Jamie Biesiada
Jamie Biesiada

World Travel Holdings (WTH) executive Debbie Fiorino's message to travel advisors right now is a simple one: Be prepared for the release of the traveling public's pent-up demand.

"Preparedness is the new word. Be prepared," said Fiorino, WTH's senior vice president and COO of owned brands. "Because no one knows exactly when it's going to happen, but you better be prepared when it does happen."

Fiorino oversees WTH business-to-business brands Dream Vacations, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. as well as its consumer-facing house brands, including CruisesOnly and Cruises.com. I caught up with her earlier this month to talk about how WTH has reacted to the pandemic and what she sees as the crisis' longer-lasting impacts on the travel agency community.

Like many others in the travel industry, WTH took actions to preserve cash as soon as the severity of the pandemic was realized. That meant some furloughs and some cut hours, Fiorino said.

Now, demand is up for travel in the latter part of 2020 and into 2021, she said.

"We're seeing good demand, especially in our home-based division, where the travel agent is really valued," she said. "It's allowed us as a company to continue to reinvest dollars and talent and bringing people's hours back up."

Reinvestment funds have also gone into areas like technology, training and recruiting, because new franchises are still being purchased and advisors are joining the industry.

Thus far, Fiorino said, 2021 looks like a strong year. Land vacations are proving popular, and a number of advisors are themselves traveling to share their experiences with clients.

"Slowly but surely, things are opening up, and people are experiencing them," she said.

As far as the pandemic's longer-ranging impact on advisors, Fiorino said, it has highlighted the need for partnerships.

"It just reinforced what consortia and host agencies and franchise organizations do for travel agencies," she said, ranging from disseminating information to dispersing payment. 

She predicted the pandemic might result in a decrease in the ranks of unaffiliated agencies.

Fiorino also addressed the growing trend of suppliers getting cash in agents' hands before the traditional time of payment at or soon after the time of travel.

Changing the way agents get paid comes with challenges to suppliers, Fiorino said, particularly when a traveler cancels their plans.

"They need the travel agency distribution channel to survive, and they're going to try to do things to help that," she said. "At the same time, they're going to make sure that they do it in a fiscally responsible way, so it doesn't hurt them either. I think that's the balance."

However it shakes out, though, Fiorino said it has ignited positive, industry-wide conversations -- always a good thing.


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