How travel advisors can navigate the post-COVID era’s stormy waters
Sep 30, 2020
  • By: Peter J. Bates

According to a recent Trendex report from American Express, the US consumers are missing travel so deeply that it has begun to take an emotional toll. 48% of respondents reported that the inability to travel is causing anxiety and stress while 78% reported travel is one of the activities they are craving most.

Jessicahallupchurch Quote

We are navigating an uncertain world and the effect of the public health crisis has many manifestations. One issue, that I do fear we are not paying enough attention to, focuses on mental health. Whether you are considering your work force, your business partners or your clients, each is impacted.

The uncertainty created by the pandemic can have a grave effect on employees. How many people in tourism and hospitality really believe their job is safe now?

Many City Center Hotels In New York Are Only Now Beginning To Reopen With Skeleton Staff And Very Low Occupancy, Putting Several Jobs At Risk.
Many city center hotels in New York are only now beginning to reopen with very low occupancy, putting several jobs at risk. Photograph: Four Seasons Hotel, New York. For representation purpose only.

Our employees know that for many countries, international tourism remains unattainable as borders open and close, local public health laws change, and travelers remain hesitant. More than ever, industry leaders need to communicate with employees at all levels as hotel owners try to work with management companies to retain as many staff as possible.

The Strategies

We are experiencing more layoffs as furloughs and government financial support come to an end in many countries and companies recognize we are in for a much longer period of uncertainty and limited recovery than most imagined or planned for.

Atlanta-based Delta Airlines announced more than 2000 pilots will possibly face layoff despite approximately 20% of the company’s workforce already leaving through buyouts or early retirement packages. In July, American Airlines executives warned employees that the airline will have to lay off as many as 25,000 front-line workers in October because travel has not rebounded.

In September, United said it plans to cut 16,370 staff as part of efforts to halve its domestic workforce. The cuts, which are involuntary furloughs—meaning workers can be called back if demand resumes—are short of the estimate the airline gave in July. Thousands of United employees already have taken voluntary retirement and extended leave packages in recent months. Most of the workers would leave when federal financial support expires on October 1st.

Overall, U.S. airlines already shed around 50,000 jobs through the end of June 2020, and in recent weeks have detailed compulsory cuts. The airlines hope for further financial support from the Cares Act although it seems increasingly unlikely before the Presidential Election on November 3rd.

In September, Singapore Airlines Announced 4300 Job Cuts.
In September, Singapore Airlines announced 4300 job cuts.

More than half will be forced redundancies and Marriott International confirmed it is permanently laying off 673 of the roughly 4,000 workers at its Maryland headquarters. Marriott furloughed two-thirds of its corporate employees in March and has extended those layoffs through the end of September.

These are just examples of high-profile public companies that must report in detail.  However, many smaller companies are facing the same issues for the same reason.

How are we as an industry, addressing the issue of uncertainty?

Even if our employees are not immediately affected by the possibility of job losses, many are juggling other major concerns around their family life, reduced income and protecting family members who may be at a higher risk of catching the virus. For many, the biggest issue is childcare and the uncertainty that schools will remain open for in person classes or whether homeschooling will return full or part time, causing a parent to stay home.

Those working virtually have their own set of issues as they miss collaboration with colleagues and the benefit of working together to solve business issues. While we are told productivity is up, these workers are often working in ill-defined working spaces with poor WIFI connection and endless family interruptions, which is not sustainable in the long term. A priority should be to help staff feel connected.

Add all these pressures up and you find you have a workforce that needs empathy, support, greater understanding and in some cases counselling. The emotional toll on families can be enormous.

Clients have the same concerns, they are dealing with the same potential issues, job stability, working from home, uncertainty, protecting families and an education system from kindergarten to university that is in many cases turned upside down.

Travel Advisors Have To Navigate A Minefield Of Questions From Worried Clients.
Travel advisors have to navigate a minefield of questions from worried clients.

Many clients would love to travel. Anecdotally, we believe there is pent up demand, although that is hard to measure. Hall Upchurch agrees, “I think people always knew travel was important, but being denied the gift of exploring the world has made it even more desirable. Travel demand is growing and if we hold on, it will not just recover, but be heightened by a new appreciation for nature, wildlife and the unique cultures awaiting discovery around the world.”

While this may be the case, right now, most clients lack confidence. Concerns about what to expect at airports, on board protocols, what countries are open, what precautions to take such as a COVID-19 test within 72 hours of travelling and what to expect at the destination. All these questions invoke fear and lack of confidence. Perhaps one of the biggest concerns is, “Will I be able to get home easily if I need to”, followed by, “What is the quality of the medical facilities where I am going.” Naturally, safety is the top priority for many travelers who, according to the American Express survey are “willing to pay more for cleanliness and distancing measures”.

All these questions present travel advisors with even more questions to answer. While a conversation might begin with a simple, “What should I do about my trip?” or “Where can we go,” it quickly morphs into so many questions and the advisor is meant to have all the answers at their fingertips.

While trying to navigate all these questions raised by their clients, they, too, have many of the same nagging issues as employees and their clients. More importantly, because many advisors servicing loyal upscale clients are independent contractors, they have little income and are managing on their savings and the few bookings that are being made.

We are beginning to see cruise lines and tour companies pay up front commission but for many they are in a precarious position. Some agents are trying to reinvent themselves and try new business models. One thing, for certain, is that independent contractors must turn to a fee-based business model.

However, there is hope for the travel advisor. “COVID has been anxiety-inducing on practically every level, but one beautiful lining has been the importance of human connection becoming more front and center. All you needed to do to prove just how much people need other people was introduce the concept of social distancing,” Hall Upchurch points out. “The calming power of knowing someone has your back is what makes the trusted relationship between a travel advisor and their client just so special. This pandemic has brought into even clearer focus the value advisors bring and the peace of mind that comes with having one in your corner before, during and after a trip.”

In summary, whether you run a large or a small company, whether you are an owner, senior manager, an employee, a travel advisor or a client, many of the issues in the travel and hospitality business today remain the same. Human connection has never been more important. Everyone has concerns about employment, protecting family members from the virus, juggling home responsibilities and education and we all need a better understanding of one another.

The tensions are enormous and there is so much anxiety in our industry, potentially causing long-term mental health issues which, as yet, we are unable to measure, and may be coping with for years to come. Let us all create a sense of belonging and act now to protect our colleagues, clients and partners.

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Peter J. Bates is president and founder of Strategic Vision, a global marketing communications consultancy for the luxury travel, hospitality and publishing industries, with such clients as Accor, Ponant, Travel + Leisure, Departures, Food & Wine, The British Virgin Islands Tourist Board & Film Commission and Virtuoso. You can reach him by emailing pbates@strategicvision.org.

 

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