As vaccinations ramp up, pandemic-hit travel agencies could become vital

After a tough year for travel agencies, experts say there's a silver lining

HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Travel agents. After the pandemic crippled an already slimmed-down industry, it’s easy to assume they’ll soon be a thing of the past.

But don’t count them out just yet.

In a post-pandemic era, travel agencies may not provide the same services as in years’ past. But industry experts contend they’ll be more instrumental than ever as people start flying again.

As vaccinations continue, infections drop and travel slowly picks up, experts say travel companies will act as bridges for travelers by helping them navigate complex COVID-19 protocols — in Hawaii and other destinations — while also being instrumental in boosting tourism in the islands.

“There’s some opportunity here,” said Jerry Agrusa, professor at the School of Travel Industry Management at the University of Hawaii at Manoa Shidler College of Business.

“If tour companies can let people know that they’re the expert on protocols and how to get through the system, because still, there’s people coming through that won’t have the vaccine.”

COVID halts travel ... and travel agents

Over the past 10 to 15 years, tour companies have already undergone vast changes in their industry due to the advent of new technologies, Agrusa said, from people buying their own plane tickets online to booking travel through sites like Expedia.

“They had to adjust to be niches, whether it was cruise lines, niches in certain types of travel,” Agrusa said, adding that “those that did that have been doing pretty well. There’s an expert on cruise lines, we have experts that just go to Vegas or Alaska, safaris in Africa.”

Wendy Goodenow has spent the last 25 years booking flights, creating itineraries and coordinating tours all over the world for her clients as part of her business, HNL Travel Associates. Travel is at the heart of everything she does.

But almost a year ago, as travel ground to a halt everywhere due to the pandemic, so did her business. In March, Goodenow said instead of booking flights, she was scrambling to cancel or reschedule them.

“We’re here to work for our clients, and it was really hard, those first four months, and then all of a sudden, what do we do?” she said.

One by one, countries started shutting down their borders or imposing strict travel restrictions, states issued stay-at-home orders, and people in general became fearful of flying. That affected travel companies everywhere, Agrusa said.

“Everything got slammed, so they were working without getting any revenue, a lot of those travel agencies, and that was very unfortunate,” Agrusa said. “You had so many folks had to cancel, whether it was canceled for not being able to get a COVID test, canceled because the airlines stopped flying, many, many issues.”

As summer arrived with no end in sight for the pandemic and travel still virtually nonexistent, Goodenow was forced to take out a PPP loan for her business and ended up furloughing her four staff members.

“It’s been tough,” Goodenow said.

“I mean, basically with no income because we don’t get paid until people travel, it’s been tough. And it’s been tough for every agency. There are some agencies I think have closed. It’s all the relationship you have with your clients that decides whether or not you stick it out.”

A longtime travel agency in Hawaii describes a year with no travel

And her company wasn’t the only one. The pandemic also hurt tour operators responsible for bringing international visitors to the islands after Hawaii essentially shut down travel by requiring a 14-day quarantine at the onset of the pandemic.

The restrictions forced JTB — one of Hawaii’s largest Japanese travel companies — to cancel all of its tours, dealing a major blow to Hawaii’s economy. Before the pandemic, about 1.5 million Japanese visitors traveled to Hawaii annually, many of whom booked their trips through tour operators like JTB.

JTB had to put local staff on indefinite furlough, and 11 were converted to permanent layoffs. Lea Lea tour operator HIS Hawaii, another company serving the Japanese market, announced it would convert 30 furloughs to permanent job cuts in March.

Agrusa said in addition to the furloughs and layoffs in tour companies, the pandemic also led to a trickle-down effect for the rest of the industry.

“We went from 35,000 tourists a day to approximately 4 or 5,000 today,” Agrusa said. “So it isn’t just that JTB had to lay people off, it’s the company that JTB used to transport the luggage, the one that transports the people, the side trips, everybody had to be laid off.”

COVID protocols are ‘moving targets’

One of the biggest issues these travel companies face today: COVID-19 restrictions are always changing — every day.

