Behold the

Travel Comeback

by: Ross Kenneth Urken

Behold the Travel Comeback

With pandemic fears and regulations subsiding, Americans are eager for revenge travel – even despite inflation. But amid rising complexity, travel advisors are all the more of the essence.

Get ready for the out-of-office auto-response emails to get more deliciously obnoxious, indicating the recipient is in some far-flung locale on a bucket-list trip: the hunger for travel is immense. After more than two years of the pandemic – during which restrictions and fears have put a damper on the plans of even the most committed globetrotters – a sunnier world with lower COVID morbidity and lax testing requirements across borders has jump-started bookings.

Murphy’s law, though, reigns. In Whac-A-Mole fashion, as one problem subsides, another rears its ugly head: inflation is rocking Americans’ pocketbooks, clocking in at 9.1% in June.

Still, the pent-up demand for exploration trips seems a stronger force that won’t subside. Some of the new complexities of travel in this new-fangled world of ever-changing health regulations and wide-scale flight cancellations represent uncharted territory for many, of course. And as these logistical and potentially costly challenges threaten to waylay travelers, jet-setters are increasingly looking for an expert travel advisor – that rare species who is part wish-granting genie, part concierge – who can, with what seems like prestidigitation, make all the problems go away and all the joys of travel magically appear. The stakes are high for travelers hoping to suck the marrow out of life-changing vacations, and there’s less tolerance for – but potentially greater likelihood of – encountering a scenario where something goes awry. That’s why travelers are increasingly building itineraries with experts who can help ensure everything comes off without a hitch. After all, no one baked sourdough and attempted TikTok dances to overnight at JFK’s Terminal 5.

Bucket-List Revenge Travel, With Expert Guidance

In June at the “The Travel Industry Forecast” event held at Washington, D.C.'s historic National Press Club, ASTA's President and CEO Zane Kerby highlighted the unquenched thirst people have had for travel during the pandemic and the need for an extra set of travel-guru hands to contend with a host of new challenges.

“The desire to go and see and do is endemic to the human spirit,” Kerby said. “Depriving people of that right and privilege only made them want it more, and travel involves a complicated choreography of rules, schedules, and suppliers. The pandemic revealed and hardened these facts, facts that increased the value of working with a travel advisor.”

One weekend in June, passengers faced 4,500 cancelled flights and 10,000 flight delays – the worst-case-scenario nightmare for anyone just trying to kick back and enjoy a much-anticipated voyage. In a telling bit of irony, even Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg had his flight canceled after meeting with airline CEOs. Guidance from an experienced travel advisor, though, can help ensure smooth travels amid an increase in fiery hoops to jump through in the planning process.

“COVID made traveling nearly impossible, and travel advisors are equipped to handle the treacherous waters of planning a trip in unfamiliar territory in unprecedented times,” said Nick Mueller, director of operations at HawaiianIslands.com, a resource for restaurants, attractions, and vacation rentals in Hawaii. “The policies that various countries have regarding COVID travel can be a headache, and hiring a travel advisor will ensure you are prepared for all types of headaches with minor pain. I think travel advisors will remain a popular resource because of their expertise and reliability in these scary times.”

In light of added uncertainty in the world and fears over delays, people are seeking the guidance of travel advisors to stay informed and make their travel less burdensome, said Kate Johnson, owner and travel advisor at Houston-based travel advisor firm KJ Travel.

“We have experienced a huge uptick in first-time users of travel advisors in general,” Johnson said. “They want the assurances of our knowledge specifically as it pertains to country requirements, testing, insurance, etc. And many are requesting private guided experiences and added services like customs expediting at big international airports to help fight the European crowds this summer and make the most of their time.”

Fear over flight cancellations is pervasive, and avoiding those snafus or contending with them in an efficient manner may be the true luxury, according to Malaka Hilton, CEO of Admiral Travel International.

“What we’re noticing is that our luxury high-net-worth client is less concerned with inflation than they are with having a trusted advisor to navigate changing travel requirements and flight cancellations, etc.,” Hilton said. “The truly special trip in 2022 is one that they can trust is handled and as stress-free experience as possible.”

