Data and anecdotal evidence suggest that the pandemic silver lining many had hoped to see has finally appeared: Consumers, including many who never worked with a travel agent before, are turning to travel advisors as they anticipate resuming vacation plans.
Some consortia have noticed increases in traffic to their websites that house travel advisor profiles and information on connecting to travel professionals.
Virtuoso said consumer inquiries via Virtuoso.com doubled from June to September 2020, and January saw a 50% increase over December in requests to connect with an advisor. Virtuoso attributed the increase to consumers having more money to travel after skipping 2020 trips, heightened desire to get away from home and an increased appreciation for what travel advisors do for their clients.
Organic traffic to Agent Profiler pages -- online profiles that Travel Leaders Group (TLG) advisors can create -- has increased, according to TLG chief marketing officer Stephen McGillivray and vice president of marketing Brian Hegarty.
Many have predicted that once consumers feel confident traveling again, they will flock to advisors to help meet pent-up demand.
"We give some credence to that thought," McGillivray said. "But we think what dominates that uptick in people searching for travel advisors is the fact that travel is more complex right now, and all these things just beg for the use of a travel advisor."
TLG uses keyword analysis on leads that come through its website to gauge consumer sentiment. In 2019, "cruise," "Disney" and "Europe" dominated, Hegarty said.
But keyword analysis on more than 12,000 leads TLG has fielded since Jan. 1 paint a much different picture for 2021. Things like "plan," "help," "confusing," "complicated," "please" and even "hope" dominate the list. Other previously popular terms, like those indicating a consumer is looking for a deal or promotion, have fallen off the list.
TLG marketers have, in particular, mulled the term "please," Hegarty said. It either means consumers are getting more polite, or, more likely, they are confused by rules and regulations and are asking an advisor to "please, help me," he said.
To McGillivray, that indicates more than just pent-up demand.
"This is great news for the human touch, [for] us," he said, referencing the entire industry, not just TLG. "Consumers looking to book travel are looking to us."
Tara Hyland, owner of Tara Hyland Travel, a Travel Edge affiliate based in League City, Texas, agrees that consumers will be increasingly drawn to advisors. Tracking and complying with different regulations in different countries is confusing and time-consuming, she noted.
"And potentially, it could be very unpleasant if things aren't done correctly, so I just think that professional guidance is going to be key to having a seamless trip," she said.
Hyland also believes do-it-yourself travelers who found themselves untangling canceled trips and chasing refunds and vouchers after the pandemic hit will also seek the guidance and advocacy of advisors going forward.
She just recently got a new lead via Virtuoso.com that led to a booking. It also holds promise for a yearslong relationship.
The client is a single grandmother preparing for retirement in around six months. She plans to travel on solo trips as well as with her grandchildren.
"She said she was really interested in aligning herself with a professional travel agent," Hyland said. She found Hyland on Virtuoso's website and was drawn to her because of the places Hyland has traveled, her comments in her biography and the fact that the two live in the same community.
The new client just put down a deposit for herself and her granddaughter on an Eastern Europe river cruise to celebrate the grandchild's 18th birthday.
"It's a nice booking, and we really hit it off. I think she'll become a good client," Hyland said.
Hyland even discussed linking the new client with some of her other clients who are solo female travelers.
MAST Travel Network has not seen online traffic increase to pages that enable consumers to search for a member travel agency, but members are talking with more consumers interested in working with a travel advisor, president and COO John Werner said. Some are new to working with advisors, and some have used them only occasionally in the past, he added.
MAST members are also noticing another change: Customers are calling agencies for help with trips that they had already booked themselves, ranging from using future travel credits to navigating Covid-19 restrictions.
"Most of our members are taking this as an opportunity to [establish a relationship with] a future client," Werner said. "While they don't have access to a booking they did not make, our advisors are answering what questions they can and leaving a good impression for next time these travelers plan a trip."