Hawaii is no exception. Last October, after several delays, Hawaii finally reopened to mainland visitors through the Safe Travels program, allowing passengers to forgo a 14-day quarantine if they test negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours of flying. That has since been changed to 10 days.

The state later expanded the program to Japan in November, then South Korea in February.

But industry experts said the slew of restrictions added an extra layer of complexity and confusion for travelers. Among the many questions: Which testing companies do I use? Where do I get a COVID-19 test? What do I do when the test results don’t come back in time? What do I do if I test positive upon arrival?

And now, as vaccinations are underway, more questions have emerged on what kind of vaccination requirements will be needed to travel.

This is why, Argusa said, travel agencies are going to be vital in providing the expertise on COVID-19 protocols that are “moving targets.”

“It’s much more difficult to travel now than it was before,” Agrusa said. “There’s more protocols. Go to the expert. Show them that, give them the guidelines that these are the steps that they have to take and with those steps, we’ll help you have a wonderful vacation here in Hawaii.”

He added that by helping streamline the process of travel — especially to Hawaii, with all the many restrictions in place — these travel companies could play a key role in boosting tourism in the islands, especially since many are itching to travel again after being cooped up for months.

“They’ve been saying it themselves, you know, ‘one day we’re gonna go to Hawaii,’ and now that they have the vaccine, they might say, ‘you know what? Let’s not wait any longer.’ I think there’s gonna be a pent up demand,” Agrusa said.

Finding a silver lining after a tough year

April Cheng operates her own travel agency — TravelChic World — out of her highrise condo in Honolulu. She runs the business single-handedly, personalizing and customizing trips to destinations all around the world for over 100 clients, about 70% from Hawaii and 30% from all over the mainland.

She, too, was hit hard the first few months of the pandemic — having to take out PPP loans and filing for the state’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. And since she can’t plan trips to Europe or Asia — her most popular countries — since borders remain close, business isn’t what it used to be.

But there’s a silver lining: since the state imposed the Safe Travels program, she’s seen an uptick in her bookings to Hawaii.

“I know a lot of people want to come here,” Cheng said. “I’ve definitely seen an increase that’s probably most of my business right now are Hawaii trips.”

Cheng adds that if vaccinations pick up and the state implements a plan that allows visitors to enter with proof of vaccination to forgo any testing or quarantine requirements, that would be a huge help to tourism and the economy.

“Definitely, this year I see a huge pickup for Hawaii, and I think that if we continue to make it easier for tourism to come back to Hawaii and not to restrict it by putting a second test in place, but doing it safely, I think, I’m hoping 2021 will be a pickup in the tourism economy,” Cheng said.

Hawaii-based travel agency aims to be COVID expert for travelers

In addition to easing travel restrictions, Cheng said opening up larger events, like weddings, would lead to a further boost in the economy. As a travel company, she also helped plan trips focused on weddings and honeymoons. All of those, of course, were canceled due to the pandemic.

“I think if we are able to open up weddings again safely by getting people tested before the wedding date, and wedding planners just monitoring that and helping to put it together, I think that would be great because that’s a billion-dollar industry,” she said.

Travel agencies have already undergone changes in the past decade with the rise of technology, experts say, but the pandemic has forced businesses like Cheng’s to move online, doing meetings and webinars over Zoom. Cheng predicts this as the wave of the future — and believes that more agencies will be closing their office spaces and moving into the digital realm.

For now, Cheng continues to book Hawaii trips but has also been busy planning national park, Disney World and Africa tours. And as she looks forward to resuming Europe and Asia trips, she believes she will be an essential tool for travel both during the pandemic and beyond.

“I think definitely once a majority of the population is vaccinated, travel agencies can really make a profit in business because we will be the experts in regards to travel — which country has what restriction, if you have to be vaccinated, if you don’t have to be vaccinated, any sort of quarantining policies — so I think … I’m hoping that once the vaccinations are rolled out that we’re a really profitable business,” Cheng said.

Copyright 2021 Hawaii News Now. All rights reserved.