Avoiding the headaches may be the initial impetus for getting a travel advisor who can provide more TLC and hand-holding; that’s in part why 80% of ASTA travel advisor members advisors expect to see an increase in sales in the second half of 2022 compared to the first half, with 50% of travel advisors expecting to see their sales increase by 10% or more and 23.3% expecting to see a 20% to 30% uptick in sales. But there are added boons for people aiming to plan once-in-a-lifetime adventures. The deprivation of world exploration has only encouraged Americans to go bigger and bolder when planning their trips – with many enlisting the serves of a travel advisor for the first time.

“Amid the pent-up travel demand from the pandemic, people have even more of a hunger for true curated, bucket-list itineraries facilitated by travel advisors and customization companies,” said Kareem George, principal at Culture Traveler, LLC, a Franklin, Michigan-based travel advisor firm. He noted his agency is receiving a record volume of new requests, and about 50% of individuals seeking his services are new to working with a travel advisor.

“Travelers value their leisure time – and in particular, their travel time – more than ever and are keen to experience the perfect trip,” he said. “They truly value the first-hand knowledge many travel advisors are able to provide as well as the incredible resources, contacts and amenities that all travel advisors are able to share.”

He’s planned numerous bucket-list itineraries and special trips recently for a diverse group of travelers: nonagenarian siblings celebrating a 95th birthday in Europe this fall, a honeymoon couple exploring Italy for the first time and capping off their special trip touring the Amalfi coast, a tenured professor and public speaker curating a sabbatical year filled with incredible travel experiences on multiple continents, a couple looking to do a comprehensive summer tour of Scandinavia over three weeks, and a multigenerational family planning an iconic year-end holiday celebration to Egypt.

Travelers have a visceral urgency to make up for lost time, according to Marc Casto, President Leisure Americas at Flight Centre Travel Group, who noted the elimination of inbound COVID testing back to the U.S. has spurred more international bookings as people eschewed the fear they’d get stuck abroad. Indeed, a June survey among ASTA travel advisor member revealed 82% agreed their clients are more likely to travel abroad now that the inbound testing rule has been lifted.

“As restrictions were released the demand for bucket list travel has surged and revenge travel is real,” Casto said. “So many travelers – either motivated by newfound freedom or concern about future lockdowns – have been traveling far beyond their normal comfort level.”

Just the other week his firm booked family group to Kenya for an extended safari, a significant departure from their standard vacation to Mexico to start making good on their promises to show the world to their kids and grandkids.

Making sense of the dizzying rules and regulations of pandemic travel may have driven clients to seek out a financial advisor, but they’re also looking to maximizing their ROI.

“We’ve received a flurry of in-bound calls from people that have never booked with a travel advisor in the past,” Casto said. “Initially, they were seeking guidance around travel restrictions. Now, they are seeking counsel on how to get the maximum value for their travel, often requesting for the new and undiscovered.”

That’s especially necessary in this economic environment.

Amid Inflation, the Undeterred Spirit of Exploration

Of course, another big challenge is inflation, as Americans contend with $7 gas and $10 blueberry containers. According to travel advisors polled in a June ASTA survey, even though the percentage of travelers concerned about inflation and global conflict has doubled in 2022, Americans are spending more per person each day while traveling - $512 in 2022 compared to $463 in 2019, an 11% uptick. And an average family of four is willing to spend $200 more per day.

Though Americans may, indeed, be feeling the squeeze on their wallets, they’re still more willing to let loose on priceless travel while being more conscientious and discretionary when it comes to other expenditures, according to the Sports & Leisure Research Group, which tried to identify the magnitude and impact of inflation by conducting a 15-minute online survey in May with a representative national sample of 518 Americans.

Americans are feeling the impacts of inflation, the survey found, but they are still willing to pack their suitcases above all else: 87% of consumers reported feel prices on consumer goods are higher compared to six months prior to the pandemic. Some 72% of respondents said hotels prices are somewhat or much higher now and 78% said the same about airfare. But 45% are still pending on travel, compared to just 40% for home improvement, 36% for home entertainment, and 29% for tech. And almost half (49%) of respondents are eager to travel internationally, with Western Europe topping the wish list at 25%, followed by the Caribbean at 20% and Mexico at 9%. About a third are planning a dream vacation within the next six months and with good reason: some 80% said a vacation would do wonders for their mental health. Gas prices may be hurting consumers in particular, but almost a quarter (23%) of respondents said nothing will stop them from traveling again in 2022 after the last two years. With 71% of respondents noting travel planning has become more complex amid the pandemic and Americans increasingly staring down unchecked inflation, 43% of respondents say they are more likely to use a travel advisor.

