In many ways, the beginning of 2023 feels a lot like the beginning of 2020, minus sporadic news stories of a strange new virus making the rounds in China: Travel agencies are busier than ever, coming off their best year in history and anticipating another solid year ahead.
Barring major disrupters, which the past three years have proven are more than possible, it looks to be a strong year for the travel retail channel.
But, like the prepandemic era of 2020, advisors today are only cautiously optimistic, as the economy and a potential recession are factors that could affect the year ahead.
It's causing some chatter about potential pullback on travel among clients, especially those who use more mass-market products, said Vanessa McGovern, chief sales and marketing officer at the Gifted Travel Network.
But the luxury and ultraluxury segments aren't slowing down, she said.
At a Four Seasons event near the end of this year, she said, "The gist that I got from the various hoteliers globally was that this is just what it's going to be -- they're not seeing a slowdown, and people are paying. They're paying these prices."
Consumers outside of the luxury and ultraluxury segment are, in some cases, turning to cruising instead of hotels because of its perceived value, McGovern said. Because of that, Gifted's cruise sales are picking up through 2024.
Indeed, cruise selling powerhouse Cruise Planners in November said cruise sales were nearly on par with 2019. Year-to-date, 2023 departures were up 26% compared with 2020 departures as of October 2019, indicating a big year for cruise sales ahead.
Two major factors will likely continue to affect the travel agency community in the next 12 months: travel advisor burnout and finding help in the form of new or experienced advisors.
Agents this year reported being busier than ever after the omicron variant of Covid-19 began to fade into the background. Phones were ringing at unprecedented rates. While the fervor died down somewhat by the fall and agencies had become what Nexion Travel Group president Jackie Friedman called "great busy," the risk of burnout continues.
The risk is high especially now, as more and more consumers want to work with advisors.
The ability for agencies to find and onboard advisors has been an issue of late, too, and one that will continue into 2023. Not only are agencies looking for employees and independent contractors to meet consumer demand, they're also still looking to replace talent that left the industry over the past three years.
ASTA has said investing in bringing in talent to the industry is a top priority for the year ahead. The Society also has a quarter of a billion dollars to do it, thanks to an investment from Norwegian Cruise Line. That investment will go in part toward digital ads that will point prospective advisors to ASTA's "Becoming a Travel Advisor" resource guide.
Tiffany Hines, CEO of Global Escapes in Athens, Ga., said she believes more awareness is needed about the trade as a viable career option.
"In my opinion, the biggest thing lacking for our industry is the fact that most people studying in college or trade schools don't realize that there is a need for quality travel advisors," Hines said. "We must create awareness, and this means from a higher level, like ASTA, but also from a grassroots effort in our own communities by being present with local colleges and trade schools, creating internship programs and talking to younger kids in high schools."