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In the wake of the pandemic, storefront travel agencies are grappling with issues that are different from their home-based counterparts, including, among other things, having to pay rent or mortgages, along with staff payroll.
Through careful planning, many brick-and-mortar locations are managing to ride through the pandemic.
"At VIP Vacations, we were able to keep our entire sales team intact because as a team they collectively decided to reduce their weekly hours," said Jennifer Doncsecz, president of Bethlehem, Pa.-based VIP Vacations, LLC. "This allowed for everyone to stay employed, as well as keep our service levels high with our clients."
Prior to COVID, "we managed our business very well and tightly for many years, so we utilized the savings we had to ride through the significant decrease in business," she said, adding that the agency's leadership team also took significant pay decreases.
VIP Vacations also received Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) Loans, which Doncsecz said she hopes will be ultimately forgiven.
"The PPP is a great program, but because it only covered about two months of the nine impacted, the decision to reduce hours by the team at VIP is something that I will forever be proud of and grateful to them for," she said.
Kim Cook, founder and president of Love to Travel in Overland Park, Kan., said a PPP Loan enabled the agency to help pay its lease and payroll during the first two months of the pandemic.
"We have had our storefront for seven years and really learned the value of having a good working relationship with our landlord. He worked with us through the summer and fall to help reduce our space and lease payment," she said. "This was a lifeline for us during those months when we had very few clients traveling. We also took a hard look at expenses and made changes to reduce what we were spending. Unfortunately, we also had to reduce our staff when travel didn't rebound as quickly as we hoped."
On the marketing front, Love to Travel is maintaining its consistent presence on social media by posting virtual vacation content. "Our clients really seemed to enjoy following us and encouraged us to keep posting even if they couldn't travel," Cook said.
"At the end of June, we traveled to Mexico to give everyone a firsthand account of what it was like to travel during the pandemic. We posted videos and photos to emphasize all the protocols that were in place."
Cook and agency staff continued to travel throughout the fall, which "gave clients hope that they could also travel," she said. "We also revived a monthly newsletter that really generated a lot of interest from clients we had not heard from in a while."
Lydia Blanton, owner of Wishing On Travel in Rockwell, N.C., also reaped the benefits of a PPP Loan, which she said "helped to keep the lights on."
"My employees were able to draw unemployment while they needed it, and the slow time was somewhat of a gift," Blanton said. "It allowed me to bring in another part-time employee, dedicated to bookkeeping, which was something I desperately needed to get caught up on."
She was also able to take several fam trips last year, which in addition to garnering a bit of business, also provided clients with encouragement about being able to travel during a pandemic.
Additionally, Blanton shifted her marketing efforts to small-group travel and hosted a private event for a select group of clients with cocktails, hor d'oeuvres and safety measures in place.
"We had two virtual presentations by BDMs with Tauck and Windstar. While they would've been better in person than watching them from a TV screen, my clients were just so happy to get out and talk about travel, that we were able to get some bookings from that," she said.
"And finally, if my clients want to learn about destinations and resorts, but have concerns about meeting in person at my office, I've been able to present information, maps and pictures to them through Zoom calls, which gives them better visuals than I can describe by phone."
In the end, storefront agency owners are arguably more than ready to put the pandemic behind them.
"We want our clients and neighbors to know our storefront is open and we are ready to help plan vacations," Doncsecz said. "I know there are hurdles, but the love for travel is out there and we are optimistic that it will return!"
Claudette Covey is managing editor of AGENTatHOME
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