The Travel Advisor—an Unsung Hero of the Pandemic—and the Key to Safe Travels in 2021 and Beyond

Photo credit: © Marco Bottigelli - Getty Images
Photo credit: © Marco Bottigelli - Getty Images

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Brownell Travel Vice President Beth Flowers was checking up on the company's partners and guides in Africa during January 2020 and started noticing many people wearing masks across larger cities, like Johannesburg, by the time she flew back to the U.S. She and other travel advisors began having clients stranded at cruise ports or in other countries during this time, and the luxury travel advisors shifted their role from planning fabulous vacations to being healthcare and insurance advisors, offering crisis management, and doing whatever they could to bring their clients home safe and sound in those first few months of 2020.

"Once everyone was back home, we were in total lockdown, and so we transitioned again to working with our partners as client advocates," Flowers says. "The 'client's advocate' was the phrase that encapsulated the first few months of the year for us as we pivoted and postponed trips, dealt with refunds, and worked through technicalities in terms and conditions for them. If you hired an advisor, you didn't have to deal with any of that."

Though the role of the transactional travel agent is nearly all but defunct, the luxury travel advisor is more in-demand than ever before. Flowers says her team is not only buzzing with new bookings into 2022, which is anticipated to sell out faster than ever before, but also with first-time clients who don't want to make the mistake of traveling during this era without the peace of mind a seasoned travel advisor brings, whether they learned that first-hand or not.

Why You Should Consider Working with a Travel Agent

"We've been working in this climate for 16 months now and know exactly who and where is performing and who isn't," says Flowers. "Fine wine is the closest association I can make here. When it comes to travel right now, it's like someone picking up a 100-page book by a sommelier when you really need someone to cut through the clutter and select the best vintage for your meal. That's what we are constantly doing: listening to clients to understand the expectations they have for the experience they want while helping them find a possible match, all the while helping them manage their expectations during these times."

Flowers says the greatest benefit to working with a travel advisor is the relationship they have with partners, properties, and hoteliers across the globe. And not only that, they often have relationships with locals who offer unique experiences that you won't be able to find online.

Erik Ornitz, the general manager for new ventures at TripAdvisor agrees, which is why his team has recently launched Reco, a digital travel advisory platform that connects travelers with a highly curated selection of "trip designers" based on their expertise of specific destinations. Ornitz says working with a travel advisor offers access to experiences that you simply can't get anywhere else. One of Reco's trip designers, for example, specializes in wine travel across Portugal and Spain, and those who book with him will arrive at these vineyards as his friend and are offered intimate, special experiences that they would have never been able to have if they hadn't worked with a specialist in this area.

"TripAdvisor is the most-visited travel site in the world, and with that, we get a lot of insights and data, as well as get to talk to the travelers themselves," says Ornitz. While TripAdvisor helped introduce the capability of DIY travel, his team has noticed over the last few years that people are really wanting to work with someone for specific vacations, like honeymoons or two-week explorations through Asia or Europe, which his team calls "highly considered trips."

"We really started to research the concierge travel space, and it made a lot of sense with many of the other consumer trends going on out there like personal trainers, subscription services, and home management concierge, like Hello Alfred."

From there, Ornitz's team spent countless hours curating a pool of 300 "trip designers" who they considered to be deep specialists in specific destinations. These advisors list their top three or four specialities on a Reco profile, particularly if they lived there at some point or have visited dozens of times. Travelers looking for a travel advisor through Reco, answer a few important questions about where they want to go, the type of traveler they are, among other things, and will then be paired with several options to select the perfect trip designer for a specific vacation.

"People highly value their vacations and travel in general—research shows that," says Orntiz. "Then you add a layer of willingness to venture further out, make the trip experiential, and that's when it gets exciting and really matters."

While spending hours researching various locations can help you make good decisions on where to go and what to do, working with a travel advisor, especially in the luxury space, is all about making the absolute best decision for a one-of-a-kind vacation you'll never forget. Flowers and Ornitz both say people are craving trips with their loved ones, who they may not have seen (or seen much of) in more than a year, and they want their family vacations to be extra-special.

"Folks are looking for ways to get the most from their vacations, and with so many options and information out there, it can be overwhelming to choose, especially for far-off destinations," says Ornitz. "Our trip designers offer their personal expertise of having actually been there and really knowing these different hotels to help you decide the best for you. There may be a dozen luxury resorts lined up on the same beach, but the right trip designer knows how much you love golf and that Rosewood's golf program is the best in the area, so that will be the best fit."

Flowers says another crucial benefit of working with a travel agent—especially for travel into 2022—is that through their own partners on the ground, they know which areas, hotels, and other offerings are and aren't performing well.

"What we initially saw from many partners around the world when Covid-19 hit was this emphasis on sanitation and cleanliness, but that's not why people were wanting to travel," she says. "The desire for travel was to be remote, to have privacy with loved ones, to escape into beauty and nature, and that is only going to be accomplished when you're in places that deliver all of those experiences to meet these desires." Flowers cites Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, Oetker Collection, and Rosewood Hotels & Resorts as some of the major luxury resort chains that have gone above and beyond to deliver not only a safe experience while traveling, but are still focused on creating these ultra-high-end, luxurious stays for people seeking to unwind and rejuvenate. Flowers also says that places with excellent villa or residence properties as part of their repertoire have really thrived during this time, winning people back to travel again, be it domestic or international.

The Future of Travel Advisory is Bright

Flowers has full confidence that travel advisors will remain in high demand, as more people are desperate than ever to travel yet are fearful of the unknown in terms of the pandemic and Covid-19 restrictions. She's also betting on the power of word-of-mouth advertising to keep luxury travel firms as busy as ever into 2022 and beyond.

"When a person is at a cocktail party with friends and hears how someone had this fabulous experience with a vacation during Covid, that will be a real feather in people's caps," Flowers says. "There's such a pent-up demand for top-level properties, and it's important to have someone who understands which ones are truly the best and know the things that can't be Googled. The world is becoming more and more experiential, and people want to spend more time together with loved ones. The advisor community is just going to continue to grow. We actually need more of us!"

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