In a typical week, Karen Ensign spends about eight or nine hours on the phone booking travel arrangements. These days she’s on the phone all day cancelling them.
“It’s hit a fever pitch over the last week or two,” said Mrs. Ensign.
Mrs. Ensign is a 35-year travel agency veteran who has worked for both small boutique agencies and larger organizations. Currently she works for Montecito Village Travel, and is part of approximately 400 private contractors working from her home office under the Your Travel Center umbrella.
After news about coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, hit the world stage in January, the travel industry has been beset by cancellations and rescheduled trips.
Many of the corporate clients Mrs. Ensign serves have cancelled their plans due to conferences shutting down around the country.
Her long list of canceled destinations runs the gamut. Conferences have been called off in New York City, Madison, Memphis, San Antonio, Boston, Las Vegas, Atlanta, Nashville, Philadelphia, Orlando, Chicago, Denver, Sacramento, and even Tel Aviv.
The same is true for cruise lines. Around the world, ships that at first changed ports of disembarkation or standard routes have now begun cancelling trips and halting operations. Major companies like Princess, Norwegian, and Holland America have issued notices that they will voluntarily pause all voyages across the globe.
Travel restrictions in affected regions have also severely impacted leisure travel, such as the heightened safety protocols imposed by Israel. Mrs. Ensign had one client family that was set to leave March 15 to visit, but ultimately had to cancel due to Israel’s quarantine policy.
“Because the Israeli government imposed a 14-day quarantine on all foreign arrivals, they had to cancel their trip because their trip itself was 14 days. They wouldn’t have been out of quarantine by the time they had to turn around and come home,” said Mrs. Ensign.
On Wednesday, President Trump restricted inbound travel from Europe for a 30-day period, only allowing U.S. citizens, permanent residents or immediate family members of U.S. citizens.
traveling in from the United Kingdom to enter the country.
The ban is only for 30 days, but Europe’s struggle with the virus, especially in Italy where there are currently 17,660 cases according to the John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, seems to be taking a toll on travel plans late into the summer.
“I had different sets of clients that were set to go to Italy in August for some bike trips, and the bike companies cancelled. It’s a bit surprising because it’s so far in advance, but Italy I think is just taking a very strong position on travel,” said Mrs. Ensign.
The coronavirus has had a major ripple effect throughout the industry, Mrs. Ensign told the News-Press.
“If people aren’t getting on a plane, they’re not staying in hotels and they’re not going to restaurants and hailing cabs and doing sightseeing. We feel for ourselves but we feel more for the suppliers and the vendors who are really really getting hit hard,” said Mrs. Ensign.
While travel plans for thousands have gone awry, there is a silver lining for those who booked through a travel agency: you have someone in your corner.
Tanya Bryant is the manager for the Travel Store in downtown’s Arlington Plaza, an employee-owned travel company with locations across California.
When she heard Mr. Trump announce the travel ban for Europe on Wednesday, she immediately got in touch with a client family on vacation in Switzerland.
“They were not scheduled to come back for another week, and in the middle of the night in Switzerland for him I texted and told him what happened. I said ‘we need to get you home by Friday or there’s a possibility you might get quarantined or stopped from coming back in,’” said Ms. Bryant.
Immediately her client responded saying “ok, get us home”. It took six hours for Ms. Bryant to work her magic.
“At one o’clock in the morning it was done and they were accommodated and they are now on their way home,” said Ms. Bryant. “There is the difference between booking online with Expedia or even the airline directly. I was on hold for three hours, but I was on hold. My client wasn’t.”
As Ms. Bryant has been making cancellations and rescheduling trips for later in the year most clients have been apologetic. She just tells them “this is what we’re here for.”
“We’re here to jump in and help when something goes wrong. That’s why you come to professionals. When something goes wrong, we know what to do,” said Ms. Bryant.
While cruise lines, airlines, hotels and more have lost a massive amount of revenue in a short period of time, they have been working with agencies to accommodate clients who are faced with a cancelled cruise or travel restrictions.
Airlines have taken steps like waiving fees for ticket changes, while many cruise lines have given refunds or credits for future trips after they suspended operations.
“I think everyone in the industry, even given that it’s impacted revenue, is being extremely generous,” said Ms. Bryant.
Hoteliers, cruise lines, tour operators in affected areas have understood that people need to cancel and know that the business will come back later, Ms. Bryant explained.
“You know the nicer they are the more likely travel agents will be to give them business later and clients will be to want to rebook their product. The harder they are on everyone wanting to cancel, the less likely people would want to rebook,” said Ms. Bryant.
Although she has not seen any policies that are too stringent, Ms. Bryant said that might be due to working with major industry players. Airbnb and smaller hotels may have strict cancellation policies, depending on the proprietor. In times of crises they’re not always as flexible, while travel agencies are able to leverage their vast network and relationships when the industry is in a difficult season.
While the Santa Barbara community may be dissuaded from traveling abroad, Mrs. Ensign stressed that there’s plenty to see and do right here in the USA.
Instead of a trip to France, why not a vacation to Yellowstone, a spa in New Mexico, or a dude ranch in Montana?
“There are still wonderful places in the United States where people can go. Maybe think about something closer to home. Do a road trip and visit some of these amazing sites that we have in our own backyard,” said Mrs. Ensign.
If you do decide to look for an adventure in country, agencies like Travel Store and Montecito Village Travel are often able to utilize membership in consortiums, like Signature Travel Network and Virtuoso, to give clients an extra level of luxury.
“We have really wonderful amenities that we can offer at very, very nice hotels. So if somebody wants to do a trip closer to home, ask us about that. Even the Ojai Valley Inn and Spa is a Virtuoso property and we can give them some really nice amenities there,” said Mrs. Ensign.
The situation may seem bleak, but it won’t last forever. For now, travel agents like Ms. Bryant and Mrs. Ensign will continue to rearrange and look forward to a busy fall.
“Our first priority of course is helping our clients and reassuring them. I think that we are hopeful that as quickly as this virus has spread it will die down as quickly. We understand that the new cases in China have slowed, so I think right now the morale is not down necessarily. We’re hopeful that this will not be a protracted event,” said Mrs. Ensign.
“Keep calm and carry on and wash your hands.”