The first time it happened was in 1991. I was talking to a client who was a CEO at an investment firm, and he started telling me how much he admired my life and how he would love to change places with me. He had three homes; I had one condo. It happened several times after that, and I'm sure it has happened to you.
This luxury life we lead without stress, flying for free around the world, enjoying every single moment of what we do, helping folks enjoy their lives while living ours to the fullest: It could actually make a client jealous.
But not now. Not this year. Now, when you tell a stranger what you do for a living they may well say, "I'm sorry," and lower their heads.
The world is not coming to an end, but we seem to be living close enough to the precipice to feel the breeze.
My personal business challenges have been less stressful than my attempts in this space to make sense of what we are experiencing in any way that is helpful to you. Sometimes I feel I have failed. In a sense, we all have failed, because there are no words. None of us deserved 2020. For the rest of our lives, we will refer back to it as "in Covid times."
I liken the past 12 months to being near a still-raging battlefield but being forced to watch it all unfold from behind a window at home. So many lives in our industry are being destroyed and disrupted, and the fighting goes on outside our windows. But we really can't survey this travel battlefield.
I won't recite facts from this past year. You've heard them too often. We all share the bond of memories of "NT" (normal times) when intelligent college graduates and career-changers actually wanted to enter travel and tourism. Many of us had to limit the number of clients we could take on.
Now, you must join me in turning the page. This hellish year will end in less than a week. Never have so many had so many reasons to celebrate the arrival of a new year. But our uncertainty will not end on Jan. 1. This is not a classic economic downturn, a terrorist attack or a deterioration in the quality of the travel products we represent. This is a pandemic, and for most of us, this is something new. This leads to any number of questions. These are just a few of the ones that fascinate me going forward:
Is "social distancing" a concept that will disappear six months after the last American is vaccinated or will this be a consideration for future travelers? Will our clients ever shake hands again, dine at a buffet or happily be seated at a table with strangers?
Will Americans wear masks in crowds abroad the way citizens of Tokyo often wear masks to deal with pollution?
How will smaller, independently owned hotels with smaller ad budgets be able to communicate their safety protocols, or will guests simply come to believe that Marriotts and Hiltons have higher, certified Covid standards?
Can we convince the public that the air filtration system on most modern aircraft utilizes a constant source of fresh air to create a relatively healthy environment? Front-line agents need onboard air safety talking points; will they get them?
How will previously designated "over-touristed" sites bring back the crowds while managing them successfully? Residents of Venice and Rome came to love their cities without tourists. In Delhi, the skies turned blue. How will the new normal in crowded destinations be defined?
Some of the best consultants I know have started urging their clients to consider second cities, avoiding metropolises when possible. The best bragging rights going forward may be dropping names of places no one else knows. Will this "movement" catch on?
The political divisions we have seen during this election make me believe that one side will not wish to dine on a cruise ship with the other, nor will they wish to share the same tour bus. The divisions may go too deep to forgive on vacation. How do we find travel products where concerned clients will truly feel comfortable and relaxed in a nonpolitical way? Will we see the growth of politically oriented cruise and tour departures?
Will Covid times increase or decrease the percentage of our clients who wish to be "social travelers" versus those who prefer to travel on their own? Will our guests assume that their favorite escorted travel firm will have higher cleanliness standards than they would encounter traveling independently?
How will one year-plus of incarceration with their cellmate Netflix impact the length of the vacations our clients plan in the next 36 months? Regent just sold out a world cruise in four days. Are we going to see a major trend toward longer overseas vacations?
Several futurists have said that travel will eventually all be virtual. Do we see any signs that our clients are willing to travel virtually now that they have had a year to experiment with the concept? To what degree will Amazon be expanding its attempts to sell virtual travel experiences?
Will we see Zoom travel agency concepts develop now that we have a large segment of the population familiar with the technology?
As we try to exhale from this year, I could not end without a few words of anger I wish to direct to Covid itself:
You are evil, I will grant you that. But Covid, you underestimated the inner strength and resiliency of the travel and tourism sector, something others have done, as well, in recent history. You counted us out -- a big mistake.
During the economic downturn of 2008, we lost almost 40% of our travel agents. Some said our ranks were decimated. But we learned to work lean, we honed our computer skills and then we realized that our clients really didn't care where we were working; they cared about what we were doing for them. And we roared back.
In the aftermath of 9/11, analysts thought that surely our industry would crumble. Who would ever fly again? Who would sail the seven seas? Who would book a room in a high-rise hotel? Our clients would -- that's who, Covid.
Then, Covid, they said we would disappear completely, replaced by networks of online call centers staffed by nameless robots and people imitating robots. We held our own and then we thrived, based on large measures of personal knowledge and experience and the simple fact that "we've been there; your computers haven't."
Covid, you made the terrible mistake of thinking you could permanently impact the desire of our clients to move about this planet as they see fit. No one has ever won that bet.
Happy New Year, dear readers. Please rest up. You are going to be working harder than you ever have starting around April Fools' Day and for a very long time after that.
Richard Turen, the owner of Churchill & Turen travel-planning company, is a regular columnist for Travel Weekly.