There’s a roller coaster at Hersheypark called the Storm Runner, famous for launching passengers from standstill to a screaming 72 miles per hour in two seconds flat. That is very much what it feels like to be a travel agent right now—we spent a year at a dead stop, and now we’re screeching through cobra loops and barrel rolls.
At the start of the pandemic, my entire job consisted of canceling reservations and chasing refunds. I spent March and April of 2020 undoing all the work I’d completed for the six months prior. Over the next year, my business dropped by 97 percent. Then the vaccine became widely available, and off we went.
I have two major kinds of clients: For my day job, I am a salaried corporate agent who works with universities to facilitate their research trips, study abroad, athletics, and conferences. Budgets are low, and the work is fast-paced. My second job is as a commission-based leisure agent, in which I work mostly with high-end clients. For these travelers, hotel rates usually start at around $350 per night, and go up to $12,000 or more per night.
Every agent I know is over capacity. Fellow agents tell me that they are getting calls from clients trying to book their first post-vax vacation while they were still in the chair with the needle in their arm. In the past three months, I’ve fielded more new leisure client inquiries than I typically do in a year. My work with the well-off has always been high touch, and time intensive, but it’s a challenge I’ve gotten good at. Now, with the virus upending all the norms of my work, I feel like a newborn baby-agent all over again.
The first problem is the supply issue. The travel industry shrank during the pandemic due to lack of demand, and is now struggling to accommodate a surge. Car rental companies sold off inventory during 2020, which has led to a nationwide rental shortage. Hotels are struggling to staff up amid this sky-high demand. Airlines are canceling and rerouting flights more than usual, so booking a flight is rarely a one-and-done prospect right now. And that’s all just domestic travel—with international travel from the U.S., I feel like I’m trying to play darts, blindfolded. More than ever before, every country and region has different visa restrictions, quarantine, testing, and vaccination requirements. One wrong move, and clients are stuck half a world away.
There are new rules in every step of the process. Some countries or territories have flights available—but resorts are still not open. Some resorts are open—but they’ve shut down things like their kids clubs, or spas. Every airline has overhauled their refund and exchange policies multiple times over the past year, and each one does something slightly different. Tour operators have new rules. I don’t even know where to start with travel insurance. Agents are realizing that they don’t know anything anymore. Nothing is true unless you’ve confirmed it recently and directly, and it often takes persistence just to get someone on the phone. Five times a day, my fellow agents and I message one another, “Can you double check this exchange for me? I want a second pair of eyes to make sure I’m getting it right …”
The thing that is talked about most with my fellow agents is how long research takes now. I recently checked 81 separate Caribbean resorts, just to find three that had any availability. Midrange or luxury resorts that have been reliable and affordable in the past suddenly have tripled their rates. I might spend a dozen hours, send scores of emails, and make several phone calls for a client … just to finally settle on a $2,000 trip to the Outer Banks. As an agent who relies on commissions from vendors, I only net around $40 for every thousand a client spends on hotels. That means I can make less than minimum wage booking these kinds of trips when they end up being so time-consuming.
And that’s when people actually book. Often, I’ll spend hours looking up various options for lodging and flights, only to have the clients ghost me. That’s always been part of the job, but it happens a lot more these days. Clients are facing sticker shock, as well as an ever-changing news landscape that makes them eager to travel one day, and nervous the next. Everyone wants to GO—unless they don’t? It can feel like clients are taking all their end-of-quarantine indecision and desperation, and dropping it in our laps. What about the mountains? Maybe the beach? Is there a cabin in the woods, away from people? What’s safe, what’s affordable? Us travel agents—the experts at being attuned to both international guidelines, and how to get a good deal on a room—are struggling to figure it out ourselves.
That applies financially, too. Commission-based agents don’t get paid till a month or so after travel happens, so money is at a trickle while the workload is a tsunami. I have been so under water for the past three months that I’ve closed my business to new clients. The agents that I usually send my overflow leads to have also closed to new clients. I’m even struggling to keep up with existing clients. I’m working on restructuring my leisure business from the ground up, so that I can actually do quality work again without ever writing another email that says, “I’m so sorry for the delay in answering …”
After a year of dead silence, it is a good problem to have. I’ve decided to focus on the parts of being a travel agent that bring me fulfillment—like a girls’ trip I recently booked for three freshly vaxxed best friends. They were meeting up for the first time in a year and a half. I worked with the hotel to create an oasis of magic, beauty, fun, and rest for them, where they could reconnect and enjoy the blessings of one another. It was a joy to plan. I was glad to be along for the ride.