Charlie Funk
Charlie Funk

Bob Dylan wrote what many consider the best song of all time in 1964, "The Times They Are a-Changin'." The turmoil then was different. The stressors were different. But indeed, the times are changing so fast, it seems impossible to hold position, let alone gain on the challenges the retail travel distribution channel faces.

Almost a year ago, I projected that cruises would not restart until July 2021. The pronouncement elicited many comments, mostly unflattering and some rather specific about the condition I was in ("You have your aluminum foil helmet on crooked, don't you?"). It has been a tough year since then.

Federal funding ameliorated the threat of losing as many as 70% of all retailers, but estimates of 30% of agencies fading to invisibility seem reasonable. A second round of funding is upon us in the nick of time, and most agency owners with whom I speak are working diligently to secure another PPP loan.

I reported on a survey we conducted at Travel Weekly in my July 20 column, "Herd immunity for the retail channel," and things had changed enough by then that the business-resumption rubber band was stretched to August. A follow-up survey in October confirmed and reinforced the results of the June survey, but with a different wrinkle.

I wrote about the intersection of greed and fear ("Survival, yes, but not at any price," June 8). It is a concept that may have been first espoused by Phillip Kleweno, then-president of P&O Princess Cruises, in a 2002 Travel Weekly roundtable and was explained in an April 27 From the Window Seat column by editor in chief Arnie Weissmann. Please read it now.

Interesting, no? Well, there is no intersection of greed and fear for taking a cruise just now. Focus groups told us that even if given a cruise, they would not take it. Two surveys told us the same thing. There has to be an effective vaccine in place and administered, Covid cases need to drop to zero or near zero, and we need to see the end of the second season of the illness to gauge when to travel.

More ominously, consumer response to the slow vaccine rollout has moved client inquiries for new cruises further into the future. Two months ago, many calls were for Q3 and Q4 2021. Now, calls are more for dates in Q2 2022 and beyond. The furthest out we have booked is December ... 2023.

Pent-up demand for travel in general is huge. Our agency is working on timing to add sales staff in anticipation of a surge in call volume.

The task is made all the more difficult because not only is there no intersection of greed and fear for cruise resumption, there is no intersection of when cruise lines hope to resume cruising and when consumers will feel safe taking a cruise. Unless and until consumers feel safe to take a cruise, it does not matter when the cruise lines want to resume.

It's like this: Slow vaccine rollout and continued consumer concerns about safety may mean it will be Q4 2021 before cruises resume. Fill the pipeline now so that commissions will flow in and provide the funds needed to keep your agency viable.

On a personal note, I have had both Covid vaccinations, and plans are that my wife, Sherrie, will receive her second shot later this month. The first thing we're going to do is get together with our family to celebrate all the holidays and birthdays we have missed. Then we're going out to dinner with our best friends, who have also been vaccinated, and finish planning our transatlantic cruise for October. 

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