ALG Vacations recently held its first in-person, post-pandemic reward trip meeting for advisors, in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, where president Ray Snisky said bookings have surged 30% or more over 2019 levels in recent weeks. Senior editor Jeri Clausing sat down with Snisky during the 500 Club Silver trip to talk about the uptick in travel and the challenges still ahead.
Q: It sounds like demand for travel is really picking up.
A: Dramatically. I'd say really in the last eight weeks. It has been an incredible display of pent-up demand, consumer confidence. Vaccinations have built a lot of confidence. At this point, what we are seeing is people in destination ... who are seeing and experiencing how spectacular and specific and precise the protocols have been. I think that is one of the greatest testimonials.
Out of our first 140,000 [customers to fly internationally since the testing mandate to return to the U.S. was put in place late last year], only .06% have tested positive. It was shocking. With the high rate of asymptomatic people, I thought we were going to see [the number of travelers testing positive] really explode. I think this just points to how the industry rallied. One of the things I'll remember 20 years from now is how economically pressured companies were, but they still invested in these protocols, they still put customer safety first. And we're benefitting now.
Q: When travel first resumed, it was primarily to Mexico. Is that still the case?
A: What we're seeing now is a lot more diversification. Pretty much through most of the pandemic it was primarily Mexico. It was primarily Cancun and Las Vegas. And now we've seen a lot more diversity. We have seen a lot more domestic business being booked, as well. Our split in December was 81% to 19%, 81 being international. [Two weeks ago] we were down to 64% international.
Q: How is the Dominican Republic doing? I know rebuilding tourism here after the pre-pandemic issues involving allegations of tainted alcohol is a huge priority.
A: There's still a little bit of a hangover from the crisis in 2019. Because of some of that, the airlift has changed. Punta Cana is still down 18% from 2019. Mexico is going to be up over 20% to 30%. Jamaica had a falloff in the first quarter, but they're normalizing that for the rest of the year. We're seeing a lot of seats going back into leisure international destinations.
Punta Cana is the one that has still been very slow. But I had lunch with the president and the minister of tourism. They are obviously very focused on tourism. And they've been very, very collaborative with us.
Q: What are the biggest recovery challenges ahead?
A: One of the challenges is this booking surge. And it's nothing short of a surge. Adding on team members in our contact center is not an overnight fix. And I wish we had 1,000 people in the parking lot ready to just walk in and take that over.
Our business and our industry is also much more complex today than it was two years ago. There isn't a synergy [of protocols] across all the destinations. And these protocols have been very challenging for people to understand.
The challenge really is just adapting to unexpected changes. It's time-consuming. Just in the schedule changes, we had 40,000 schedule changes from one carrier alone.
Q: How do you see the travel landscape changing in the months ahead?
A: We've really had this fire sale: wide-open inventory, extremely low prices. We're already starting to see some airfares increase, we're starting to see hotel inventory tighten up. So I don't think we're going to have this wide-open runway for the rest of 2021. And I think customers sometimes get some sticker shock when they've seen what's been available, and then it starts to normalize. So I think there's still tremendous opportunities, but customers should be booking now, to be sure we have the space they need.