At some point during the last week in February, the light at the end of the tunnel began to appear nearer and brighter.
A number of factors, but especially the accelerating rollout of Covid-19 vaccines, have converged in recent weeks and produced a bump in both inquiries and bookings for travel advisors and suppliers around the country.
And although the uptick in business hasn't brought agencies close to levels seen prepandemic, there is widespread belief that the positive trajectory will continue, barring unexpected virus-related developments.
"Certainly, the vaccine has helped," said Jim Strong, president of Strong Travel Services in Dallas. "Certainly, the lowering of cases [reported in media] has helped. Maybe you could even attribute it to the change in Washington; that is, the rhetoric is not so divisive. It's just a whole slew of things that is leading everybody to a level of confidence, and that confidence is translating into travel."
Strong does not expect his agency to hit pre-Covid levels of business until 2023, but growth has been steady of late. Today, he estimated, about 25% of Strong Travel's clients are on the road. He anticipates that to increase between 3% to 5% each month moving forward.
Montecito Village Travel in Santa Barbara, Calif., has seen a "substantial" increase in business from January to February 2021, according to vice president of business development Connie Miller. She said the host agency saw invoices in its systems -- a good indicator of bookings -- increase 40% to 45% month over month, and finalized sales were up 25% to 30%. Air bookings were up 25%.
"2021 will still be a lean year based on how commissions are paid, but there is excitement from advisors getting back to the business they love," she said.
Several of Montecito's agents indicated that consumer sentiment toward travel shifted the last week of February. Angie Licea, president of Internova Travel Group's Global Travel Collection division, has noticed a similar recent shift.
Licea said she was "uplifted" after that last week in February. She pointed specifically to Andrew Harper, whose bookings were three times that of any other recent week.
"Now, everybody has a long way to go in this industry to get back to where we were in '19," she cautioned, "but it's definitely moving in the right trajectory."
Suppliers are reporting similar patterns.
Jack Richards, CEO of Pleasant Holidays, said bookings are growing steadily, specifically for travel in spring, late summer and the holiday season.
Richards attributed that growth to the vaccine rollout, pent-up demand, health and safety protocols implemented by suppliers and recent weather blanketing much of the country in snow and freezing conditions.
Package sellers agree. David Hu, president of Classic Vacations, said his company has seen a "nice uptick in the last few weeks," mainly for travel this summer and beyond.
"I attribute it to the vaccine as well as just the general optimistic mood as people come out of lockdown," he said.
Anecdotally, a number of agencies said interest levels appear to be regional. Those living in the middle of the country seem more likely to want to travel than those on either coast, where restrictions tend to be more strict.
For instance, Strong said, in Dallas, his hometown, people are returning to offices and children to schools. Restaurants are regularly filled.
"It is very much a level of confidence in people's own community and circle that is leading them to have more confidence to go outside of that, to get on an airplane or go to another destination and enjoy some time away from home and work and all the stresses that everybody's been dealing with in the last year," he said.
In fact, Strong just hired a new employee in the last week of February to help meet what he predicts is coming demand, in addition to the increase in bookings his agency has seen recently.
"It's not at the level it was before, and it's going to take a long time to get back to that full level of travel, but those people who are traveling now are definitely spending money, because things aren't cheap out in the world right now," Strong said.
Richards concurred: Average transaction prices have increased, with travelers spending more and staying longer in destinations.
Jenn Lee, vice president of sales and marketing at Travel Planners International in Maitland, Fla., said she believes the vaccine is playing an indirect role in traveler confidence right now and agreed with her peers that bookings are increasing.
"It's people saying, 'OK, good, looks like we're rounding the corner -- I'm ready to make the move,'" she said.
Jeri Clausing contributed to this report.