Jamie Biesiada
Jamie Biesiada

Last week was Random Acts of Kindness Week, inspired by the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation, which advocates for kindness-related curriculum in schools and changes in workplace culture through kind gestures.

Royal Caribbean Group's Pay It Forward program, which makes $40 million available to travel advisors in the form of interest-free commercial loans, isn't random, but it certainly is an act of kindness to the hard-hit sector of the travel industry.

On her weekly virtual Coffee Talk series last week, Vicki Freed, Royal Caribbean International's senior vice president of sales and trade support and service, both encouraged travel advisors to perform their own random acts of kindness and talked about Pay It Forward.

"It's the little things that make the big difference," Freed said. "Thank a teacher or a nurse or those close to you, because no act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted."

Royal's act of kindness isn't small, either, she said. In fact, it's quite large; advisors can apply for loans of up to $250,000, depending on their commission earned with Royal during the second half of 2019.

Advisors can learn more at Cruisingpower.com. There they can find a comprehensive frequently asked questions page, information about loan criteria and more. Most advisors in the U.S. can currently apply; for advisors in the handful of states and Canada who cannot yet apply, money will be held, Freed said.

"It's really our way to share the act of kindness and pay it forward for our valued travel agency community," Freed said. "You are important to us."

Pay It Forward loans represent one more tool in the arsenal to help agencies survive the coronavirus crisis. 

It has been a challenging year, without question. For instance, for Ann Waters, president of Travel Leaders in Fort Wayne, Ind., it has been spent "chasing every penny we could possibly get" from a number of programs, including PPP loans, state grants and local funds available for business.

But many are hopeful the second round of PPP loans, coupled with other sources like tax credits and the Pay It Forward loans, will be the boost agencies need to get to the other side, when meaningful travel volumes return. They are also hoping the funds could help agencies staff up to meet coming demand.

Alex Sharpe, CEO of the Signature Travel Network, pointed at the federal PPP loans and tax credits, combined with Royal funds and the member-owned cooperative's override checks, being distributed early as potential funding sources. He hopes agencies use the funds as investments to rehire advisors.

Demand on the rise

That expected demand does appear to be on its way

Some consortia have seen an uptick in online traffic from consumers seeking travel advisors, and anecdotally, advisors appear to be more in demand now than before the pandemic.

Travel Leaders Group (TLG) has tracked three cycles of demand for travel throughout the pandemic, according to Brian Hegarty, vice president of marketing.

Demand first started to come back in June 2020, he said, but it fell off again around July 4 after case numbers started increasing and the spotlight shone on some hotspots in Southern states. Demand again started to rise in August, but it fell off again right before the election.

Then, the most recent wave of demand, still sustained, began in January. January marked TLG's strongest month for leads since the pandemic began. The strongest week was the week of the 27th. Its strongest day, as of last week, was Feb. 9.

"The thing, to me, that stands out as being optimistic in this is people also had some headwinds during this past month," Hegarty said.

That includes the CDC's mandate that all incoming international travelers provide proof of a negative coronavirus test and the implementation of that rule. There was also the political unrest in Washington and the subsequent fallout.

Despite those factors, leads continued to grow and remain strong, Hegarty said, a positive for the agency community.

"Overall, demand is not where it was pre-Covid, but we are currently seeing very positive trends occurring," he said. "This third wave, now, of increased demand is by far the strongest that we've seen since things have started."

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