Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.
The four weeks between Valentine’s Day and St Patrick’s Day are normally my hell month. I am a travel agent for one of the largest universities in the country, with a side gig as a luxury travel consultant for wealthy people. During hell month, I work up to 15 hours a day, booking economy tickets for academics going to spring conferences, pulling strings for once-in-a-lifetime vacations, eating every meal at my desk, developing knots in my shoulders. During hell month, my friends know I’m not available to grab drinks.
Right now, I should be at the very apex of my busiest season. I should be answering hundreds of inquiries each day, booking dozens of flights. Today, I booked six. The finer details of, say, a romp in the Maldives should be top of mind. Instead, it’s the coronavirus.
I’ve been getting updates on the coronavirus since Jan. 22. Alert after alert has filtered into my inbox, alongside the other typical notifications travel agents get, of volcanic eruptions, civil unrest, hurricanes, and wildfires. I’m used to it being my job to proactively know about every disaster, to dissuade people from going to this place or that. At first, my clients were mostly indifferent to the coronavirus.
That started to change in mid-February when academic conferences in China, Japan, and South Korea were no longer happening. At our monthly meeting of university travel agents at the end of February, a colleague who handles group reservations said that all of her European study abroad groups were backing out, preemptively afraid of the virus spreading there. Airlines were refusing to refund deposits. The clients were bleeding money.
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention started warning about coronavirus spreading in the U.S., the spigot of travel requests just shut off. Less than two weeks ago, I was so busy I could barely type fast enough to make all the airline reservations I needed to. Today, I’m writing this article instead. I wasn’t an agent when 9/11 happened, but I’ve heard stories from older colleagues about the uncertainty and fear that surrounded travel, the sudden cessation of business in our industry. What’s happening now feels like what they’ve described.
Today, three-quarters of the correspondence I did have with clients was in some way related to the coronavirus. I’m basically writing, again and again, “Here’s what happens if you cancel now, here’s what happens if you do book this nonrefundable rate and then have to cancel later, here’s how long you have to use this credit, here are the current waivers available, but that could change because the airlines are changing all the time.” Or “Here’s how we can route your flight so that you don’t have to layover in an affected city. Yes, it does mean a nine-hour layover and a ticket that costs $500 more—but you don’t have to go through Rome.”
Many of my regular wealthy travelers have suddenly become homebodies. On Tuesday, I had to cancel a three-night stay in a $4,000-a-night suite in New York for a client who is no longer traveling because of coronavirus fears. I am friends with the hotelier; her disappointment was palpable when I called to tell her.
If I were solely reliant on my luxury travel business—I work on commission—I would be having a huge financial crisis right now. I may have to tighten my budget as the coronavirus continues to spread, skip eating out and buying new spring clothes, but thanks to my salaried day job, I won’t be homeless. A lot of agents out there do not have this security. Travel agenting hasn’t ever paid a lot. It used to be a job you did for the perks: cheap hotels, free flights, lots of lots of fun spa products when the fancy hoteliers visited your office. But in the wake of the fear from 9/11, the internet decimated the industry, and the perks dried up. Veteran agents will tell you that the vast majority of their colleagues retired or found other work in the early aughts. Agents today truly love helping people experience the world. We are scrappy (see: my multiple gigs), and we’ve carved out niches where we can help people in ways that Expedia and Kayak can’t. But we weren’t prepared for society to suddenly decide not to go anywhere. It feels as though the travel world is holding its breath.
For now, I can only try to enjoy my quieter days, and pray that the industry comes through without too many of us losing our livelihoods. I imagine that over the next month or two, things will shift again, though it is a little hard to imagine exactly how. Perhaps the virus will die down, and slowly, people will resume traveling; first the corporate business travelers who do so by necessity, and then the leisure travelers. Perhaps the virus will become so prevalent that staying home won’t help. Perhaps people will figure they might as well ride this thing out on a beach. Somewhere warm. And expensive.