Talk about holding your customer's hand.
As borders open and close, rules change and airlines cancel at the last minute, many travelers, especially single travelers, find vacationing in the time of Covid to be just too much hassle. Unless your travel advisor comes with you.
For some travel advisors, Covid has turned the occasional trip where they accompany a group into the model at the heart of their business. At Never Travel Solo in Virginia, for example, owner Paul Cathcart's specialty always has been single travelers, and especially female single travelers. Nowadays business is booming. And while Empress Travel's business is more mixed, owner Mona Carol Albala also finds that nowadays the majority of her customers are on trips where she goes along.
Albala in October hosted her first back-to-back trips on Royal Caribbean International's Oasis of the Seas, sailing out of Bayonne, N.J., with a group on each. "It's a way to build my base and my reputation -- and more than ever people want to travel with their travel agent," she said. In August 2022, she'll be back on the Oasis with 57 clients, her biggest group ever.
Cathcart, meanwhile, has turned hosted groups into an art form. He's been selling groups since 2004, when he booked 700 clients on a Carnival '80s-themed cruise. He made it his main niche when he started Never Travel Solo in 2010, promoting the idea of top-notch service delivered 24/7 to make even the most nervous first-timer feel safe.
For 2022, he already has sold $520,000 worth of hosted group bookings from 170 clients. Forty-three clients will tour Iceland in back-to-back groups; 45 will sail aboard the Paul Gauguin in Tahiti; 20 will go on safari to Africa; and 62, broken into in three groups, will share a private villa on Italy's Amalfi Coast.
"My groups like that I meet them at the airport and I'm with them until they leave for home," said Cathcart, whose trips start at about $2,000 -- though the private villa trip starts at $3,499.
Between Covid and his growing business, Cathcart has cut back from 14 groups a year to eight and started doing back-to-back-to-backs, where he can repeat the itinerary and minimize his travel costs.
"You have to be passionate about it," he said. "Every one of my clients knows groups are my passion; they see all the work I put into them, and that's why they travel with me."
Mona Carol Albala
Albala, meanwhile, simply "fell into traveling with clients," and post-Covid has found 60% to 70% of her business coming that way.
"It's not necessarily a deciding factor, but my clients like to have an advocate along. And with all the protocols, it's nice to have everyone doing the same step at the same time."
There were 13 customers on the first of her two groups on the Oasis in October and nine on the second. For the first time this year, she also will host a Christmas group, sailing on the Anthem of the Seas. "We never got people to cruise with us for Christmas before, but this year I put it out in September and in two days had three cabins booked," she said. "The deals are there, the desire is pent up, and my clients know how risk-averse I have been. The fact that I'm willing to travel makes them feel safe booking, too."
Cathcart, meanwhile, focuses on international trips, often for clients who have never been outside the U.S.
"It's more challenging during Covid, especially for international trips," he said. "The entry rules constantly change; when I booked Italy and Greece, there was one set of entry requirements and then literally a couple of weeks before the trip there were new ones. While many of my clients often have booked their own vacations in the past, now they like knowing that everything is taken care of and I am there if anything goes wrong."
His 2022 roster includes two new trips: the Paul Gauguin cruise to Tahiti, starting at $2,470, single occupancy, and the Africa safari. He also added the third group to the villa on the Amalfi Coast. Almost everything already is sold out.
For Africa, as for all his trips, he already has done a site inspection on his own, checking out the hotels and restaurants, excursions and tour guides. He will fly in a few days early to double-check everything.
Cathcart is already planning 2023, with trips to Korea, Ireland, Christmas markets, a Croatia yacht tour and a couple more as yet undetermined locations. "They are sold out, and I haven't even shared any details on the destination," he said.