A typical trip to a travel agent used to go like this: A client comes into the agency for a consultation. The client and the travel agent would discuss the client’s “wish-list” — what do they really want out of their vacation and the types of activities they’d enjoy. The agent would find the best deal and options for the client, then would help the client purchase their trip.
“All happiness and nothing scary to even talk about” is how Michelle Jeffers, owner of Greer-based MJ’s Getaways, described consultations between her and her clients pre-pandemic. That one-on-one with a guest would build a rapport that a client couldn’t find on Travelocity or Booking.com.
But the pandemic has changed things, especially how we travel. That means the function of the travel agent and agency have also changed — maybe forever.
Jeffers had specialized in romantic travel, and while she still enjoys booking romantic trips, she’s expanded her focus to other types. Jeffers said she usually books between 50-70 trips a year with contract agents making additional bookings.
Since the pandemic has caused a pause in many international travel plans, MJ’s Getaways has seen a rise in domestic requests from clients.
“With COVID, domestic travel is obviously more targeted,” Jeffers said. “The majority of [bookings] we’ve done are even for the beaches of South Carolina, the beaches of North Carolina and Florida.”
Now, travel agencies have to be on top of their research and be more involved in planning, right up until the plane is supposed to take off due to ever-changing regulations and travel restrictions, said Jeffers.
“I tell people 72 hours prior travel is really the crunch time for us as a travel agent,” Jeffers explained. Those hours are the ones where things often change in regards to restrictions or cancellations.
But even if something does change, Jeffers — at no extra charge — is there to navigate it.
It’s something that Sam Stamps, owner of Cruise Corner in Mauldin, echoed regarding the state of the industry and why people still go to travel agents.
“We specialize primarily in cruises. And, unfortunately, all the cruises have been suspended since late March and will continue to be suspended through at least the end of October,” said Stamps. Last year, Stamps said his agency booked 2,500 guests for Carnival Cruises alone.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suspended cruise ships from embarking until Sept. 30.
The bright side, according to Stamps, is that many of his clients have decided to rebook thanks to generous incentives from cruise lines. “We’ve been extremely busy because of that,” he said.
Both Stamps and Jeffers said that a positive thing about having a travel agent is that their clients have someone to stay on companies for refunds. Instead of the customer calling and having to wait hours to try to figure out rebooking or how to get their money back, a travel agent does it for you.
The travel industry has been going through changes for many years as online booking and the ability for consumers to book travel directly have increased. Many saw travel agencies heading out the door as an industry, said Jeffers. The pandemic may have just changed that and has made travel agents more relevant than ever before.
“It’s definitely not going away now, because people are fearful,” she explained. “They need someone to be the champion and fight for them — like when they need their money back.”