president and owner of Travel Experts, a luxury host agency that is part of Virtuoso. “First, the vaccine news is a huge psychological boost that is going to help people make the calls to plan travel. They may not travel immediately, but they will begin booking for later in the year or the following year. Second, cruise line execs are feverishly working to get the ships afloat again with new sanitary protocols that will alleviate fears of contamination, so cruising will come back just as fast as it possibly can.”

And when cruising does resume, travel advisors will be at the forefront, counseling clients and offering expert advice.

Cruise Planners CEO Michelle Fee
Cruise Planners CEO Michelle Fee

“While the cruise industry has been hard hit, I am confident travel advisors will be the tip of the spear for a resurgence,” said Michelle Fee, CEO and founder of the Cruise Planners franchise operator. “Cruise Planners’ priority has remained our travel advisors and their clients. We have been able to continue the conversation and relationship-building during this time and so many of them are ready to travel. In fact, our clients are passionate and loyal cruisers, and they’ll be some of the first to return to the water once sailing resumes, which we are hopeful will be in the first half of 2021.”

Jackie Friedman, president of Nexion Travel Group, a host agency, said the new COVID-19 vaccines are fueling some desire to travel again.

“I do believe that there is increased optimism now that the vaccines are starting to be distributed, and business from summer 2021 and beyond is starting to recover,” she said. “At Nexion Travel Group, we are focused on helping our advisors with their business recovery. Some are ready to start marketing more aggressively, while others are not. To me the important thing is for them to connect with their customers and take their cue from them. Advisors can’t sell from their own risk tolerance.

Jackie Friedman, Nexion
PHOTO: Jackie Friedman (photo courtesy Travel Leaders Group)

“Many of our advisors are looking at rebuilding their business. That gives them an opportunity to reposition,” Friedman said. “I encourage every advisor to take advantage of training and certification programs, learn new skills and deepen their knowledge about products and destinations. Taking these steps now will help position them for the Next Normal.”

Fee said it is likely that some experienced travel advisors with high-rent storefronts might have to close down – but may choose to use their skills to operate a more flexible, home-based business with a host agency or franchise network.

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“Unfortunately, some businesses will not survive this pandemic and may need to find a host agency to affiliate with and move to a home-based model to eliminate heavy overhead costs,” Fee said. “I feel the survivors will be the ones with the collective strength, and we are hearing from many travel advisors who are struggling with their current affiliation and are looking for a franchise that will help them move forward in 2021.”

On the positive side, these organizations are seeing more activity.

“We’re already seeing upticks in leisure bookings as well as air tickets and hear daily from clients who are longing to ‘go somewhere’. Our member travel advisors are telling us they have been getting advance bookings for trips that are protected by penalty-free cancellation clauses,” Ferrell said. “We are also seeing an interest in Caribbean travel for the winter now that some of the islands have relaxed their quarantine regulations and hotels have reopened. When the coast is clear, so to speak, there will be huge demand. I think 2021 will be a good year.”

Travel Experts, headed by Susan Ferrell, is a Virtuoso agency.
Susan Ferrell, president and owner of Travel Experts. (Photo courtesy of Travel Experts)

Fee said Cruise Planners has seen a shift in consumer behavior – they’re “needing more questions answered, being confused by the changes and sometimes wavering in their confidence in cruising, so we predict the role of the travel advisor will be to break this all down, guide clients through travel decisions and instill confidence – it will all be paramount moving forward.”

There already is interest and bookings in certain destinations.

“Cruisers want to cruise, and now that there is a plan to work towards opening cruising back up, bookings are starting to flow in, especially for late Q2 and beyond,” Friedman said. “Small-ship and river cruise business is booking well, especially for the second quarter and beyond. We had great success in getting groups rebooked. We are seeing some good small group business as a few families or close friends are forming pods and looking to travel together.”

Fee has seen great interest in Alaska and Europe.

“We anticipate that Alaska and Europe will be very popular in 2021, particularly in Europe, which continues to be a popular destination, accounting for nearly 25 percent of our future sales,” Fee said. “Advisors will also continue to inform and advise clients on what future cruise vacations are available for 2021 and beyond because people are booking. The resilience that our industry leaders and travel advisors have displayed is admirable – we continue to feed off their positive attitude and tireless efforts as we navigate these uncharted waters.”