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East County Wednesday, May 27, 2020 11 months ago

A trip through the unknown for Lakewood Ranch-area travel agents

COVID-19 has been no day at the beach for local travel agents
by: Liz Ramos Staff Writer

While local travel agents have worked to survive during a pandemic in which people are being told to stay home, they realize the landscape could remain difficult for an extended period after Florida and the U.S. fully reopen.

Try selling a cruise without the buffet.

Royal Caribbean announced May 16 it would eliminate buffets but on May 23 backed off its statement, saying the buffet was just evolving, so people weren’t reaching in and having their hands all over the same things.

Other cruise lines and resort destinations are making changes as well to increase safety.

“It’s going to be a learning curve for everybody, for the travel providers as well as the passengers,” said Lakewood Ranch’s Fran Burday, who owns Travel by Fran. “I think people are going to need to have a lot of patience.”

Burday said all the cruise lines will be taking passengers’ temperatures before boarding as well as added higher sanitation practices.

She said travel agents will be dealing with different travel habits.

She expects that in the immediate future, people will choose domestic getaways because they fear being stuck in a foreign hospital if they were to get sick.

Harborage resident Cyndee Vanderford, who owns Send Me Cyndee Travel, plans to go on cruises July 6 and Oct. 22 with her husband, Scott, and their sixth grade son, Matthew. Other than seeking relief from the stress of working at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, she has another objective.

Vanderford wants to show her clients it’s safe to travel again.

“The moment we can go, we’re going,” she said. “I want to show [my clients] this is what it’s like … to give them the experience without them having to do it themselves. A lot of times, you just don’t know what it’s going to be like until someone has experienced it.”

Meanwhile, the agents are trying to find ways to generate income.

A travel agent’s revenue stream works differently than other industries in that agents don’t receive compensation until people have completed their travel. As a result, local agents haven’t been compensated in months with travel having been halted.

When the pandemic hit, most of Vanderford’s clients chose to postpone their trips until the fall or 2021, and others canceled trips.

As her businesses slowed down, she took a job at Starbucks to supplement her income.

Burday turned to the state’s unemployment system but has been struggling to receive any benefits for the past six weeks.

“It’s like my morning battle,” she said.

Although people do have obstacles to planning vacations, the agents predict travel will pick up as people grow tired of staying home. They say their clients want a breath of fresh air and that it’s just a matter of when and where.

“The landscape of travel is going to change, and I don’t know that it’ll ever be the same,” Vanderford said. “But it’s still going to be something that allows people to get out and explore.”

Local travel agents say they need to go above and beyond during the current climate to make sure their clients are safe and comfortable. That could mean coordinating a trip to Jamaica and making sure plenty of social distance will be available on the beach or even helping their clients get refunds if they don’t feel good about a trip they’ve booked.

Kim Taylor, owner of Main Street Travel, said she has seen a move toward small luxury tour companies and smaller upscale cruise lines as some of her clients hope to avoid the masses. She sees a trend forming where people go on more exotic vacations.

She also expects more extended families to travel together because they’ve reconnected while being forced to stay at home.

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