Shortly after Covid derailed travel in 2020, I began to hear from travel advisors expressing concern about suppliers who they felt were leaving clients high and dry. They had to break the news to clients that, yes, their trip was canceled, but no, they would not be getting a refund. Future travel credits would be the only option, regardless of how much money was held by the supplier.
To say that this put advisors in a very unpleasant position is an understatement. Part of the value of working with an advisor is that travelers have a professional advocate on their side should there be a problem. But once the pandemic was declared, in many instances there was nothing an advisor could do to help clients get a refund. It often led to further frustration as a cycle of booking and rebooking emerged, with travel slowly opening up only to be shut down again.
There were, of course, many exceptions to a no-refund policy among suppliers. Several cruise lines not only provided refunds if asked but protected agents' commissions, incentivized guests to accept future cruise credits and offered double commissions if a client accepted a credit and then sailed at a later date.
Among tour operators, 49%, including large operators Tauck, Globus and Collette, offered refunds in addition to issuing future travel credits.
Now that travel is recovering, I asked Jaclyn Leibl-Cote, president of Collette, whether advisors are rewarding her company for issuing more than $170 million in refunds.
"Advisors definitely remember we were there for them," she said. "We tried to make it as easy as possible for everyone. Even if a traveler had elected to receive a future tour credit and moved the date -- sometimes twice -- and then asked for a refund, we would give it to them. We didn't want advisors put in an uncomfortable place, between Collette and their client."
Collette had given refunds in previous crises, as well, she said, citing 9/11. "For us, it's a matter of integrity."
And, no doubt, a business calculation, as well. The vast majority of Collette's business is through the retail channel; direct bookings, Leibl-Cote said, are "in single digits."
Collette did even more than issue refunds to ease the pain for agents. "They were working tirelessly, often with little if any income," she said. "So, we decided to pay a percentage of commissions in advance of the departure date."
And, more than that, should the trip be canceled, the agent could keep the partial commission.
The policy change was appreciated. "We had an advisor write to us and say they cried when they received the check," she said. "We realized we should have looked into that a long time ago." (The policy remains in place even as the industry recovers.)
The pandemic also afforded Collette an opportunity to realign. Like many travel-related enterprises, the company had been growing so fast that it was difficult to pause to implement some ideas it had planned.
In 2019, it had put together a five-year plan that focused on slowing the pacing of its tours to allow people more time at destinations and less time on the coach. What might have been a drawn out, incremental task in product development accelerated during the pandemic. Collette now has the least number of one-night stays in its competitive set, Leibl-Cote said.
A parallel initiative was to add more small-group departures with, depending on location, a maximum of 19 to 24 guests. Smaller groups open the range of possibilities, she said, pointing to the example of dinner at a winery that couldn't handle a larger group. "Our goal was to have 47 small-group departures by 2025. We're at 43 now."
To my surprise at the time, Collette had become preferred with Virtuoso just prior to the pandemic. While I had always associated the company with quality, I hadn't thought of them as luxury.
"Luxury doesn't need to mean five-star," Leibl-Cote said. "It's experience, and our Explorations category goes to Patagonia, the Galapagos, Thailand. In Europe, we have itineraries for very experienced travelers -- you know, the ones who don't need to see Rome again.
"Our slower pacing is important, too," she said. "A Virtuoso client isn't going to want to move, move, move. And, on a 10-day tour, we'll have only two optional tours that might not be included, whereas competitors might have six or 10."
Not all companies were in a position to refund to the extent that Collette did nor launch an advance commission policy. They shouldn't necessarily be punished for doing only what they could to survive these past few years.
But to learn Collette's pandemic efforts are acknowledged and rewarded suggests that that's also true for others who went above and beyond. And that's heartening to hear as travel once again ramps up.