Navigating international travel these days isn't for the faint of heart, and to keep clients abreast of ever-changing policies, agencies are relying on a dizzying mix of digital resources, creative initiatives and staffers specifically dedicated to the cause.
Embark Beyond, for example, augmented its approach by adding a "Covid expert" to the company's team earlier this year. The Covid expert, who transitioned into the role after most recently serving as an Embark concierge, is charged with keeping the agency updated on the latest travel protocols,while also fielding more complex Covid rules-related queries from Embark advisors.
"As an agency or an advisor, you have to think about how you can be a step ahead and make the client's life easy when it comes to travel, and really give people no excuses to not travel," said Embark founder Jack Ezon.
For travelers looking to visit or travel through multiple destinations, as well as those traveling with younger children ineligible for vaccination, having a Covid expert has proven especially valuable, added Ezon.
"She's been saving our advisors so much time," he said. "In the beginning, our advisors were spending half an hour or 45 minutes trying to figure some of this stuff out, when they could be selling instead."
Like many travel groups, Embark has also tapped Sherpa, an online platform specializing in travel identification requirements, to stay up to date on various restrictions like visa, passport, quarantine and Covid testing measures across the globe. According to Sherpa's website, the company collects its information by aggregating data from thousands of sources, including official government websites, every day.
While Sherpa is also a go-to resource for Brownell Travel, the Birmingham, Ala.-based company has beefed up its pandemic problem-solving efforts with a special desk intended to field restriction-related questions. The travel desk email account is manned by a team of six.
Additionally, Brownell has set up several Slack channels focused solely on Covid concerns.
"We maintain a Slack workspace for the entire community, with channels dedicated to different topics, including Covid updates and Covid resources," said Sheri M. Selkirk, COO at Brownell Travel. "So, you have the Brownell community of about 200 people seeing your posts, and whoever can help you be more efficient and adapt to what your client needs at that time, they absolutely jump right in."
So far, said Selkirk, Brownell's crowdsourcing solution has yet to leave a single travel restriction query unanswered.
"Everyone in the company is on Slack, from our president, Troy Haas, on down," said Selkirk. "So we can cover all bases, whether it's an operations question, a sales question or a Covid question."
The tiered approach
Across Internova Travel Group, the strategy around travel restriction updates has been similarly multilayered, according to John Rose, chief risk and security officer for Internova's Altour division.
In addition to the Sherpa platform, which Internova has used since September of this year, the group has been leveraging support provided by a company called Exlog Global since August 2020.
"Exlog is able to provide that next tier of support, and they specialize in that human component," said Rose.
"Let's say you might be traveling with someone, but the person you're traveling with is on a different passport. So, if there's a question about that, that maybe isn't clear to the client or the advisor, Exlog is able to work that out."
One-on-one support from an Exlog professional is available via email or phone, with Rose estimating that Internova typically sees "several hundred" questions get answered by the Exlog system each week.
If a Covid-related travel quandary proves too difficult or unique for Sherpa to address or Exlog to solve, the matter is then escalated to an internal team within the organization.
The tiered approach has "really worked well," said Rose.
"To be able to provide that level of service is a differentiator we have within Internova," he added. "We can't have an advisor spending eight hours searching 19 different websites and then getting conflicting information, because that's not helpful to anyone."
Meanwhile, as international travel continues to ramp back up, Rose predicts that being able to efficiently stay on top of travel protocol changes will be more important than ever.
"The world is opening back up, but it's going to open with restrictions and those restrictions aren't going to be going away anytime in the near future," said Rose. "So, the demand for tools like Sherpa and other tiers of support is likely to grow, and it's so important to be forward-thinking and get solutions."
At Signature Travel Network, members are granted access to a paid enterprise account on Sherpa, which provides them the ability to create custom links that can be shared with clients, as well as integrate Sherpa's content directly into their websites, emails and itineraries, among other channels.
Members can also opt to create their own white label version of the Sherpa site.
"Without question, a travel advisor's greatest challenge today is keeping up with the continually changing border closures, visa needs, Covid protocols, et cetera," said Jean Newman Glock, Signature's managing director for communications and public affairs.