Prior to the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic, the travel industry accounted for one in 10 jobs worldwide, and more than 50% in some tourism-centric destinations. With cruise ships mothballed and airline schedules still at minimal levels, Zane Kerby, the president and CEO of the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA), says a large portion of his membership may go out of business.
Recently he wrote a letter to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) taking the agency to task for its handling of the crisis. We talked to Kerby about the current-state-of-the-industry, what actions he wants government agencies to take, and what’s the future of your next vacation.
Are things improving?
Yes, but not fast enough. Right now, the traveling public craves assurances from public health officials. Other messages – marketing promises, celebrity endorsements, political decrees, even information from friends and family, pale in comparison. Unfortunately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) lack of action and clear communications during this critical time is slowing travel’s recovery. In the absence of clearly-communicated direction, many watch and wait.
There have been some opinion pieces asserting the industry was a co-conspirator in spreading the virus and that the world is better off with fewer people traveling, lower carbon emissions. How would you respond to those critics of the travel business?
Demonizing travel is misplaced and counterproductive. The virus didn’t start on a plane, cruise ship or at a hotel. It is spread involuntarily via tiny droplets we inhale and exhale.
Since we all have an active interest in breathing, our public health officials need to outline the ways that we can return to normal life, including travel, while modifying specific behavior that spreads the virus – close contact breathing.
Looking at travel agencies, how has the pandemic impacted the business?
Ninety-eight percent of U.S. travel agencies are small businesses, and over two-thirds of them are owned-operated by women. There are nearly 15,000 retail locations in the U.S., employing over 108,000 people, plus an additional 40,000 self-employed travel advisors.
The virus slammed business, and while 2021 booking patterns suggest enormous pent up demand, the speed of the initial decline has meant layoffs and agency closures. In March, 77% of ASTA members surveyed predicted they will be out of business in six months or less if current conditions held.
What advice are you giving your members?
We work with our membership to support any and all measures to renew consumer confidence in the U.S. economy and in the travel industry, such as masking in high density areas – airports, cruise ports, and airplanes – widespread, consistent coronavirus testing and work toward an eventual vaccine. Doing so will help instill consumer confidence and get America’s economy, and its intrepid travelers, moving again.
Just this week, ASTA was pleased to support (Arizona Republican) Senator (Martha) McSally’s American Tax Rebate and Incentive Program Act (American TRIP Act), which would provide tax credits to Americans who spend money on lodging, entertainment, and other expenses related to travel in the United States and its territories.
As the crisis unfolded, travel advisors were first responders in the sense that when consumers couldn’t get through to the airlines, advisors often helped them get home. Bill Gates once said something about how online travel agencies would put travel advisors out of business. Do you think this crisis established the value and importance of the services advisors provide?
Now, more than ever, the value of booking with a travel advisor is clear. When borders closed, flights cancelled, and ships re-routed, travelers unfamiliar with the complicated travel ecosystem were on their own.
Those who were wise enough to book through a travel advisor left the worry and re-booking to their trusted professional. Most didn’t lose a dime or a wink of sleep. We collected hundreds of these accounts that we posted online.
If people are unsure about wanting to travel for the summer, is now a good time to start thinking about the winter holidays and 2021?
It’s always a good time to dream about travel. ASTA members report that they’re booking, and re-accommodating, clients for 2021 because pricing is attractive, and booking policies are more flexible than ever.
This is the time to find a travel advisor you can trust – the ASTA logo is a must – and start building that relationship. Regardless of how long this crisis lasts, Americans are unlikely to give up the life- and relationship-enriching experiences that travel provides.
You recently wrote a letter to the CDC calling its communications “uneven at best.” You continued, “This uncertainty is, unquestionably, inhibiting the pace of the revival of the travel industry, a goal we know you share.” What exactly do you want the CDC to do?
I’m in closer contact with more people at the grocery store each week than I typically am when I get on a plane, take a cab or stay at a hotel. The trick isn’t to lock everything down every time there is a virus, but to learn from this experience and adapt our behaviors to minimize the risk.
The CDC should set clear new requirements that one, provide travel industry suppliers with specific guidelines regarding masking; two, provide businesses with specific guidance to minimize face-to-face contact, and lastly, provide businesses with standards relating to new safety/hygiene methods for cleaning regimens that apply in the air, on land or at sea.
These specific actions will provide consumers with the confidence they need in order to feel that it is safe to leave home again.
What are suppliers doing to restore consumer confidence? Is there anything else they could or should be doing?
Travel industry suppliers – airlines, hoteliers, cruise lines, tour operators, car rental companies, insurance providers and more – are left to figure out what measures and assurances they need to provide in order to reassure a concerned traveling public.
Recently, Delta Air Lines revealed a new electrostatic spraying measure that will take place after every turn, every flight, every day. Every ASTA Proud Partner supplier member have espoused new cleanliness standards and practices. All are great steps and should be recognized and applauded.
However, we still need the CDC to set and communicate standards across the entire travel spectrum – airlines, hotels, ground transportation, car rental, cruise lines and more, to restore consumer confidence in travel.