“In light of inflation, people are definitely looking for personalized trips from travel advisors and experts to help them get the most bang for their buck and truly savor special experiences,” said George of Culture Traveler. “Our travelers trust us to present comprehensive hotel comparables and to walk them through the positive and negative differentiating factors of each property.”

Especially amid headlines about flight cancellations and other expensive booby traps that lie in wait, travelers want an extra layer of protection should anything veer off course. Travel consumers, George said, are keen to know that his on-the-ground supplier partners are carefully vetted, bonded, and insured, as well as being thoughtful in their health and safety protocols. It’s up to the travel advisor, often, to adjudicate how much time to spend in each place and to create impactful touring experiences while making the transportation portion as pleasant and cost-efficient as possible. The stakes are higher amid inflation.

“We all want to be sure that we are prudently maximizing our hard-earned dollar,” George said.

Advisors are taking extra care to help their clients plan travel as airfare and hotel rates increase, said David Harris, executive chairman of Ensemble Travel Group.

“While this is not surprising given the increased and pent-up demand for travel, we know that travelers are experiencing sticker shock and are looking for advice on how to save money, how far in advance to book travel to get the best rates and fares and which destinations to consider as alternatives to those that are both popular and expensive,” he said. “The myriad of important considerations for every traveler is the focus of our advisors as they marry each request with the best suited options to ensure the best spend and experience consistent with their desires and travel budget.”

Dr. Terika Haynes, owner of travel consultancy Dynamite Travel, says customization is key as travelers look to extract more value out of their experiences.

“We are seeing an increase in travelers who see the value of travel advisors and are leaning to them for their expertise in planning their vacations post pandemic,” she said, noting recently itineraries to Hawaii for island hopping and Greece and Ibiza. “Travelers are looking for personalization and elevated customer service throughout the process for their investment to make sense in light of inflation. We are seeing an increase in requests for customized itineraries as well as bucket-list excursions and adventures during their luxury vacation.”

Of course, everyone still loves a bargain.

“More than ever, people are seeking out deals, rebates, and other sorts of savings in order to help fund their vacations,” said Larry Snider, vice president of operations at Casago Vacation Rentals. “While it’s true that there really isn’t a time when people are willing to overlook ways to save, it’s important to note that it’s much more popular and prominent during times of high inflation.”

Even among the wealthy, people want demonstrable value, said Matt Boyd, guest loyalty team leader at Scott Dunn, who touted a recent multigenerational safari booking to Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana for a family of 10 celebrating a milestone birthday that included a helicopter flight over Victoria Falls, guided bush walks, and sundowner river boat tours. That’s especially true in this demographic of folks who can easily afford extravagant trips but may consider postponing trips over what Boyd terms “the inverse wealth effect – changing perceptions of their own wealth due to market volatility, rising housing prices, and portfolio fluctuations.”

“This perception makes showing real value vs. affordability more important than ever,” he said. We stand out to our guests by showing what we're doing with their money and adding enormous value by managing all of the complexity and giving them spectacular experiences above and beyond what they could do for themselves.”

Despite the desire to get a bit more mileage out of their buck through the expertise of travel advisors, travelers are willing to shoulder extra costs in order to take long-awaited trips, according to Eric Drésin, secretary general of the European Travel Agents’ and Tour Operators’ Associations, ECTAA, a Brussels-based non-profit founded in 1961 that represents 125,000 travel advisors.

“Despite everything getting more expensive, there are signs that cutbacks in spending are only happening in certain areas like consumer goods,” Drésin said. “People want to feel that they’re out of the restrictions caused by the pandemic. Travel is one of the best ways to enjoy life, reconnect with family and friends and discover new destinations.”

Danielle Linares, founder and CEO of Absolutely Cuba, a travel concierge service for private clients traveling to the island, has seen a major uptick in bookings for the likes of culinary and cigar itineraries, along with girls’ trips. One common theme: the splurge factor. Clients are willing to spend, even in light of inflation.

