Proof of the pent-up demand for travel has arrived: For many travel agencies, 2022 is shaping up to be their best year of sales, with forecasted numbers eclipsing prepandemic years.
At some agencies, sales have surpassed 2019 totals already, with a full quarter remaining in the year.
Some agencies got a jump on the recovery last year, but the growth has accelerated this year as severe Covid cases waned and travelers were eager to get new and rescheduled trips in motion.
"In 2021, our sales were actually higher than 2019," said Geoff Hendren, owner of Bon Voyage Boutique Travel in Neenah, Wis. "2021 sales were through the roof, and it's just continued that way. Our sales this year are up around about 25% of last year. It's been a phenomenal year."
At Travel Experts in Raleigh, N.C., sales through August exceeded all of 2019 sales. Compared to 2019, total payouts to independent contractors in the form of commissions have increased 100%, executive director Sharon Fake said.
Non-ARC commissions have increased by 150% at Travel Experts and air ticketing has exceeded 2019 levels, and that's without much corporate travel.
Others are seeing similar patterns. At Departure Lounge in West Lake Hills, Texas, 2021 sales were 89% above 2019, and this year is shaking out to be double 2021 levels, founder and director Keith Waldon said.
Nadiya Makarenko, senior vice president of the Travel Edge Network host agency in Toronto, said the network's sales volume has already surpassed prepandemic sales by 10% as of this month, and it expects that percentage to keep rising.
KHM Travel Group in Brunswick, Ohio, said 2022 sales were forecasted to exceed 2019, and Travel Planners International in Maitland, Fla., had a similar report. Jenn Lee, vice president of industry engagement and support at Travel Planners, said this month the host agency has exceeded the number of transactions it completed in 2019, and the agency is on track to exceed 2019 sales numbers by the end of October.
Fake believes the booming sales of today are a result of travel advisors being more selective in who they serve. They increasingly choose the clients they want to work with, she said.
"It's the usual 80/20 rule, and I think that's something that [advisors] have just taken a whole new look at," Fake said.
High prices, high inflation
That is also evident in the numbers: Travel Experts has found the number of transactions advisors are conducting are roughly similar with pre-Covid times, but clients are spending more per trip, so the value of those transactions has gone up.
Prices have climbed as demand roared back, and inflation has also played a role in higher prices this year. But Waldon pointed to a mix of reasons why clients might be spending more: They stayed home during the early parts of the pandemic, dreaming of travel. Many trips from 2020 and 2021 were rescheduled for 2022. The wealthy became wealthier in the past few years. Borders have been steadily reopening.
Multigenerational travel is thriving
There also seems to have been a mindset shift among clients during the past two years, advisors said.
"Covid taught us that life is short and without guarantees, so suddenly there's an urgency to complete those dream, bucket-list trips," Waldon said.
That is a phenomenon that is familiar to Kristi Peek, owner of Embrace the Journey Travel in Ennis, Texas. Sales at Peek's agency are expected to triple 2019 figures this year (2021 sales also beat 2019).
"I feel like after they lost the chance to travel, at least for the next few years while they still have the memory of losing it, I don't see them backing off of traveling," Peek said.
Multigenerational travel, in particular, has been a big seller recently. Peek has noted an increase in her business.
Travel Edge Network has also noticed "tremendous growth" in multigenerational travel and family reunions. Makarenko said the category is up 30% compared with 2019.
How long will the surge last?
Justin Smith, founder and president of the Evolved Traveler in Beverly Hills, Calif., said his sales are also on an upward trajectory this year, but he added that many projected numbers for 2022 are trips that rolled over from previous years.
"I still think it's a very fluid situation," Smith said. "Even yesterday, I had a client cancel going to the United Arab Emirates because she did not want to do a PCR test. And then you've got interruptions, like the pilot strikes in Europe, the queen's passing and funeral. The landscape continues to evolve.
"It's very fluid," he added. "We need to keep up with it. People are watching that. They're booking, but sort of still with a bit of a sideward glance in the sense of, 'All right, we're going to book this and hope for the best.'"
The current level of demand will likely last into 2023, and perhaps into 2024, Hendren predicted.
Waldon agreed. "Given that this immense growth has happened as our world recovers from a pandemic, and during a prominent war and global high inflation, I think this surge in demand will last for a minimum of a few more years," he said.
Smith said he thinks demand will plateau in the future, which, after a frenetic pace so far this year, will be a relief for advisors and suppliers "so that everybody can catch their breath and really get back on stable footing."
But no matter how long the current level of demand lasts, it seems the pandemic has uncovered a trove of new clients who want to work with advisors. Hendren said about half of his business this year is coming from new clients who have never worked with a travel agent.
"I think it's because they just need some assistance," he said. "Things have changed. The world's a different place, and they no longer feel comfortable doing it themselves."