Perspective and Lessons Learned through the COVID-19 Pandemic as a Travel Professional
An Interview by Andy Ogg, CTIE, Co-Owner – Travel Professional News
First off, thank you very much for the time today and joining our fantastic Travel Professional NEWS readers!
Would you mind sharing a bit about yourself and your Agency with our readers? Where are you located? How did you become a Travel Professional?
Suzy Schreiner, owner of Azure Blue Vacations located in Seattle, Washington. Hosted through Travel Planners International
I studied Hotel & Restaurant Administration at Washington State University and worked in both hotels and restaurants for many years. I became a travel agent in 2004 when my husband and I were in the midst of adopting our daughter from China and I wanted to find a career that I could do from home. Since then, I now have two teenage daughters and a thriving business.
I specialize in leisure travel with a passion for Europe and wine tourism. I do enjoy a nice glad of wine!
How long have you been in the travel industry? How long have you been running your Agency? Do you work with a Host Agency? If so, which Host Agency?
Originally, I started with a different host who primarily worked in a niche market. I knew that I wanted to branch out to expand the destinations and types of travel that I sell and found a great connection in Travel Planners International. I am a Platinum agent with them and could not be happier with our partnership! Since joining up with Travel Planners, I was able to expand my business through creative thinking and the empowerment that they offer their agents. They are big proponents each agent developing their own business and their fabulous reputation in the industry opens many doors for us to be as successful as we desire.
2020 started off with a bang with WAVE season followed by the COVID-19pandemic. What a year it has been already! Can you share a bit about how the recent situation has affected your business?
2019 was a terrific year with personal sales upwards of$1.3million and 2020 was looking even brighter! The beginning of the year was exciting as I had many clients who were gearing up for amazing trips around the world -many of which we had been working on for two years. At first, the impact of COVID-19 seemed like it would only impact my clients who were scheduled for March/April cruises and possibly parts of Europe. However, by the time we got through that first week in March, it was apparent that I needed to review all upcoming travels for at least a 4 to 6-month time period.
By the end of March, approximately 40% of my 2020 bookings were either cancelled by the suppliers or cancelled by clients. Thankfully, I was able to move about 80% of those cancellations to future dates, but it was obvious that commission income for the second quarter was going to be next to nothing.
Aside from the effects on my clients’ trips, my professional travel plans were impacted.
–My annual wine tourism conference that I attend each year in Europe
–TPI Top Producer Retreat in Ireland
–Speaking engagement at Travel Weekly Hawaii Leadership Forum
–Global Travel Marketplace (GTM West)
With cancellations (hopefully) behind you, how are you spending your time during this time of Travel Bans and “stay at home” warnings?
I live in Seattle and have been under Stay at Home for a while. Since I am home-based, that part of my life really hasn’t changed. I am pretty much working full-time through all of the changes and cancellations. With no end in sight and no way to know when cruises will sail or Europe will open, I spend a lot of time helping my clients through their options and reviewing ever-changing policies from each supplier .I read the news…. a lot -primarily news from other countries. I sell a lot of European vacations, and it is important for me to keep abreast of the effects of COVID-19 in other countries and the changing landscape of travel.
I have also found that this type of work is more taxing emotionally and physically. So, I have made a concerted effort to walk each day to get fresh air and clear my head in the midst of my work day.
Once most of my clients’ trips are settled/changed/cancelled, my hope is that there will be more time available to catch up on many of the things that I have been wanting to pursue, but have not had time. I am hoping to enhance my destination knowledge and obtain more certifications.
As an experienced Travel Professional, do you have any advice or tips for other Travel Professionals during this challenging time?
This is certainly a time like no other in the travel industry! There are a lot of woes and, understandably, many opportunities for concern. However, I want to encourage travel professionals to heed the opportunity to really shine during this time! For many years, we have been trying to help consumers understand the difference between planning trips on their own and working with a professional.
Now is the time to walk with our clients as we face the future:
Communicate & Educate – Be proactive to communicate with your clients, take the time for phone calls (one call goes a long way).It is not my job to try to talk my clients into traveling, but to give them tools to make the best decision they can.
Ask for Referrals- As each client thanks me for helping them with their cancellation or change, I ask them to be sure to share their experience with others. Once things settle and they hear of friends who are ready for a vacation, mention my name! Word-of-Mounth is still one of the best was to build our business.
Keep a Social Media Presence: At first, the posts were informative -what’s going on with travel, facts vs. fear, etc.Now, we are in the midst of keeping the spirits up: favorite travel photos, sharing experiences, share destination videos.Next -it is time to sell!The time is coming up where people are ready to plan a vacation -they will be ready to get take thefamily away, to have some fun and create positive memories.
Keep Positive! – We are travel agents… we specialize in vacations!Our clients contact us to help them plan fun for their families, lifetime celebrations and new adventures. We need to be that ray of sunshine to our clients and remind them that there are great things to come!
We know that in this Industry, we are stronger together and it has been shown time and time again through the COVID-19 pandemic. Can you share a few suppliers / partners that have truly helped you and your clients in this challenging time?
This has certainly been an eye-opening time for my supplier relationships. Sadly, there are a handful of suppliers whom I will be thinking twice before booking clients, but more often than not, some really Rockstars have risen from the flames!
Vicki Freed and Royal Caribbean have been trailblazers in not only caring for their guests & crew, but also listening and caring for their travel agent community. From being one of the firstto protect commissions cancelled and future cruise bookings to setting up he RCL CARES Travel Partner Support Program.
Dave Meihoefer of Celebrity Cruises has rocked our TPI Facebook Page -keeping us abreast of changes and working tirelessly through all of the questions. I had a good number of Celebrity clients affected and he was always quick to answer my emails and went above and beyond in the beginning (when hold times were in the ‘hours’) to ‘save’ me from calling in.
Denise Fraind of Globus/Avalon has been a gem! Since Europe is one of my specialties, I had quite a few clients impacted by cancellations. Globus/Avalon offered all of my clients the option for a refund or a future tour/cruise credit. Many times, we would find that future travel options came with higher price tags. Denise was quick to listen to my concerns, pass them on in their executive meetings and worked hard to find solutions so as to save these bookings and make future travel plans.
AmaWaterways was another supplier who was very quick to offer guests the option to refund or future travel. The refund option was definitely a saving grace. As much as we want to re-book our clients, the offer of a refund instilled a sense of security for my clients. Plus, Ama -from owners to the call center -are just a positive group of people!
Before we conclude, I personally want to thank you for your time and information shared today. We appreciate your involvement in our publication!