While the Coronavirus pandemic crushed the traveling plans of millions of people around the world, travel agents and tour operators mustered all their experience, tools and network to hold their clients´ hands and guide them through a dark labyrinth of cancellation policies, search and booking new flights, evacuation programs, and insurance chaotic confusion, allowing them to eventually make it back home, or rescheduling their trip, or getting a full or partial reimbursement. Travel experts lent their ears to desperate screams and in exchange offered voices of hope and consolation, and especially, offered solid solutions without charging additional fees, spending many nights without sleep, and utilizing all their resources at hand to help their clients.
In Outside magazine´s piece What the future of Adventure Travel looks like, James Thorton, Intrepid Travel´s CEO explains that “when the COVID-19 crisis began, our first priority was ensuring the safety of our customers and workers around the world. Our local tour leaders and global-operations team worked around the clock to help more than 3,000 travelers get home safely as borders were closing.”
The main reason why the travel agents and tour operators can help during these times of crisis is simply because they deal with critical situations on a regular basis and receive proper and constant training, which allow them to navigate through social and political upheavals, terrorist attacks, natural disasters and pandemics in an efficient and expedite way.
Another reason why travel experts can solve problems and find different alternatives for their clients, is their close relationship with a network of local tour operators and suppliers. This strong and savvy relationship has allowed them, since always, but especially during this moment of chaos, to react fast and effectively to the different and complex situations each one of their clients are in…from coordinating a ground transfer from one city to another where the airport remains open and operating (even if this transfer includes crossing some country borders,) or negotiating additional nights with the hotel at a fair rate; to finding seats on a flight that appeared as fully booked online, or re-scheduling the trip with the local tour operators without penalization fees.
Nonetheless, there were and still are, thousands of travelers whose calls for help nobody answered… automated systems with menus playing their options over and over again on the other side of the line without ever a real person picking up. The airline call centers kept desperate callers on hold for hours and in the end the line would be cut, forcing the “passengers” to go through the whole process again. Many flights were lost, with no chance of rescheduling or reimbursement. Sandy Cunningham, co-founder of the tour operator Outside GO, also for the piece What the future of Adventure Travel looks like, menciona que “ ha habido tanta frustración de tantas personas que reservaron sus viajes a través de servicios en linea, con grabaciones que llevaban a ningún parte. El contacto de humano a humano es más importante que nunca hoy y de cara al futuro.”
Overwhelmed by the huge number of calls and the poor number and expertise on the sales agents part (in case they were not robots,) the OTA´s demonstrated that they CANNOT help their clients during a crisis and that buying cheaper can cost you lots. Never before was a human voice coming from a trained and empathic person more valued.
In an interview for Travel and Leisure, Misty Belles , PR Chief Manager for Virtuoso mentions that “in a post-COVID world, people will value advisors for their connections and guidance that go beyond destination and product expertise. Having a real-life person to assist [you] underscores the significance of human connection and the reassurance of knowing someone has your back.”
And yes, all the travel agents´ experience, training, and strong network represents years of hard work and commitment, and it has a value which is obviously and fairly added to the final trip´s quote. The commitment to their clients doesn´t end and goes beyond the moment they pay…the relationship continues during the trip when travel agents keep a close eye on the development of the trip, constantly look for any email or Whatsapp message from their clients, reach out to the local tour operators and suppliers to check how things are going on their end, and more. Travel agents and tour operators will be even more important and necessary during the uncertain times to come post-COVID19, during which they will have the resources and knowledge to navigate through the sea of information and misinformation out there- from having precise and solid data on what vaccine certificates will be needed for traveling to Argentina, or what the security process looks like at the international airport of Tokyo, to the best airlines to travel with for their sanitation and seat spacing, to give a few examples.
Thus, when the pandemic shows some signs of waning, the borders open and people start traveling again, remember that you will always have the option of planning and booking your trip through a travel expert. The trip will probably be more expensive than the trip you book through an OTA, however you will be certain a person, skillful and committed, will have your back 24/7. And please, do not complain nor question the additional cost for their services, now you should understand why.