Pandemic lockdowns have eased but that doesn’t mean travel is getting any easier.
Orlando residents Chris Delgado, 30, the owner of a consulting agency, and his wife Andie, 36, a stay-at-home mom, were pumped to finally plan a much-belated 12-day trip to Italy in March.
“We started off trying to book the trip ourselves but couldn’t get rooms at the hotels we wanted in Venice, Florence or Rome,” said Chris Delgado. “We were also confused about the testing requirements and had a ton of questions that we couldn’t get answers to by calling hotels or researching online.”
So to prepare, they went a decidedly old-school route and tapped travel “advisor” (the PC term for “agent” these days) Lee Ann Howe of Coastline Travel Advisors. Within a day, they had a dream itinerary in place.
“Lee Ann has incredible personal relationships with the key people at the hotels we wanted to stay at like the St. Regis in Venice,” said Chris. “All of a sudden, doors opened up.”
But booking rooms wasn’t their only hurdle. When the couple’s flight to Venice was abruptly canceled, they were amazed to discover that Howe had already booked them on another plane for the same price.
On the ground, Chris says that they were treated like VIPs.
“Thanks to Lee Ann’s connections, every property spoiled us with gifts, bottles of wine and other surprises,” said Chris. “It’s an experience that we would never have been able to replicate ourselves. We’re total converts to using a travel advisor and would never go the online route again.”
They’re not alone: Virtuoso, a travel network with more than 20,000 advisors globally, has seen a 50% increase in demand in the last year alone with millennials and Gen Xers being the fastest growing portion of new clients. The American Society of Travel Advisors, comprised of 17,000 members, reports that 76% of advisors are seeing a jump in demand for their services. Elite travel companies say that they are turning away customers. Fischer Travel, which charges a $100,000 one-time membership fee, along with $25,000 annually, is an example and counts celebrities and titans of industry among its members.
“We are vetting who we accept because we want to be able to service them to the highest level and can’t do that if we have too many members,” said President Stacy Fischer-Rosenthal.
Once on the brink of being made as obsolete as the fax machine, the post-pandemic web of flight cancelations, chronic understaffing, bureaucratic COVID testing requirements and a jaw-dropping surge in hotel rates and airline tickets has renewed the need for an in- the-know agent.
Another Virtuoso travel advisor, Andrew Steinberg of Ovation Vacations in New York, says that getting his deep-pocketed clients access and playing the role of their advocate are the biggest parts of his job.
“In the best of circumstances and even for the wealthiest people, unpredictability is a given more than ever before,” he said.
Case in point: Steinberg recently had clients whose 7 am flight from JFK to LAX on American Airlines was canceled. They were rebooked on a flight that had them connecting through Boston, but Steinberg intervened and changed them to a direct trip departing from JFK later that morning. When that flight was also canceled, Steinberg rebooked them on a direct flight departing the next day.
“The clients were thrilled, and I handled it all before they even woke up,” he said.
In another scenario, Steinberg says that he has several clients who want to vacation in Greece this summer — the only problem being that all of the nation’s best hotels are already sold out for June.
“Finding good hotel rooms, guides and drivers is a huge challenge, but my relationships in Greece have helped me secure impossible requests,” he said.
Fischer-Rosenthal says that Fischer Travel has also pulled off the unimaginable. In a recent situation, one client was attending a bachelorette party in the Bahamas and tested positive for COVID when she took the required test to re-enter the United States.
“She was told that she had to quarantine at some hotel, but we had her on a private plane to Florida within three hours,” she said.
Fischer Travel’s clients may have no-holds-barred budgets, but most travelers today appreciate saving a buck. To that end, Belles points out that booking your trip with a luxury travel advisor means extras for free at hotels such as room upgrades, breakfast, spa and food and beverage credits and early check-in and late check-out. “You end up saving a lot more than you would expect,” she said.
Of course, travel advisors are out to be profitable, and some charge planning fees for their services. These generally range from $50 to close to a $1,000 depending on the complexity of a trip. Belles says that others don’t charge fees at all and make their money on commissions instead.
Detroit-based Brian Maiorana, 43, a restaurant owner, and his fiancée Jennifer Bahamonde, 43, also in the restaurant business, used Dawn Oliver of Embark Beyond in New York to book their honeymoon to Paris and Saint-Tropez this June.
“It was a last-minute trip, and I was scrambling to get into hotels and understand the COVID requirements,” said Brian.
He was referred to Oliver by a friend and says that he had never used a travel advisor before and didn’t know what she could really do. When Oliver presented them with an itinerary that included meals at hot restaurants, admission to coveted beach clubs and upgraded rooms at swanky hotels, Maiorana quickly changed his mind.
“The convenience of using an advisor and the hours and hours of time I saved is priceless,” he said.