TW illustration by Jenn Martins
TW illustration by Jenn Martins
It’s no secret that travel and tourism has been among the sectors hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The U.S. Travel Association estimates that more than 4 million travel jobs were lost in the U.S. alone in 2020, while the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) predicted that, globally, the number of lost jobs could surpass more than 170 million if barriers to global travel remain in place.
Behind each one of those numbers is a personal story: homes lost, dreams dashed, families uprooted and, in some cases, new opportunities realized. What follows is a small sample of the experience of workers in varying travel sectors who lost their jobs in 2020 and how, in their own words, they coped, survived and reinvented themselves.
Former Apple Leisure Group VP landed on her feet after strenuous job search
Apple Leisure Group cut its workforce by two-thirds last year in response to the pandemic. Wendy Hoekwater’s position as senior vice president for marketing and sales was among those eliminated. Just before Christmas, after five months of unemployment, she landed a new job, but in a smaller role, for less pay and which required her and her husband to relocate. But she is embracing the change.
This is the first time I have been laid off. And then to be laid off with all these general economic uncertainties and the highest unemployment you can even imagine. And hiring freezes. I was reaching out to recruiters to help me, and the recruiters were getting laid off.
In normal circumstances, you feel like you’ve got a lifeline because you’ve got recruiters. On LinkedIn, you have your communities. You have your people that you maintain friendships with. But we were all in the same boat because it’s the travel industry, and everybody was suffering.
You can’t even imagine the amount of LinkedIn connections who were connecting with me and sending me messages letting me know that they were out of work and how could I help them? So not only was I trying to take care of myself, I was trying to help other people, too. Because that’s just what you do.
It’s just so hard to comprehend the implications in your life when your position is impacted after 18 years in the hospitality industry. There’s no sense in trying to figure it out, asking: Should I have done this? Could I have done that? You have to move on.
You kind of have to put your brain in a reset mode and a creative state. It helps you stay strong and have a fresh perspective. Because if you think about going after something that you already had, you are going to continually be disappointed.
The irony of this is the pandemic put me out of a job, but I also found a job back in travel and hospitality. I’m working as head of marketing and reservation sales for Surf and Sound Realty, a premier Hatteras Island vacation home property management company, and the vacation rental business is the fastest-growing category in travel right now. So I’m extending all my hospitality and travel experience into the business of vacation rentals.
I got it through LinkedIn, which is interesting, because normally people would tell you that the way you get a job at my level would be through people that you know. But this was posted on LinkedIn.
The stakes were high; It was fiercely competitive. Normally, whenever you go for a position on LinkedIn you usually see, maybe, 25 people that you’re competing against. Every LinkedIn position that I was going for, there was a minimum of 150 people going for the same job. I was lucky to have landed in a great role. I count my blessings every day.
As told to Jeri Clausing
Furloughed flight attendant preparing her side business for takeoff
Kristen Beck became a flight attendant three years ago, fulfilling her desire to travel after a career in the nonprofit sector that had sent her around the world. When she found out she would be furloughed from American Airlines in September, she decided to pursue an idea she’d long held: becoming a travel agent. She opened Pin Your Destination in Chicago in October, and while she doesn’t have clients yet, she is readying her business for when people can travel again.
When I was little, I watched “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and saw the main character become a travel agent. I always thought how much I’d enjoy that. I like booking vacations, for myself and for other people; I’m very Type A, I love details. I figured, I have all this downtime, it’s the perfect opportunity to learn and take control of my business.
I will sell anything but Disney and cruises, mostly because I have never been to Disney or on a cruise, and I’ve been and done everything else: road-tripping in foreign countries, solo international travel, expedition-type travel, adventure travel, camping.
I’ve been working on my business. I’m optimizing my website right now, and I get around a hundred visits to my website every week. When people are ready, that’s going to be a good avenue for people to find me.
I plan on putting an advertisement in the church bulletin and contacting some chambers of commerce around the city. I’m doing Facebook boosts and ads, and I also might attend a bridal expo. It’s a little pricey — I’m trying to count my pennies.
The thing is, I look forward to going back to flying, but having a dual career is going to keep me as busy as I like to be. A flight attendant seems very busy, but once you fly and you’re just at your hotel, there is so much downtime. You actually don’t work as much as a nine-to-fiver does. I love that I’m going to be able to have this dual career now, and it all pertains to flying and traveling. The whole thing is just extremely exciting to me. It’s what I’ve always wanted.
Even right now, you’re starting to see people wanting to travel. You just have to keep thinking, as soon as the go is given, people will be out the door. They’ve got all their 2020 dollars to spend. They’ve got all this vacation time. There are just so many opportunities, and I can’t wait to be part of the booking process.
As told to Jamie Biesiada
Laid off by Las Vegas-area resort, she wants some hope from her former employer
Alba Acosta was terminated from her job as a server at the Red Rock Casino Resort and Spa in Summerlin, Nev., in April, after 14 years with the property. She belongs to Culinary Workers Union Local 226, the Nevada affiliate of the North American hospitality union Unite Here, which is lobbying to pass a Right to Return ordinance that would require Las Vegas-area employers to offer workers laid off or furloughed due to Covid-19 the right to resume their positions when business picks up.
