A travel agent with over 40 years of experience says the coronavirus is causing a cancellation surge 'in a way I've never experienced'
- A travel agent for over 40 years, Laura Schy thought she'd seen it all, until the coronavirus outbreak erupted.
- Schy's clients are canceling their trips left and right, and some aren't recouping the costs.
- She's also lost thousands of dollars in income, and has stopped spending extra money because she doesn't know when her earnings will return to normal.
- She's worked through several global emergencies, including SARS and the September 11th terrorist attacks, but says she's never seen travel disruptions like this before.
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In this As Told To, Insider's series of edited conversations about interesting and unique experiences, Alisa Wolfson talks to a travel agent with over 40 years experience in the business — who also happens to be her mom — about cancelled trips, thousands of dollars in lost income, and why the coronavirus outbreak has been worse for the travel industry than anything she's ever seen.
I've been working as a travel agent since smoking and non-smoking sections existed on aircrafts, flight attendants wore mini skirts and gogo boots, tickets were handwritten on paper and no identification was required to board. I flew on tickets that weren't even issued in my name!
In other words, I've seen the travel industry evolve and undergo monumental changes since the 1970s. In my forty-plus years as a certified travel consultant, I've endured various epidemics, plane crashes, 9/11, the recent hysteria surrounding Boeing's 737 Max 8 equipment issue, and what all travel agents were convinced would be the end of their livelihood: the day airlines cut commissions in the nineties. I thought I'd seen it all — until last week.
The response by travelers has been unprecedented, and it's meant thousands of dollars in lost income
In the past week, the number of cancellations and people holding off on committing to trips has surged in a way I've never experienced. Trips that I've been working on for this coming summer are trips that clients are no longer wanting to make final payments on.
In the last ten days, my corporate revenue has virtually become nonexistent because companies have instituted international travel bans and they've indefinitely deferred non-essential domestic travel. l have clients who annually attend the Geneva International Motor Show which, this year, was cancelled one day before their departure date.
The lost revenue due to their hotel cancellations alone amounts to thousands of dollars that won't be coming my way. If that were the only cancellation I'd received last week, I wouldn't be beside myself. Unfortunately, it's just one of many. As a result, I'm not spending any extra money right now on things or services because I'm not sure when my income will return to normal.
Another annual conference I book people to, the Asian Business Aviation Conference and Exhibition (ABACE), was cancelled over health concerns. The two-day gathering represents about a six thousand dollar loss to me from cancelled air travel and hotel commissions. And I'm not the only one whose pockets are feeling empty because of the cancellation — this event typically draws 20,000 to 50,000 visitors into Shanghai, so the entire city will feel the effects from this windfall of losses.
Not everyone who cancels a trip will be able to recoup their expenses
On February 21st — after months of planning — one of my most valued clients took off on what was supposed to be a luxury ski trip to the Dolomites in Northern Italy. Dining reservations had been in place for several months and humidifiers had been specially ordered for their rooms — there was no attention to detail left in the balance. But two days into their 8-day vacation, news came out that certain regions in Northern Italy were experiencing a dramatic increase in the number of coronavirus cases.
Initially, I didn't give the news much thought because there were cases springing up in other European cities as well, but my client emailed me asking if I would be able to get him and his traveling companion back home as soon as possible. He didn't want to leave from an Italian airport, which complicated the situation. I came up with a five-hour road trip via chauffered car to Munich and a flight that had him back in the United States the following day.
Although he had purchased trip cancellation insurance to cover non-refundable expenses, the insurance company made it clear that their policy didn't cover this voluntary departure. Consequently, the hotel wouldn't waive the cost of the remaining nights. It's since come to light to me that even when the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization put a level four warning on a destination, it's not enough for the insurance company to honor a claim. Who knew!
Part of a travel agent's job is taking a client's individual circumstances into consideration, and whether it would be safe for them to travel
Meanwhile, I've been looking forward to collecting a few thousand dollars in commission from a high-end $50k leisure trip I've been planning since August 2019. My clients, a multi-generational family of six from Los Angeles, already purchased their airline tickets. But they're holding off on making the final payment for the land portion of their trip because they're apprehensive about contracting the coronavirus – and I don't blame them.
And that's where things get tricky. As a professional who's also a mother and grandmother, I feel obligated to not only be honest with my clients but also sincere and informative. I really have to exercise the integrity I have when they call and ask me, "Would you take this trip?" I try to put myself in their shoes and take into account their personal circumstances, like how old they are and the cities they're traveling to.
Last week, Signature Travel Network, a consortium of travel professionals, sent a memo to travel agents preparing them to handle people's concerns about traveling and to be careful in only quoting reliable sources and giving facts as best we know them. If asked today about whether or not I'd travel internationally, I'd be most apprehensive about being quarantined abroad or borders closing — and I'm not sure the benefit of most travel outweighs the risk.
Past global emergencies and epidemics like 9/11, SARS, and swine flu didn't prompt this sort of response in travelers
This fairly new ailment is literally putting people and places out of business. The only occasion in which I recall any sort of interruption in my day-to-day bookings was during 9/11, but flights were reinstated just two days later. During that time, the only directive I had was to get all of my business travelers home any way possible as soon as the ban was lifted.
What was different after 9/11 was that in the weeks and months following the event, fear of travel wasn't instilled in flyers the way it has been the last couple weeks; people weren't cancelling vacations and business travel pretty much resumed as usual almost immediately.
Travelers are starting to be worried about becoming stranded or quarantined abroad
Similarly, when SARS erupted in 2003, I didn't experience any disruption in business despite the CDC issuing a travel advisory that included all of mainland China and Singapore. The alert lasted a lengthy six months, but during that entire span of time, not a single passenger contacted me about changing their plans.
The avian flu outbreak in 2005 also didn't deter travelers globally even though the CDC issued a level three travel advisory recommending all nonessential travel be deferred. And in 2009, when swine flu made headlines and infected millions of people, not a single case ever became the reason for someone to cancel or amend a trip.
And then there are people who aren't even afraid of contracting the virus but who don't want to risk being quarantined or stranded abroad. For the last eight months, I've had a group of six travelers planning to celebrate a 50th birthday in Amsterdam and Paris during the first week of April. The travelers range in age from 35 to 54 and because they all have young children at home, they fear getting stuck in Europe and not being able to return home as planned.
So exactly what does that mean for me? It means cancelling three rooms for six nights each, which I would've earned a ten percent commission on — and each room was about $500 per night. But the math isn't the most depressing part of this saga — the unknown of what's looming on the horizon for travelers and travel providers is very unnerving.
Alisa Wolfson is a writer who has worked on staff at the New York Post and Us Weekly. As a freelancer, she has contributed to MarketWatch, Cosmopolitan, Huffington Post, Redbook and Country Living. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, two daughters and their rescue dog, Gus.
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