Since March 2020, the world was dramatically changed by the global pandemic. The travel industry was virtually shut down overnight, with hotels, suppliers, and travel agencies scrambling to stay afloat while also processing refund after refund for clients who were unable to travel. Upon reopening, hotels have struggled with ever-changing government restrictions, balancing supply and demand, and meeting the expectation of the customer with so many variables that affect the overall customer experience.
In this blog, I’m going to outline what it’s like to travel during this global pandemic based on my personal experiences at seven hotels and resorts in the last three months. My clients have also provided feedback on dozens of hotels and resorts with varying experiences related to social-distancing, health and safety measures, and services provided (or not provided). The travel industry has gone through a radical shift in very little time, so everything from airlines to hotels to tour operators will continue to transform over the coming years to adapt to this new reality. I hope this feedback serves to guide you and your family as you plan future travel, and set your expectations correctly so that you can make the most of travel during this most unusual of times.
I’ve always felt the best travelers are those who know how to roll with the punches. This has never rung more true than when traveling during the Coronavirus pandemic. As a professional travel planner and owner of the luxury travel agency, Diego Travel, an independent affiliate of McCabe World Travel and part of the world’s leading Virtuoso travel network, I like to plan out every detail of my clients’ vacations. That way, from the moment they leave their homes until the moment they arrive back again, they have a pretty clear vision of what to expect from their laid-out itinerary. That doesn’t always mean that everything goes according to plan, so I am always available to help my clients make any necessary changes and adjustments to work through the unexpected.
In the past, rolling with the punches might have meant accepting a flight cancelation with grace and the challenges that come along with that, or changing a tour date due to rainy weather. All of these circumstances are generally out of everyone’s control, but having a travel advisor to rely on is the best way to arrive to a quick resolution. Today, those punches might feel a lot more frequent and a lot harder to deal with, which makes it especially important to work with a travel advisor, so that you are not left wasting your precious vacation time scrambling to work things out on your own. Having said that, my recommendation is that anyone traveling during this time should go into their trip with an open mind and positive attitude so that you can enjoy and make the most of your trip even when encountering the limitations of travel during these unstable times.
Every state and every country has different travel restrictions and guidelines to follow during the age of coronavirus. Now more than ever, I am advocating to use a travel professional to plan your travel. Don’t rely on your cousin’s feedback who visited last month. A big buzz word during this global pandemic has been fluid. The rules and regulations are fluid and change on the daily, and sometimes hourly, basis. So book your travel plans with someone who can coach you on not only what to expect, but also what testing you’ll need, when you’ll need it and where to get it.
Don’t want to get tested in order to travel? That’s fine, there are still plenty of options that your travel advisor can help you explore.
Now, choosing your destination is only half the battle. Each state has different policies for indoor dining, mask-wearing policies, allowed activities (like spa and gym), thereby affecting the functionality of hotels and resorts. You’ll want to be fully aware prior to making your plans of what will be available to you and what will not. Are you OK with not having limited activities for children and no kids club? If the spa is unavailable, are you okay with that? What about indoor dining? If the answer is no, then we had better look elsewhere.
Aside from the hotel policies themselves, another factor to consider are other guests and their general behavior. I have anecdotal feedback from multiple clients that hotel guests in Georgia and South Carolina behave differently than hotel guests in California. That’s not to say there is a right or wrong, but you have to decide what you feel comfortable with in order to fully enjoy your vacation time. One of the advantages of using a travel advisor is that we can go over the nuances in the travel experience from one destination to another or even hotels within the same destination. Another suggestion is to read my blog Ready to Travel, which guides you on 5 ways to travel safer.
Policies are changing daily, not just by the hotels themselves, but due to state and county Coronavirus regulations. In one such instance, housekeeping was provided at the time of booking, but by the time the guest checked in, the service was no longer being offered. It’s also possible that travel requirements change, and the last thing you want is to be taken by surprise when you arrive to the airport.
In July, we visited three beach resorts in Laguna Beach, California, all offering a pretty unique experience when it came to Covid-measures. Because California was not allowing indoor dining at that time, the hotel that was most affected by these restrictions was the Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel in Dana Point. All but one of their restaurants offered no outdoor seating, with 180blu being the only option for outdoor patio seating at high tables that were more appropriate for bar food than for gourmet dining. Their solution was to have all other food and beverage orders placed through private dining, and then delivered in take-out boxes to your choice of Raya, their indoor restaurant space with wide ocean views, or to your hotel room. For many, this could be cumbersome and uncomfortable after a multi-day stay at this resort. While I loved the location of this resort, its restrictions made the stay quite challenging in a number of ways.
