[caption id="attachment_207999" align="aligncenter" width="2400"]A new organization will advocate for Delaware travel agents amid the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. | PHOTO COURTESY OF JESHOOTS/UNSPLASH[/caption]
WILMINGTON – With international leisure travel largely at a standstill amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, travel agents have seen historic losses as they refunded trips to clients and awaited the opportunity to begin booking vacations again.
[caption id="attachment_207996" align="alignleft" width="214"] Bob Older[/caption]
For many of those agents, it’s led to income losses of as much as 18 to 24 months as travel is booked far in advance. Bob Older, owner of Creative Travel in Newark and the president and CEO of the Delaware Small Business Chamber, said that most agents spent March to August last year canceling and refunding trips with virtually no new travel booked due to the uncertainty from the pandemic.“Even if the virus goes away tomorrow, people aren't going to travel tomorrow. They're going to travel maybe three months, six months or a year from then,” he said.Older said that he began to see some bookings return from September to December, but new guidance from the federal government requiring COVID-19 testing prior to returning stateside from international destinations has led to another slowdown.Travel agents are most frequently compensated by resorts or arrangement companies only after a client returns from a trip, Older explained.“Because of cancelation issues, 99% of the time we don't get paid until the customer is on the vacation,” he said.It was Older’s frustration with Delaware state officials’ decision to not list the state’s more than 100 travel agents among the disproportionately impacted industries in the state – reportedly due to the few number of agents and the value of their sales loss – that convinced him of a need to begin lobbying for the industry. Had they been included in the designation, such as the similarly affected charter bus industry, DE Relief grants would have covered a wider range of their losses, including rent for storefront businesses like Older’s Creative Travel.In January, Older joined with other agents to launch the First State Travel Professionals Alliance, a 501(c)6 nonprofit membership organization of local agencies, agents and vendors that support the agencies. Members will be required to show state licensing and follow ethical practices.“We need to have a voice because we should not have been left out [of the disproportionately impacted industries],” he said. “The goal of the Alliance is to make people feel comfortable about dealing with people locally, choosing reputable people who are going to really be there to help them, and to educate those at the highest levels of power to understand what we do, how we do it and why we do what we do.”While the pandemic may have spurred the idea for the FSTPA, Older said that it will have other goals as well, including educating the public on the value of a local travel agent. While self-booking travel websites have grown in popularity, Older noted that they frequently outsource their work to call centers in foreign countries.“Nine times out of 10, it doesn't cost you a dime more to use a travel agent and you keep a local business in business,” he said, noting that an agent’s compensation comes from the destination, not the consumer, and a local agent will be better able to serve clients in times of need.