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Survivors

So I am a little late filing this column. I admit it; yesterday and last night I was a bit wrapped up in all the various tributes and remembrances of September 11, 2001.  As I was watching them, I could not help but notice how this nation is truly built on surviving adversity; as is the travel industry. And certainly, September 11, 2001 was a catalyzing moment for the industry, and set the stage for many challenges to come.

By 2001, we had endured the first Gulf War, past recessions, the Y2K hype, and of course the elimination of commissions from the largest portion of our business. By 2001, the agencies that were still around, were definitely the ones that were planning on surviving. Although, I am not sure many of us had any concept of just how much surviving would be needed. As was evidenced by all the television coverage yesterday, sometimes it is a good idea to look at where we have been in order to regain our focus and keep us on track towards where we are going. So, let’s take a look back and regain our travel focus as the nation regains its security focus.

September 11, 2001. 9-11 was a polarizing day for the travel industry. Never in the history of modern aviation have planes been ordered out of the sky. Clients needed to get to their destinations or back to their loved ones and no one really knew how to affect those movements. We made arrangements for our clients to rent cars, take a bus or train, bunker down in seedy motels, charter a private plane into Canada, and even carpooled home in a U-Haul because there were no more rental cars in Atlanta. The industry truly showed their service in the weeks that followed 9-11 and there was not a client that did not appreciate paying the fee for the service. Looking back, I wonder how the MLM companies like YTB would have fared in those days. My guess is not too well.

War. After 9-11, a nationwide mentality of bunkering prevailed as we engaged in a war in Afghanistan and ultimately Iraq. My business dropped 82% when I compared the third quarter of 2001 with 2002. Suppliers were desperate for travelers and the sales and rates showed it. I saw a cruise for $25 per person per day. This time saw the birth of “homeport cruising” and you saw ships sailing from Charleston, Norfolk, Philadelphia, and other markets where people were encouraged to “not fly”. In hindsight, I am sure many suppliers are regretting those low prices as it took many years to recover from the expectation they set. But with today’s market, I am not sure they learned anything because they are back.

Norovirus. When you put 3000 people in a tight space, you are bound to get sickness. While the Norovirus has been around for year in the hotel industry, it particularly hit the cruise industry hard. The main difference is a cruise ship is very small compared to a large hotel. You get sick on a ship with 100 other people and it is an outbreak. If you come home from a hotel and get sick, well you just have a bug. But for a while, people were opposed to cruising despite the lines’ best efforts at assuring safety. This put the agent with the client who was afraid of flying and scared of cruising—the options began to dwindle.

SARS. Thankfully, the TSA began to get their act together (and I am having difficulty believing I even wrote those words) and people began to feel more confident in their safety while flying. People began to move and fly again in 2003. Until SARS appeared on the scene. While largely a media event and contained to the far east (certain Chinese Provinces and Hong Kong), all of a sudden, international travel, particularly to the Europe and Asia came to a halt. This was followed by concern about where the physical planes had been. Could “my” plane have been in Hong Kong and picked up the SARS virus? And once again, the travel agent community was placed in the position of having to react and manage a global crisis.

Other impacts. SARS began to decline in late 2003, but the cumulative impact of all of these major threats to our industry was being felt. Once again, there was nothing major on the horizon that we could foresee. From 2003 on, we could concentrate on rebuilding the confidence in the American traveler and our own businesses. Sure there would be smaller challenges to come. There was a bombing in Spain, the bombings in India, the occasional “sick ship”, labor strikes, and a bankruptcy here and there. I don’t mean to diminish the seriousness of any of those events, but in this industry, it has become something that we have become somewhat accustomed. We know how to deal when a supplier goes belly up or when it looks like the threats of the union are serious this time around. But all in all, I would say we were recovering by the end of 2007.

2008. And then 2008 came. With the collapse of the economy, we were ultimately helpless. No amount of marketing, persuasion, or convincing can make someone travel when they simply do not have the money. When you throw in that unemployment is increasing daily, and they are afraid for their livelihood, the bunker mentality sets in. Is anyone else so tired of hearing about “staycations”? Very few people were not affected by the recession and the collapse of the economy. My business focuses on single parents. By definition, they are a one income household. By demographics, that income is not over the top. My clients were all scared. They may have a job and they may have some money, but the uncertainty certainly crippled them. We have seen suppliers and agencies go out of business in the last two years—some with notice, and others with little more than a note left on the door. And we are not out of the woods yet. Sure there are signs pointing toward a recovery and economically it may come very soon. But we are in a people business and we need confidence to return before we see the effects of any recovery. We need people to know their jobs are relatively secure, their 401Ks have bottomed out and are starting to fill up again, and to know that it is OK to spend.

So why rehash old news?  Just like 9-11, we need to keep in mind that we can never be complacent. We never saw 9-11 coming. There may be another one around the corner that we don’t see. As an industry, we did not see 9-11, the wars, Norovirus, SARS or the economy. We need to keep on our toes and do what we do so well—adapt. I remember when I first got into this business, my financial advisor questioned me. I knew there were challenges to the industry, but all in all it is a fun industry. How many years have we heard that agents are becoming extinct? I have heard it at least since the mid-90s. And guess what, we are still here!

I was in New York not too long ago and was walking around the financial district and Ground Zero. I smiled when I saw all the activity. For sure the landscape had changed considerably; the towers no longer dominated the skyline. But life was moving on. Life was progressing despite all the tragedy that had befallen the area. When the area is rebuilt, it will look vastly different than it did on September 10, 2001. Likely it will be a stronger building with a more powerful presence in the world. Analogy complete.

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