One Caribbean specialist's story: 'I'm taking it day by day'

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Linda Welch, the owner of Blue Ash Travel, during a visit to Sandals Royal Caribbean in Montego Bay, Jamaica.
Linda Welch, the owner of Blue Ash Travel, during a visit to Sandals Royal Caribbean in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

The ripples from Covid-19 stretch far and wide. Beyond the stories of lives lost, heroics performed and industries shattered are hundreds of thousands of individuals trying to maintain a balance amidst chaos and uncertainty.

Here's one story.

Home-based travel advisor Linda Welch never imagined her 10th anniversary in the tourism industry would fall in the midst of a global pandemic as she juggled cancellations and postponements of long-planned client vacations and celebrations.

Welch, who markets herself as a Caribbean specialist and honeymoon expert, previously worked in the finance and business fields for banks.

"Ten years ago I was ready for  a career change and I wanted to travel, so I took a class locally in how to become a travel agent. I was hooked from the start," she said.

She opened Blue Ash Travel in Blue Ash, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, in 2010, and is named after the blue ash tree, native to the Midwest.

From the start, Welch served as the agency's sole employee, owner, proprietor and CEO. From the desk in her office at this time of year, she has a clear view of hummingbirds at the feeders outside her window.

The niche for Blue Ash Travel is the luxury, all-inclusive sector, with a focus on the Caribbean and Mexico. Welch said she's been to 241 all-inclusive resorts, and all-inclusive resort packages make up between 60% and 70% of her business. The remainder of her bookings are high-end Alaska cruises and small group European tours.

She travels regularly to the Caribbean -- or did before the lockdowns -- to stay current on details, facilities and programs at the resorts, review and inspect new properties and maintain connections with the sales departments.

"I have a large digital database of photos taken during my resort travels, and I find that it is so helpful for my clients to see actual photos that I took during a site inspection or visit," she said.

The most popular destinations for Welch's clients are Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Cancun. "Here in the Cincinnati area we have nonstop charters to those destinations," she said.

She's a Sandals Specialist and earns status in the Vacation Express President's Club each year based on the number of clients booked to the Caribbean and Mexico. Welch also is an AMResorts Specialist. "I book AMResorts often," she said. "The company has many amazing properties at all price points, so it's easy to find a good fit for my clients, and I love how responsive all of the resorts are to my emails."

She books the bulk of her Caribbean packages directly with Vacation Express, Apple Vacations and Delta Vacations.
Nowadays, she spends much of her time on her laptop and on the phone, fielding questions from clients and juggling arrangements.

"It's sad," she said. "All the planning and work had been done, and then they had to cancel. Many were honeymoon bookings that could not be rescheduled."

She said that the hardest part of her job is feeling confident enough to advise her clients on future travel plans.

"There is so much that is unknown right now, so much information and misinformation. My clients want reassurance." she said. "I tell them what I know, but I let them make their own decisions. We don't know what tour operators or travel insurance companies will still be around after all of this."

"Some clients with long-term travel plans need passport renewals, but even that had to be put on hold until that office resumes operations."

A number of her clients are still waiting to see if they should cancel. "If they cancel too soon, they lose the eligibility to rebook or to receive a credit for future travel. Many are still waiting to see if and when flights reopen."

"The future of travel is full of uncertainty so I'm just taking it day by day," she said. "I love my job and my clients as well as my colleagues in the industry."

Welch's routine since March mirrors what's it been like for many. She and her husband have been in stay-at-home mode for two months. "We have an aggressive governor who has extended the Stay Safe Ohio order through May," she said.

Her daughter's last weeks of college, meanwhile, were spent at home in online classes instead of on campus. "We already took her picture in cap and gown," Welch said. "She has interned three summers at a company, which offered her a job as soon as she finishes up. They sent her a laptop, and she'll begin in her home office this month."

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