Travel agents experience renaissance as demand for services surges

The pandemic has proven a tough time for those in the travel industry, but given the huge surge in demand since Kiwis were able to start traveling again – travel agents are experiencing a renaissance.

The first House of Travel store in the country when it opened in 1987, the Timaru branch is ramping back up as the travel industry finds its feet in the pandemic-era.

Around the world, airports, airlines and travel companies are struggling to re-staff after slashing jobs at the start of the pandemic, with the more than 10,000 vacancies Heathrow Airport alone contributing to nightmare travel tales of hours in queues and days waiting for luggage.

Timaru House of Travel owner Darryl Sandri said demand had surged since travel restrictions were lifted making it easier for Kiwis to explore the world, and he was now advertising for staff to help to meet that.

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He said there had been some silver linings to the pandemic, and one of those had been a “renewed appreciation for the expertise and support of a travel agent”.

Sandri said he knew of people, who once preferred to book their travel online themselves, now opting for the reassurance of a travel agent.

He said another advantage to those using travel agents was access to certain packages and rates unavailable to the public, as airline bosses warn cheap flights are a thing of the past.

But, he said he did not expect things to return to how they were before the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Everything is constantly changing, which can make travel to some places a bit trickier,” he said.

Sandri said the past few years had been a difficult time for those in the travel industry, who had been “significantly impacted by Covid”. But, he described his colleagues as “a resilient bunch”, who he said were “grateful for support like the Government’s consumer travel reimbursement scheme”.

He is now among the countless business owners across New Zealand trying to attract staff to rebuild his team.

“We’d be keen to hear from those with experience as a travel consultant and anyone well-traveled who might be keen to retrain and start a career in an exciting and dynamic industry.

“Travel is still an exciting and fun job.”

Timaru travel broker Selese Rowe, of Travel Managers Group Ltd, said she had also noticed more customers keen to put their travel plans into the hands of an agent – with the new added challenges and risks of international travel added to the mix.

Rowe said she had been wavering between being “flat out” or “really flat out” since Kiwis started traveling again.

She said while most of the restrictions relating to closed borders and Covid-19 testing have now been lifted, issues of capacity and staff shortages are throwing up new issues, especially when it comes to delays being processed and getting luggage at airports.

House of Travel brochures.

AIMAN AMERUL MUNER / Stuff

House of Travel brochures.

One piece of advice she said she is giving clients is to print copies of itineraries, bookings, vaccine passes and other documents.

“That’s one of the things causing the hold-ups, people going through their phones trying to find five different documents.”

She said another shift has been insurance companies altering their policies to include cover for Covid-19 cancellations, either pre-departure or for those needing medical assistance or to isolate while overseas.

Rowe said the lack of flights overall could be the biggest difficulty, if people do need to change flights after testing positive while away.

“Unfortunately, there are hardly any flights home, so it’s really hard to change. You might get cover for it, but you might have to wait a month, ”she said.

“I’ve been pretty lucky, I haven’t had any clients test positive when they have been away, though I’ve had a number of them test positive within a few days of returning.”

Rowe said the increase in airline schedule changes and cancellations may be pushing people towards using travel agents.

She estimated half her customers were new.

“There are less agents in town, but more work, as well as a lot more behind the scenes that we’ve got to manage.”

But Rowe said it was a “great position to be in after two years of nothing.”

When the pandemic hit, Rowe was forced to diversify her work, making and selling hundreds of face masks at the height of the pandemic, launching her own website selling scented candles and other items, and working a day a week in fashion retail to make ends meet.

She said after a strong start, orders for her craft, candle and decor online business had slowed down in recent months, which she thought may be partly due to price increases in a number of other areas starting to bite.

Selese Rowe, who started her own craft, candle and decor business during the pandemic, is again rushed off her feet with travel work.  (File photo)

Valentina Bellomo / Stuff

Selese Rowe, who started her own craft, candle and decor business during the pandemic, is again rushed off her feet with travel work. (File photo)

“Things like that [crafts and decor] take a backseat because fuel’s expensive, groceries are expensive … but people still want to travel, and they’re quite happy to pay whatever it is. “

And they may have to pay a premium, with reduced capacity pushing up prices.

“When people say where are the bargains, it’s a bit like during the pandemic when you were trying to find toilet paper – the airlines really don’t need to put anything on sale at the moment.

“There might be the odd special that will come through, and it might be different in a year’s time, but it’s nothing like it was.”

Rowe, who was about to take a Pacific Island holiday, said she would be answering emails while away, thought she would attempt to take a break.

“But I’m very cautious, I don’t want to turn away too much business at the moment because, yes, it might be busy now, but who knows what’s going to be like in another three or four months?”

She said instability aside, people are showing appreciation for the work she is doing.

“That makes it nice, because they know it’s not an easy time, and that there are different hurdles to jump over with certain bookings.

“I think there was one weekend where I’d been given three bottles of wine and other stuff within a couple of days, and it is just so nice that people appreciate what you do,” she said.

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