Reno travel agents ready for return to pre-pandemic business levels
Aerial view of Punta Norte beach in Cancun, Mexico. Kelly Hyatt, a travel consultant for Welcome Aboard Travel in Reno, said she recently booked a $13,000 trip for six people to Cancun.
Photo: Adobe Stock
Travel consultant Kelly Hyatt has a 92-year-old client who’s fully vaccinated and wholly prepared to make up for being cooped up by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. “He’s got three cruises already booked,” said Hyatt, a travel consultant at Welcome Aboard Travel in Reno. “He always spends more time on the ocean than he does at home, so this last year has been very difficult for him.” Hyatt’s client is not alone. From seniors to Gen Zers, people all across the country are itching to get out of town after a year of virus-related travel restrictions. Figuring out where they can go and what will be open when they get there — not to mention, dealing with constantly changing COVID rules and restrictions — remains tricky waters to navigate for travelers. And that’s led to travel agents’ phones ringing off the hook again after being largely silent since mid-March 2020. “It’s really started to pick up,” said Hyatt, who booked 58 transactions in March 2021. Pre-pandemic, she was booking as many as 100 transactions or more per month. “People who want to travel are going to as soon as they can go,” she said. “Once the dam breaks, there’s going to be no stopping it. We’re going to be really busy.” Hyatt said Welcome Aboard Travel, a BCD Travel Affiliate that’s been in business since 1969 — making it the longest-running travel management company in Northern Nevada — is getting inquiries from both returning and new customers. Many new clients, she said, are trying travel agents because they don’t want to sit on hold with tour companies and cruise lines or deal with the headaches of travel planning, especially in the age of COVID. According to the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA), in early March 2021, 76% of travel advisers were seeing a boost in customers compared to pre-COVID, and 80% are hearing from travelers who have never worked with a travel adviser before. ‘HIT AND MISS’ Some people, however, simply use travel agents like Hyatt for free wisdom and consultations, and then book the trip online themselves through sites like Expedia and Booking.com. “People call us up, they see what they want, how much it might cost for them, and they either like it and book it themselves online or they go, ‘I could probably downgrade by myself’ or something like that,” Hyatt said. On the other end of the spectrum, in the final week of April of this year, Hyatt booked a $13,000 Cancun trip for six. “It’s super hit-and-miss right now,” she said. “Prior to this (pandemic) happening, we were making more money than we’ve ever made.” After COVID hit, Welcome Aboard Travel, which operates out of offices at 1296 E. Plumb Lane, only had one client book a trip that didn’t get canceled in 2020. For comparison, in 2019, one of the busiest travel years the 52-year-old agency has seen, Hyatt booked 186 transactions that June alone. “We spent most of our time (early in the pandemic) getting refunds and credits for people for their tours and cruises and trips all over the world that didn’t happen,” Hyatt said. Aside from a $30 booking fee for airline tickets, Welcome Aboard Travel, like most travel agencies, typically makes money with commissions from cruise lines, hotels and tour operators. And they usually don’t see those dollars until months after the client is already back home from their trip. Meaning, in 2020, when most people didn’t leave their homes, travel agents saw their revenue stream evaporate. Welcome Aboard Travel saw its revenue in 2020 drop “more than 90%” from 2019, Hyatt said. “As a travel agency, we don’t have a product of our own that we sell, we are selling someone else’s product, whether it’s a tour that’s selling a package to Hawaii or Viking River Cruises,” Hyatt explained. “We get paid for the cruise or the tour only after the person travels. So, every revenue (stream) that we had coming stopped in about March and April of last year. If you don’t have a trip going, you don’t make any money — at all.” STAGING A COMEBACK Business Travel & Tours in Reno was in the same boat. The travel management firm, which launched in 1993 and focuses on corporate and leisure travel, saw both segments of its business screech to a halt in 2020. “It was obviously a pretty big downturn compared to 2019, which was a really great year for travel,” said Becky Rose, business development manager at Business Travel and Tours. “There was a complete halt to travel, but we’re definitely seeing an increase within these last few months. I think, with the vaccines rolling out and the country reopening, everyone is eager to get out on vacation and get out of their house. “I think travel’s going to come back really fast and we’ll see a lot of demand.” Based out of offices at 4879 Kietzke Lane, Business Travel and Tours is also seeing a rise in corporate clients needing help and guidance for their travelers, said Rose, adding: “corporate still needs to get out there and travel.” The agency’s booking fees for flights are $35 for domestic and $50 for international. So far this year, the travel agency has seen a number of people book trips to places like Hawaii, Mexico and Florida. Trips to Europe, she said, will follow once the country opens its borders to vaccinated Americans, which could come by the end of June, according to a recent New York Times report. And that’s not even stopping travelers from booking fall flights to Europe, said Hyatt, noting she has clients who are determined to book a September trip to Switzerland right now. “It’s risky at this point, because it’ll tell you why you can’t go, but it can’t tell you what’s going to happen in September,” Hyatt said. “But most people are kind of planning their life like it’s going to happen. And if it doesn’t, then we all cross that bridge when we come to it.”