Finding a good travel adviser used to be easy. Plenty of qualified and experienced travel agents were out there. But then covid-19 happened. No one knows how many travel agencies closed during the pandemic. But last year, the American Society of Travel Advisors predicted that a stunning 72% of agents would go out of business within six months if they didn’t receive government aid.
Even with government help, the outlook is grim. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the number of travel agents will decline by almost 30% over the next decade.
"The pandemic has severely disrupted travel agencies," says Fred Becker, an associate professor of hospitality management at York College of Pennsylvania. Travel demand has dried up during the past year, forcing many agencies to fold.
The pandemic has also left some travelers agentless, combing the industry’s wreckage in search of a new travel professional. And while many of the strategies for finding a travel expert are the same as before, there are some notable changes.
Larry Ayres is among those who lost their adviser. His longtime agent "simply left" after the pandemic started, he says. The agent belonged to a travel agency network, and Ayres was told that he’d get a new one.
"But it’s like starting all over," says Ayres, a retired construction supply firm owner from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. "And it is our responsibility to retrain a new agent."
Ayres says he’s looking for an adviser who understands the post-covid travel landscape and is an expert on the European cruises he favors. Mostly, he wants to feel safe when he starts traveling again, which he expects to do this year.
The travel adviser’s role has shifted dramatically during the pandemic. Consumers now depend on advisers not just for advice but also advocacy.
"Never before has the consumer-advocacy aspect of professional travel advisers been more important to the traveling public," says Matthew Upchurch, CEO of the travel network Virtuoso.
How do you find someone who will take care of you after the pandemic?
Here are some other methods.
Find a trusted directory: There are a few places online where you can find a vetted travel adviser. For example, Virtuoso’s Find a Travel Advisor page lets you specify the type of professional expertise you need. Travel Leaders allows you to search by geographic area and several other criteria. ASTA’s consumer website, TravelSense, also lets you browse its directory by agent specialty. Also, look for the Travel Institute’s Certified Travel Assistant or Certified Travel Consultant designation, which is like having a college degree in travel. Jenny Hagan, the founder of Atlas + Valise, a luxury travel agency in La Jolla, Calif., says agent directories are one of the fastest ways to find a qualified pro.
Look for someone who can handle a crisis: Some travel advisers specialize in managing challenging situations. Look for a professional who has corporate travel experience or who plans lengthy, complicated itineraries, such as cruises or safaris. These professionals specialize in handling last-minute cancellations and unexpected twists for high-maintenance clients. "Whether it’s dealing with last-minute cancellations or getting a client out of a country before it shuts down, good advisers are quick-thinking and tenacious when they need to be," says Alexandra Rice, founder of Gusto Travel in Newport, R.I.
Pay attention to the details: If you reach out to a travel adviser and get a lot of questions, that’s a positive sign. "Does the adviser take time to learn your preferences and ask about any physical limitations you may have that can affect your pace or ability to keep up with a group?" asks Marcia Simon, an adviser with Friendly Group Travel in Westbrook, Connecticut. Look for a lot of detailed health questions. Your new adviser may also charge a new-client fee of $100 or $200. Simon says that’s a sign the agent is serious about researching your travel profile.
Watch for red flags: Here’s one. You call a prospective adviser, and he tries to sell you a vacation package that flouts current public health advisories for travelers. "I can’t stress enough the importance of finding a travel adviser who won’t simply give you the easy answers you want to hear," says Louisa Gehring, who owns a travel agency in Cincinnati. A competent travel adviser would never send you into harm’s way.