Agents pull out all the stops to take care of clients
Leah Holt is wearing a new hat these days — or at least an apron. As a means of engagement during COVID-19, the travel advisor with Go Travel Edson is pairing her passion for travel with her love for cooking through a new social media video series called Cooking Around the World, in which she shares how to make dishes like French onion soup or Russian Blini — a crepe like delicacy.
“I know human beings will never lose their inner curiosity of seeing and experiencing other cultures and places of the world,” she says. “We will travel again, but until then I want to keep showing my clients what they can look forward to when COVID-19 leaves us.”
For Holt, the most stressful week of her five years on the job came mid-March, when the initial wave of travel bans and restrictions were announced due to coronavirus.
“After four long days of answering emails, filling out forms, keeping up with ever-changing cancellation policies and holding on the phone for hours, I had to make myself step away from my computer and take a break. It was wreaking havoc on my shoulders and neck. In the past, many of my friends have told me ‘You have the best job!’, and I would agree with them, but this whole outbreak brought out the worst aspects of my career.”
Since becoming an agent, Holt says her success had continued to grow as well as her income, until last month.
“The next few months will be very difficult,” she says. “My earnings have come to a grinding halt.”Similarly, Sandra Levinton, the owner and operator of Marlin Travel Downtown YXE says the agency is going to have to tighten its belts to get through the lean months ahead.
“We’ll reduce hours for staff but I’m hoping I don’t have to lay anyone off. As the owner of the office, I may not get paid myself though,” she admits, noting she’s hopeful the newly announced government funding and aid will help. “I’ve lost a couple of groups that will definitely impact the bottom line. I’m actually trying not to think about that too much yet because it’ll be a massive impact.”
Overall, she says most of her clients took the cancellations and disrupted vacation plans well, and many saw the value of having booked with a professional.
“I’ve had so many of my clients say they’re so glad they booked with a travel agent and had me to look after them,” she says. “I have had so many people say that they’re so glad that we’re here for them. You hear the stories of people on hold for 12 hours or they can’t get home at all. We’ve had people call or email asking for help who aren’t our clients and we’ve still helped them with getting flights home when we could. When they asked what they could do for us, we just said, please book with us next time you travel.”On top of dealing with the logistics of getting clients home when news of the coronavirus disruptions hit, Colette Trabucco of Creative Travel and Tours found herself four days into a South Africa tour with three couples when the call came to head home.
“Besides us, we had a couple sailing to ports that refused them disembarkation,” she recalls. “There were many evening and early morning calls to get through to the airline to make changes — three times.”
As a thank you for rebooking the airfare after their flight was cancelled and handling the situation, the couple requested Trabucco to send them a bill for the services that helped get them home.
“The Holland America guest service agent said she was impressed how frequently we communicated with them to keep them informed of what was happening here for them — that was a real compliment,” she says.
As for advice for other agents, Levinton says to stay strong, breathe, don’t panic and remember that this too shall pass.
“The travel industry is a relatively close-knit community. Tour operators, airlines, hotels, travel agencies, etc., we work together in times like these, we support each other and we’re here for each other,” she says. “I consider myself lucky that I have such a great team to work with. And, if you ask other agency managers and/or owners, I bet 99% will say the same about their teams. Especially in smaller agencies like mine, our teams are family too.”