I started as an on-call server and after about 10 years became a part-time server, averaging around 30 hours a week. It was steady work. We did a lot of conferences and events.
When Covid-19 hit, it was scary. The companies weren’t really giving us information, and it was just such a shocker to receive a letter in the mail informing me that I was laid off permanently. It wasn’t, “We’ll call you back when things are better,” or, “We’ll see what the future holds.” Our team had about 40 people, and only nine got to stay on. Seventy-five people on call were also terminated. And they didn’t even say it to your face; it was just by letter. It was very heartbreaking on top of everything else that was going on in the world.
I was fortunate to get unemployment benefits. And our union was very supportive and provided information, websites, phone numbers about benefits. My husband, who is also in hospitality, lost his job, as well, but his company did sign a two-year Right to Return agreement.
We’ve been lucky, my husband and I, but we’ve been using all of our savings and resources just to get by. I have my mother here living with me. She’s elderly, and it’s been tough to take care of her and my two daughters. My daughter, who is in college, had to come back home because of the pandemic, but fortunately, she was able to finish her degree in December. It’s been challenging to pay that final semester of tuition, the mortgage, utility bills.
We’d hoped this was going to end sooner. We’re just waiting. For a lot of us who work in Las Vegas, you find a job in the industry that you like, and you stick with it. My husband had been in his job for 15 years. I was at my job 14 years. A lot of my co-workers, as well, had been in their jobs for 14, 15 years. And after all that time, it’s hard to see yourself changing careers. It’s difficult to even think about. It just doesn’t seem fair to me that I would have to reapply and compete with 500 people for a job that was already mine. This situation wasn’t anyone’s fault; we just wish that our company would say, “We’ll join other companies who support their employees and give you the two-year Right to Return.” It would give us such hope.
As told to Christina Jelski
Chef’s post-retirement travel agency showed promise — then the pandemic hit
After a 45-year career as a professional chef, Jeff Page bought a Cruise Planners franchise in Orlando before retiring three years ago. 2020 was to be the year the business would turn its first profit. Then the pandemic hit.
As a chef, I worked for Westin Hotels and grew up in the five-star hotel world. I worked for Disney for the last 21 years of my career.
A few years before retiring, I looked for something to do. I knew I didn’t want to do food and beverage because I didn’t want to be married to it. I always enjoyed traveling. My dad was in the Air Force, and I traveled as a chef, so I’ve had, like, 40 addresses over the years.
This gave me an opportunity to travel and to have a business that was portable. When I bought the franchise, I figured if it takes off, great; if it stays small, that’s OK, too. But it was turning into a business in 2019 when I did almost $500,000. I was probably going to be in the $700,000 neighborhood in 2020 — I had kind of hoped it would be the year I’d actually make some money — and it all came to a halt in March. Then it started going backward.
It was a little challenging. Fortunately, I have a pension that keeps us going, and my wife, she’s a personal chef here in Orlando. It was disappointing, but every business has its ups and downs. You just have to ride the wave. It’s just one of those downturns — a little longer than usual, but you’ve got to work your way through.
I think 2021 is going to still be tough. Maybe I’ll get close to what I did in 2019. I don’t think we’re going to see a full recovery or growth until 2022 because, realistically, I don’t think much is going to happen in the first and second quarters.
I’m hoping for a good Alaska year and a good summer. Right now, I think most clients are in a wait-and-see mode. But yes, there is a future, and yes, it’s going to come back. And people will lean more on travel advisors.
As told to Jamie Biesiada
A land-based cruise employee is cut: ‘I always said I will retire from Royal Caribbean’
Maria Polo-Gonzalez worked for Royal Caribbean International for more than 20 years in its Miami headquarters, first in the IT department, helping to launch the line’s first website, then in merchandising, and finally marketing. She was let go in April when Royal Caribbean Group laid off or furloughed about 26% of its workforce.
I survived 9/11, I survived 2008, but I couldn’t survive this one. The difference is, this time they stopped operations. During 9/11 and 2008 it was a reduced workforce, but we were continuing to cruise.
I spent my entire career there. I love the company, and I love the brand and what it stands for. I always told people, “I will retire from Royal Caribbean.” It’s been part of my life. My daughter grew up and knew cruising before she knew hotels. We went to a hotel in Disney and she asked what deck we were on. She went to the day care center there [at Royal Caribbean]. She’s 20 and that’s the only thing she knew that I did.
Most vacations were on cruises. My parents loved Royal to the point that my father’s last will was to spread his ashes from a Royal Caribbean cruise, which we did when he died of cancer.
I was one of the those who, the first week they let me go, I was looking for a job. I sent out almost 200 applications and got only five interviews, and I still don’t have a job. I was the primary breadwinner. My husband is self-employed, so my paycheck was the steady check. He installs computer networks, but his work was cut because people are not in their offices and they don’t want strangers in the house. He’s probably making one-third of what he did. The few jobs he gets is basically helping people with remote workstations.