“I think that travelers have spent over two years being constrained,” she said. “For reasons that make complete sense, their movements have been restrained. Their choices have been limited. Now that they can travel, they want to stretch their travel dollar, but I also think they are willing to splurge on themselves. The pandemic shifted priorities. No one wants to delay travel anymore. It was taken away from them once. They aren't willing to take that chance again. Money be damned.”

Cost-consciousness, indeed, is not dictating consumer behavior here amid the hunger for travel, agreed Casto of the Flight Centre Travel Group.

“The demand is so significant that cost is less of a factor than at any time I’ve ever seen,” he said.

If your money is losing value to inflation and dropping in the stock market, the best investment may be a life-changing travel experience.

That’s why Eric Newman, owner of travel agency Iceland With Kids, says there’s an added appetite for true one-of-a-kind travel experiences.

“Many of the families we work with come to us with a bucket list of things they want to do, and our job is to try and turn that list into an enjoyable vacation,” he said. “Many want to see puffins and whales, or hike on a volcano, or take a boat ride in a glacier lagoon. Every trip we plan is one-of-a-kind, based on detailed interviews we conduct with each family. They simply can't get the same trip without both our expertise and the one-on-one interactions we provide. And more of them seem to be looking for that highly customized vacation since they haven't traveled much in the last couple of years.”

Strong Dollar Serves as Wind in Travelers’ Sails

Though travelers’ pent-up demand is pushing them to spend a pretty penny on travel, there’s a silver lining of course in this economy for American travelers facing the challenges of inflation: the might greenback.

“The rise of the dollar has influenced even greater demand for travel, particularly to Europe most recently – in light of the strength against the euro – as well as a variety of other destinations where our U.S. currency historically has been able to truly go far: Mexico, the Caribbean, Argentina, South Africa, Australia,” George of Culture Traveler said. “This is indeed great for American travelers and we have been receiving the majority of our requests for Europe the past several months.”

Alex Bentley, head of product for Audley Travel, said the bespoke tour operator has seen a bevy of once-in-a-lifetime trip requests for multigenerational travel with a mindful eye on the bottom line, helped along by the dollar-euro parity.

“Our country specialists are able to help travel advisors secure their clients’ ideal trip, matched to their budget, interests and wish-list,” Bentley said. “They design the trip taking into consideration the individual cost elements and give recommendations to make the most of the budget available. Europe remains a popular choice for Audley clients, with Italy one of the top five destinations for trips this year. The strength of the dollar helps balance out some of the inflation-related price rises seen in the destination, making it an excellent choice for travel this year.”

The hunger for the travel is already there; the strength of American moola is just an added bonus.

“The driving factor for increased interest in Europe is pent up demand, but the dollar reaching parity with the euro for the first time in 20 years certainly doesn't hurt things,” said Boyd of Scott Dunn. “Once in Europe, the exchange rate increases travelers’ spending power which helps offset more expensive plane tickets.”

That bang-for-your-buck can also help travelers take some more of the trip with them.

“Being at a winery with the magical views, delicious food and charming vibe makes travelers purchase wine while in Croatia, but it is very clear that the dollar rise is making the purchases shift from bottles to cases,” said Mirena Bagur, cofounder of Croatian Premium Wine Imports. “One incentive to purchasing is knowing the wine will wait for them when they return home, so they can relive their bespoke experiences in their living rooms, but the quantity increase we definitely attribute to currency exchange rates.”

Amid the challenges of the past two years and the logistical and economic difficulties of travel restrictions and inflation, any currency advantage and boost in value from travel advisors can make a world of difference for those exploring the globe.

Mitesh Jain, chief travel psychologist at Mumbai-based Mandeha, a company that helps people to build resilience and change from travel experiences, believes that in a world increasingly focused on wellness, travel is an essential element to living a healthy and fulfilling life.

“Travel demand has increased since pandemic, and in this post-pandemic era, travelers seek journeys and experiences which fulfils their desires of well-being, mental health, relaxation from daily structured life-style,” he said. “The increase in demand is especially for adventure and luxury-based experiences which focus both on internal needs of human well-being.”

 

Ross Kenneth Urken

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