By contrast, the Montage Laguna Beach had two outdoor dining restaurants, plus poolside dining, which made it feel like a hotel stay reminiscent of pre-Covid times. The property itself is a much more indoor/outdoor living feel than the Ritz Carlton, however even here dining options were somewhat limited.
At all of the properties we stayed at, including the Ritz Carlton Laguna Niguel, Montage Laguna, and the Monarch Beach Resort, Diego Travel clients receive daily complimentary breakfast for 2, a $100 hotel/spa credit, plus a priority room upgrade when available. These additional amenities are combinable with whatever promotion the resort offers, and often times we have access to exclusive promotions for Virtuoso partnerships. Not to mention booking with a Virtuoso agency guarantees our clients are given the VIP treatment that they deserve!
After the travel industry’s economic decimation, we have proven our resiliency in an industry that few people understand unless you’ve been in it. Millions of people were laid off or furloughed, and when travel began to return, hotels struggled with rehiring staff and maintaining margins that might lessen the costly blow of a property that had zero income for months on end.
I gently reminded my clients, especially those who traveled to a hotel within weeks of reopening, that it would be an imperfect stay, but certainly filled with people who were trying their hardest to steady a sinking ship. I expect that service may not be up to par to what luxury travelers had come to expect pre-Covid. I also expect that the issues we will see in the coming months as the world begins to open up will take time to correct themselves. The travel industry will take time to heal the deep wounds it has been dealt. So I would just ask all travelers to be patient and gracious during this unsteady recovery, and support small businesses when you can. If you know a travel advisor, use one. Tip generously to the waiter who’s dashing between four tables to keep all the customers happy and fed. Frequent boutique hotels or consider upgrading your room to a suite. Our industry is one based on customer service, and I have never experienced a more collaborative and supportive group of people who will bend over backward to make their customer happy.
The emergence of online travel agencies (OTA’s), such as Expedia, Booking and others, in the early 2000s was the most historically significant thing to happen to the travel industry. It transformed the way the consumer purchased travel, making it incredibly easy for everyone to directly book flights, hotels and tours. As these OTAs became more and more successful they merged and grew into the two juggernauts that now control most of the online travel industry under the guise of their many subsidiaries. Did you know that Expedia controls Travelocity, Hotels.com, Orbitz, Trivago, VRBO, etc while Booking controls Priceline, Kayak, Open Table, etc? The power that these OTAs now have has come at the expense of not only travel providers such as hotels and tour operators by dictating exorbitant commissions but also at the expense of travelers who have to pay more so that those same travel providers are able to afford paying the commissions demanded by the OTAs. By working under a different model, Virtuoso travel agents have cultivated strong and lasting relationships with hoteliers and service providers, that allow us to work with our travel partners to go above and beyond for our clients.
“We’re in the relationship business,” says Matthew Upchurch, the CEO of the Virtuoso network, the premiere consortium for travel agencies, suppliers and hotels. “It is the emotional capabilities that make us irreplaceable.” While an online booking may look like an easy way to book travel, it is not the best means to the end result. This has never been more true as it is today, when constant changes in policies demand a human connection. If you don’t believe me just ask anyone who has spent hours trying to deal with a change or refund from an OTA. My job as a Virtuoso advisor is not just to know my clients and understand what they value, but also to maintain a relationship with the other side – the hotels and suppliers. In this way, when I book my client with the sales manager at Montage Palmetto Bluff for example, Heather knows my clients value the view over proximity to the restaurants (or vice versa!), they get an automatic upgrade at time of booking, and the general manager greets them by name when they walk into the lobby.
Gone are the days when OTAs have the leg up on better value. The hotels shell out exorbitant commissions to these OTAs, so it’s a better business model for the hotel itself to work directly with travel advisors and travel agencies, particularly those who work with highly-valued clientele like Diego Travel clients. As a proud affiliate of McCabe World Travel, our preferred partnerships with brands such as Four Seasons, Belmond, Rosewood Hotels, Ritz Carlton, and many more luxury brands, offers access to exclusive rates and value-added amenities.
To summarize, these changes to travel are ever-changing and no one knows if they will be here to stay or when things will go away. How long will the word quarantine be a part of our everyday vocabulary, or how long will we all be required to wear masks in public? Nobody knows, though I wish I had a crystal ball. All I know is that those of us who work in travel are committed to getting the world back to it, even if the speed at which is comes back is more of a sputtering rather than a full-speed ahead. As you look ahead to your vacation days for the rest of 2020, or begin to plan the momentous trip you’re looking forward to for 2021 to make up for lost time, heed my advice on this one. If you’ve never experienced the professionalism of a well-planned vacation by a travel advisor, or haven’t used a travel agent since the 1980s, now is the time to venture into a relationship that you won’t regret. Research to find an advisor that understands your needs, takes time to get to know you, and has relationships with the global market. It may just be the best relationship you establish for 2021.