Why 2021 will be the year of the travel agent

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Before the pandemic, Kaitlyn Milby always booked her and her husband’s anniversary trips herself. But this year, with all of the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, staying abreast of the constantly changing travel rules proved too stressful. She decided she needed to enlist a professional.

“The unknowns of navigating a different state and their policies regarding covid guidelines was a challenge,” Milby said. “Having a travel adviser help make sure everything would go smoothly really put me at ease.”

As vaccinations proceed and businesses and borders reopen, more people, such as Milby, are seeking the guidance of travel advisers, whose job it is to be up to date with changing regulations and to troubleshoot issues for their clients.

A study by Travelport, a travel technology company, found that 33 percent of travelers anticipated an increase in their use of advisers because of the pandemic. The biggest change was among those ages 18 to 38 — the study found that 39 percent of people in that bracket are more likely to book upcoming travels through an agent.

Already, travel agencies have seen unprecedented levels of interest. Inquiries at Authenteco, the company through which Milby booked, have risen by more than 600 percent since January, according to founder Shelby Dziwulski. Similarly, Virtuoso, a network of travel agencies around the world, has seen a 50 percent increase in the number of people seeking out travel advisers since January. Even at Pack Up and Go, a travel agency where guests don’t know their destination until the day they depart, demand has increased by about 20 percent compared with the same months in 2019.

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“2019 was a record year for the travel industry,” said Dan Ilves, senior vice president of TravelStore. “It’s a high bar to set, and we’re currently seeing trends that are out of the park.”

The driving factor, Dziwulski speculates, is confusion.

“I think that part of the reason we’ve seen an uptick in requests is because it’s so overwhelming for travelers to keep track of everything,” Dziwulski said. “There are so many changes happening every day, so it’s helpful having someone whose job it is to have that expertise.”

Dziwulski’s belief is consistent with the findings of Travelport’s study. When asked why they were more likely to work with an adviser, 65 percent of respondents said because they felt safer booking with an agency that could provide the latest travel safety information, 23 percent said in case tickets needed to be changed or canceled, 7 percent said because a travel agent would be able to help get them home if a problem arose, and 5 percent said because they would prefer to speak to a human, as traveling is more complex right now.

It makes sense: Many people seek the advice of professionals for big purchases, and, after homes and cars, travel is often one of the largest expenses people have in a year. When there is the possibility of borders closing or flights being canceled, there is a feeling of safety knowing your travel adviser is already ahead of issues and working to either reschedule your trip or get your money back, especially following a year in which so many travelers were burned. Similarly, as hotels and flights fill up with eager travelers, travel agents can make sure travel happens for their clients.

“Advisers have always acted as advocates for their clients, and it was no more apparent than now,” said Misty Belles, managing director of global public relations for Virtuoso. She added that travelers with the might of a large travel agency behind them generally see better results than independent travelers.

Similarly, those returns are why Ilves likens travel advisers to stockbrokers.

“You can buy your own stocks just as readily as a stockbroker, so why use one? For the expertise,” Ilves said. “Do you have the time to make the right calls and do the research? The confidence to do it on your own? If you do, great. Personally, I want the advice and guidance of somebody who lives and breathes that industry and has insight that I don’t.”

How to find a travel adviser amid the pandemic

Added Dziwulski: “We take the responsibility off you and put it on us to make sure it goes smooth and perfect.”

While the extra interest is appreciated, it comes as advisers are already doing more heavy lifting. Beyond their normal duties such as making dinner reservations and booking rental cars, advisers are juggling frequent changes in itineraries (sometimes rebooking the same trip a dozen times because borders that were thought to reopen didn’t or new restrictions were put in place) and finding the answers to their clients’ pandemic-related questions, such as “What protocols are being put in place?” and “What will actually be open?”

Belles said agents are also acting as de facto psychologists and sounding boards for anxious travelers.

“It’s interesting for advisers to navigate, because there are concerns of, ‘Okay, I’m wearing a mask and I’m comfortable traveling, but I’m not sure everyone else is in the same place that I am, and who’s going to enforce that?’ ” Belles said. “They have to make people feel comfortable traveling again.”

Despite the added work and stress, travel advisers say this is an exciting time for their field. Pre-pandemic, it was projected that travel agents’ job prospects would decline by 26 percent by 2029, largely thanks to websites such as Booking.com and Google making it easier for travelers to handle arrangements themselves. Now, though, it feels as if there is new relevance.

Whether the high number of bookings with travel advisers is merely the initial excitement of being able to travel again is anyone’s guess.

Belles, however, is hopeful.

“Even in the best of times, you have a certain expectation of what you want your trip to be, because you probably only do it once, maybe twice a year,” Belles said. “It’s an investment for you. They’re the ones who make that happen. That piece won’t change when we’re out of the pandemic. They’re still dedicated to their clients and making sure they get the most out of their travels.”

Berg is a writer based in Anchorage. Find her on Twitter (@baileybergs) and Instagram (@byebaileyberg).

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