Travel agency owner John Rees is calm by nature, so as news of the spreading coronavirus has worsened, rather than panic, he has focused on developing a plan.
Rees is owner of J5Travel, a high-end leisure agency in Mooresville, North Carolina, that he operates with his wife and three employees. Like other agencies, J5Travel has felt the impact of the coronavirus news.
After a record January, when sales were up 30% to 40% over 2019, February was flat. New inquiries have dropped, and Rees is prepared for March sales to dip.
“Numbers have been down, but it’s not a complete collapse. It’s not even a partial collapse,” he said. “I would say most clients are on hold as to whether they’re going to go on their summer trips.”
The agency, which last year sold a record $2.3 million in travel, has even landed some great new bookings in recent weeks, and so far, only one client has canceled, an Italy spring break trip, and they rebooked to the Caribbean.
Rees’s attitude about the virus is this: “I can’t control it. All I can do is work hard to make sure our clients are comfortable with whatever decisions they’re making.”
Part A: Take care of clients
Rees and his wife and business partner Helen Rees have formulated a two-part plan, with one part focused on client care and the other on the business. Part A, the client portion, looks like this.
1. Be proactive, forthright and thorough.
It’s not unusual for travel advisors to reach out to clients at times like these, but J5Travel is being especially thorough, particularly with clients who have summer Europe trips planned. The agency is sending every such client an email with a link to their individual itinerary, now updated to spell out the latest cancellation policies and cut-off dates for every vendor on their trip.
The emails include the caveat that supplier policies are likely to change, and the recommendation that clients hold off on changing their plans.
“We think the most sensible approach is to wait several more weeks before making a final decision,” Rees wrote in one such email. “It may be that you decide to still enjoy London and Paris but need an alternative to Italy. We would be able to make these changes for you, but again, we think it's best to just wait and see until at least the end of March.”
When an itinerary includes tours with a 60-day cancellation policy, Rees alerts the client, saying, “In theory, we could cancel those for you ahead of that deadline and attempt to rebook them in April should everything look clearer. Let us know if you'd like to discuss.”
2. Look to the future.
Building trust with clients is fundamental to the agency’s coronavirus strategy. “We want to be in this for the long term. I think trust is the most important thing and giving them resources, being completely honest with them on everything, helps that.”
Emailing clients with updates before the client contacts the agency goes a long way to building that trust, he said.
But it is a heavily labor-intensive endeavor. For the agency’s many FIT clients, the emails with cancellation policy updates actually take more time than planning and booking a trip. “The tricky thing is these policies are changing. We have to update clients as that happens.”
3. Give clients the tools they need.
Giving clients the resources to make informed decisions is also pivotal to the agency’s approach. To that end, its client emails contain links to websites for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Department of State Travel Advisories and The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program.
Similarly, when clients call asking about the safety of travel, J5Travel urges them to look at the facts and points them to the CDC and State Department sites. “Look at the warning levels. If it’s 1 or 2, our advice is it’s perfectly safe to travel. If it gets to Level 3 or 4, we say, ‘Read that and make your decision,’” Rees said.
The agency devoted its Feb. 27 client e-newsletter to that same message, rather than filling it with its usual inspirational content. The newsletter went out with the subject line, “Should I Stay Or Should I Go Now?” (giving due credit to The Clash tune). And its Top 5 of the Week feature spotlighted “the best resources out there in internet land and the real world to help you calmly navigate the decision of whether to cancel or postpone your travel plans.”
4. Redirect traveler interest.
In coming weeks, the client newsletter will focus on domestic destinations; the Mar. 5 newsletter highlighted “five super-luxury domestic trips you can take this summer.” That’s a change, since the agency usually promotes international travel, and especially Asia.
Rees expects that future e-newsletters will spotlight the Caribbean, and possibly Australia and New Zealand. But he acknowledged that planning ahead is all but impossible. “Almost anything I say could change depending on how this progresses.”
Part B: Take business precautions
The second part of the agency’s strategy is about safeguarding the business. This is a work in progress. “We’re going to adapt Part B depending on how the next six weeks go,” Rees said. Still, he’s got a few plans in place.
1. Cut costs.
“As a business, we’ve immediately cut down on peripheral expenses.” This includes putting on hold plans to attend one of the major travel events on their yearly calendar.
If business drops significantly, they’ll have to weigh other cost-cutting measures, including reducing staff hours.
2. Take advantage of freed-up time.
Rees’s entrepreneurial nature allows him to see the positives in a potential business downturn. “If business is down dramatically, it will be a time to work on our business, rather than in our business,” he said, echoing advice often given to entrepreneurs who tend to get bogged down in running their businesses.
In other words, a slowdown will allow Rees and his wife to do things that typically stay on the back burner, like reviewing and improving processes and procedures, and watching the webinars that have been piling up.
3. Know your limits.
Finally, Rees said, he knows there is only so much that is within his control, so the best path is to focus on what he can do to strengthen the business, stay calm, and trust in the durability of the business. “I know it could get bad, but long-term, we have a good business.”