How Three Travel Agents
See the Future of Travel
THURSDAY, MAY 7, 2020 -- Long an essential part of the mobile and monied Americans' cadre of personal advisors, travel agents have strong opinions on when, where and how we'll get moving again.

And they should know about how slowly Americans are moving just now. For the week ended May 3, the travel agent clearing house, the Airline Reporting Corporation, says airline sales are down 89.5 percent. Year-over-year, the decline is more than 40 percent.

If nothing else, that has given agents from coast-to-coast some downtime to talk, so I discussed issues great and small with three of them.

"Airlines will block the middle seat, a plus for business travelers, but now the question is for how long," says Les Burger who, with his wife Nancy, owns Ladera Travel in Menlo Park in the San Francisco Bay area. "And flight frequencies will remain way down," Burger notes. "Before COVID-19, United had 10 to 12 flights daily from San Francisco to Newark. Now just two. The days of the commuter flights are gone for now."

Working from home these days to comply with California's stay-at-home order, Burger says flight bargains are plentiful. With a two-day advance purchase for midweek flights, a non-refundable coach seat on that San Francisco-to-Newark run is below $400 one-way. Normally it would be $794 one-way, says Burger. One-way business class is $689, down from nearly $1,600, he adds.

Where to stay when you get to New York, still the epicenter of the pandemic? A recent Wednesday at the Marriott Essex House on Central Park, also booked two days in advance, was $469 plus tax. Burger says it would usually be at least 50 percent higher. Other Manhattan hotels Burger checked--including the Grand Hyatt above Grand Central Terminal and Marriott Marquis in Times Square--were shuttered.

Burger doesn't see the death of business travel even after companies have discovered the benefits of services such as Zoom. "We've had videoconferencing for years," Burger says, "but law firms, executive search operations and venture capitalists still want that physical presence. The personal, face-to-face conversations after meetings [is where] business is really conducted."

He sees "pent-up demand" for travel, but believes travelers will "test the waters" by taking trips close to home. Burger figures families will want to return to "iconic" properties in Hawaii or the Napa Valley. "They don't want to travel to exotic places right now." Other travelers will stay at home until a vaccine is found and widely available. Some, however, will "want to get something on the books" for summer, knowing they can cancel.

The former chairman of the Association of Retail Travel Agents, Sally Watkins only books leisure travel. Her biggest problem? "Getting people back home since you couldn't get flights to or back from Europe."

Her agency in Austin still spends a good chunk of time sorting out airline travel refunds for flyers. "All have a different policy and no trip insurance covers pandemics. But [sometimes] you can get future use of the money."

Watkins agrees that frequencies on even the most popular airline routes "will be very slow coming back." But she doesn't have a fix on ticket pricing if middle seats are off-limits and frequencies remain depressed.

She believes the cruise sector will be travel's slowest sector to rebound. Ditto for tour companies that use motorcoaches where space is tight. One potential bright spot: domestic cruises on the Mississippi and the Great Lakes. They'll see the first travelers wanting to "put their toe back in the water," Watkins explains. Diehard cruisers will book river itineraries in Europe and Asia, but "people will be dubious about the mass cruises with the big buffets or any all-inclusive resorts."

Jeffrey Erlbaum, the owner of ETA Travel in the Philadelphia suburbs, thinks that travel agents' "ability to save time and money and cut through the chaos of DIY planning" will boost business. "Travelers today--business or leisure travel--won't stand in line or wait on the phone for two hours when their flight is cancelled. [Travel agents] are coming back and a transaction or management fee is worth it."

Erlbaum figures leisure travelers will be first to hit the road because they've been cooped up in their homes. Business travel, where he does 80 percent of his bookings, will follow shortly after. He notes that airline Web sites have gotten too complex and too time-consuming and "they're always hiding the refund options."

Businesses will always need C-suite travel and there are more mundane needs, too. The manager of the Appleton, Wisconsin, store has to fill in for the manager of the Cleveland store and he or she needs a hotel and a rent-a-car on short notice, he explains.

The owner of ETA Travel for the last 22 years, Erlbaum cannot "imagine airlines blocking middle seats for long. Maybe on a temporary basis, but I can't see them giving up that much revenue."

Erlbaum is betting that travelers will drive to a destination if it's six hours or less. Locally, he expects business travelers will take Uber or Lyft rather than rent a car and park it in a pricey lot during a day-long meeting. There is much "greater emphasis" on lodgings being spotlessly clean while he's seeing cancellations for previously booked cruises on larger ships.

How is he personally dealing with being cloistered at home? "I'm exercising a lot more by dog walking, but my alcohol and food consumption is up," he admits.