We had to ask for additional financial aid from my daughter’s school. She moved home from Boston to do online school. We had to cut a lot of expenses, and it’s been rough. So far, we are trying to manage. If I don’t get a job soon, we’ll have to dip into our savings. It’s tough, especially with the mortgage. If I don’t get a job, we’ll probably have to sell the house.
I keep trying. My goal is apply to five or six jobs every day. I’m working my connections -- unfortunately, a lot are in the cruise industry. Until they start really cruising again, it’s going to be difficult. A lot of people in Miami are in the same situation. Some have found jobs in the last two months, but none in the cruise industry. All we can do is keep praying that the industry will pick up soon.
As told to Johanna Jainchill
This performer is in wait-and-see mode during the cruise shutdown
Elise Southwick of Santa Fe, N.M., worked several contracts as an aerialist performer on Aida, a German cruise line, beginning in 2017. Her last contract ended in early 2020, and she was due to start the next one the following June, but it was canceled due to the global cruise shutdown.
I was an aerialist and ground acrobat -- I did trapeze, aerial silks, all kinds of things. They try to fit as few people as they can into as many shows as possible because there is so little space onboard, and so they make the most of every crew member. On my last contract, I had maybe three different shows.
Before Aida, I had been teaching circus arts where I live in New Mexico and performing locally and a little around the country, but not too often. My main source of income was teaching at a local circus studio. I had gone to the New England Center for Circus Arts in Vermont and finished in 2015. My goal was to be a performer. I enjoy teaching, but when I can get a gig, I’ll take it.
I applied for the job on Aida and got it. I’d take a contract for six months on the ships and teach on my break from contracts, and then I’d go back. I love the performing and the traveling. I got to go all over. I wasn’t finished; There are a lot more places I wanted to go. That was the big perk: You can travel the world. Our ships went everywhere. My contracts were in the Mediterranean, Southern and Northern Europe. I’ve crossed to the Caribbean and Central America. To Iceland and Greenland and Canada and New England. I wanted to travel and perform. It’s pretty great because we work in the evening, so we’d have a whole day really to do things and explore.
I’d like to get back on a ship when it’s 100% safe. I’ve heard nothing from Aida about when we might go back. They aren’t reaching out to the performers at all.
I was receiving unemployment until July. In terms of performing, there’s just nothing right now. I have been teaching flexibility, handstands, general conditioning on Zoom. When our studio opened in July, we were able to start aerial classes again, so I’m teaching a little, but it’s hard to make a living teaching because we’re so limited. Only 10 people in the studio, and attendance is low. There are no live performances.
We recently had another lockdown in New Mexico, and we lost people again. We keep trying to come up for air. I’m trying to teach private lessons online.
I’m in touch with several performers through Facebook and Instagram, and everyone is doing different things. One person [I know through Aida] is also teaching on Zoom and just trying to make it. We really don’t know what else to do. His partner is doing landscaping. I have a friend who is a singer on Broadway in New York, and she’s moving furniture in a van she converted. Some people are working in retail, or anything, to make a living, since our government doesn’t really seem to want to help.
As told to Johanna Jainchill
An advisor for touring bands thinks clients will be eager to be on the road again
Lisa Stutts-Moeller headed to travel school in the 1980s with plans to become a flight attendant, but once she learned about travel agents, she changed direction and never looked back. After 10 years booking mostly corporate travel, she founded Entertainment Tour Design in 1994. Today, she arranges travel for touring bands, including REO Speedwagon, Tower of Power and the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
In normal times, my job is very fast-paced. You just never know what’s going to happen. I have what’s called “fly day” -- when the bands are flying. I have all of their flights on my phone in a tracker, and as soon as I see something that’s a question mark, that’s when the adrenaline starts and I start fixing it.
March 13 was basically my last day. That was crazy. The week leading up to it was really crazy; REO was on the road, and one of the band members got sick. He did his best to get through it, but we had to cancel a few things here and there and change things around, then they added a few dates so they could go back. A lot of changes that week.
Then things started to happen with Covid. The next thing you knew, they were supposed to perform at a casino, and that show canceled at one o’clock in the afternoon -- that’s when I got the call. The tour manager said, “I think one of the band members is probably going to want to go home.” In my mind, I’ve worked with them for so long, I’m thinking, “They’re all going to want to go home.”
The band members all changed flights to that afternoon. Within 30 minutes, they were out the door on their way to the airport. None of us knew what this was going to entail. I think we thought that, well, we might be home for a couple of months. None of us had any idea what was about to happen.
It’s pretty mind-boggling. The clients that I work with are used to being on the road more days of the year than being home. Being on the road was their norm. That was their life, and I was used to being there for them all the time.
For a while I did online classes. But one of my passions is decorating. We have an antique mall in town, and I started painting furniture and signs. I have a booth with decor and farmhouse-type furniture, so I’m buying and selling. I’m just doing something different now. I’ve decided to wait it out because when the entertainers can go back to work safely, it’s going to be “Katie, bar the door.”
As told to Jamie Biesiada