The phones already were ringing, travel advisors say, when the promise of a vaccine set off a new kind of WAVE season in December. And suddenly, 2022 is looking to be the year we all have been hoping for—where unspent travel budgets, great promotions from suppliers, and visions of Covid-free travel finally meet.
“Of course everyone has been hearing about the vaccine for months, but now there is a tangible date—and that has made people comfortable enough to make concrete plans to travel again,” says Laurel Brunvoll, owner of Unforgettable Trips in Gaithersburg, MD, who sold eight guests on a Silversea Baltic cruise within 45 minutes of emailing them last week. “A lot more people are ready to plan new trips. They feel it actually could happen.”
With bumped groups to Egypt and Oberammergau already on her schedule for 2022, Brunvoll mentioned the Baltic cruise to just a few of her best customers, to get a feel for how they would react to her selling so far in advance. It’s a great itinerary and a good value, she says, including St. Petersburg and five countries in just seven days, playing to what she believes is a renewed wanderlust among customers eager to see as much as possible. And while the price is higher than some of her past trips, she does not believe that will be a deterrent.
“I’m finding more people are interested in inclusions and being well taken care of,” she says. “Price is secondary to prioritizing the travel list, to including where they really want to go, what they really want to do.”
Selling the trip to her larger database of clients will not be a problem, she thinks; she has spent the past months building relationships with them through 30-minute “virtual trips” on Zoom, once a week in the beginning of the pandemic and now every two weeks. She sometimes dresses in costume, spends hours on research, emphasizes fun. She also built bonds through her weekly newsletter—including her own great adventure of 2020: being quarantined aboard SeaDream when the coronavirus hit seven fellow passengers in November.
“I never did Zoom before in my life, but Signature had some training and I interviewed some people in the public speaking field to get some basic tips,” she says. “It’s been a lot of work but looking at the pictures and spending time with my clients really cheered me up. It’s been a bonding experience my clients and I went through together. And now I have a lot of people ready to travel.”
Larger, Grander, Longer
Dillon Guyer, too, has been surprised by the steady beat of 2022 sales; he already has two weddings, half a dozen Haven suites, some Royal Lofts, and a group volunteer vacation to Puerto Rico.
“People are booking larger, grander, longer ideas, suites, grand experiences,” he says. And while most new bookings come to him through online posts and website deals, once they begin chatting they move on to more “extravagant ideas.”
Cruise Planners franchise owner Chrystal Anderson, whose upscale “Fabulous Travelers” group used to hold social events each month and travel abroad together four times a year, decided to go big for 2022. She dubbed it “The Year of Wonder,” offering trips to see the Wonders of the World. The first—with 50 rooms sold already—will stop at the Taj Mahal on the way to the Maldives in April; in May she will do her annual girls’ trip to Mexico to see Chichen Itza, staying at Secrets Akumal with a photo shoot at Casa Malca in Tulum; in October, Peru to see Macchu Picchu (60 people are interested).
“I talk to that group all day via Facebook and a WhatsApp chat,” she says. “I know this year was a bit taxing for people, so my initial deposit for India/Maldives was really minimal; I did a reduced registration of $50 per person and within a week I sold 40 rooms. It was huge. I laid out a payment plan; the first substantial payment was due in November and all but one paid.”
She suspected selling so far in advance would work with this group, which includes “a lot of Type A folks who like to know what they are doing and have their budget laid out. But this is triple my numbers from the last couple of years,” she notes. “Where they used to book maybe once a year, now they are booking twice. And they are definitely willing to spend more; the India trip is the most expensive I have ever presented. I want people to feel special and pampered and upscale. I figured this would be a good time to test it out and see how they would respond.”
She found that “a low deposit and a payment plan that eases them in is the way to go. I start with $100 or $200 due, maybe another $200 in three or four months, then $500, then $1,000. That’s working really well for everybody, especially those who are booking multiple trips with me.”
A Different Kind of Year
Bruce Mandel, at Longwood Travel outside of Boston, meanwhile, is typically an Apple Vacations kind of guy; he’s been platinum (400 passengers) with them for five straight years. “I should have 250 already booked and deposited for 2021—but I’m at 52,” he says. Looking for something else to sell right now, he turned to 2022—and sold six AMA cabins for April, a 28-day Asia on Oceania, and two couples on Oceania’s 10-night southern Med. Now he is blocking space on a few of the new Silverseas itineraries, which he will kick off with a virtual night in January.
“It’s all unusual; typically we don’t have time to go to the bathroom in December,” he said. “But now we have the opportunity to do this, and it’s a lot less expensive than having a function at the Knights of Columbus and a good way to try out new ideas.”
In Tampa, romance travel specialist Monica Iannacone of Weekend Navigators by Dream Vacations, has been selling mostly the Caribbean for 2022, finding “people want to get something on the calendar to look forward to.” But she is seeing that move up, as well. One couple who was supposed to go to Italy in 2021, for example, now is doing a milestone anniversary group with family and friends, and adding Barcelona as a post-trip.
“We don’t normally see groups that are just going for a fun vacation planning this far in advance. But people are saying they are so depressed, and I say, ‘well, let’s get some things on the calendar to give you some excitement, even if it’s not til 2022,” she says. “They can take advantage of great promotions and it’s almost risk-free. The most important thing is that people have hope for traveling again.”
Iannacone’s marketing is through social media and virtual calls with all her wedding couples; she is getting a lot of referrals from those who traveled this year, whom she helped tackle travel authorizations and Covid tests. She also credits her UTube channel posts, which focused on how to travel safely during Covid. At one point, she traveled to Jamaica herself and “shared my experiences getting the Covid test, getting the travel authorizations, going through customs.”
Meanwhile, Cruise Planners franchisee Charles Russell is heading off to Mexico with his last group for 2020, 38 rooms, all from Texas, all still committed. “I decided last minute to escort this group because it grew much larger than what the bride and groom had expected, and I want to be there to make sure everything runs smoothly,” he said.
He’s still hearing “we don’t know about 2021” from many customers—and replying with, “well let’s see if there’s something to jump on for 2022 and get a couple of things on the books,” he says. He has 12 bookings for his group to Australia/New Zealand; in November he created a Nile River group on AMA and already has four customers booked—and expects to fill between 25% and 50%, using a price advantage that runs through the end of December. His contract allows him to switch to a partial charter if he reaches 50%.
He’s also putting together a fundraising trip in partnership with a not-for-profit for 2022; “I’m totally venturing into unchartered waters and on purpose,” he says. “If I learned anything the past few months, it’s that as long as you stay in your comfort zone you’re not going to be able to change.”
And he’s “definitely taking my business to a much more personalized level than I ever have,” sending handwritten letters with personalized messages to his top 50 clients, and next week invited 20 to a movie theater he rented “to come watch A Christmas Story with me. I’m not pushing travel, I just say if you are interested, contact me.”
In Portland, OR, meanwhile, “2022 is a no-brainer; as soon as the vaccine came out we started getting calls,” says Beth Schulberg. In addition to moving her 2021 river-cruise groups (“it’s not a question of whether Portland is ready; I don’t think Europe is going to let us in”), she is playing defense for 2022, sticking with partners who are easy to deal with, like AMA and Uniworld. “As soon as we are able to go to Europe I’m putting together a group and we are out of here,” she says. “I’m not promoting 2022 yet, it’s just organically coming in.”
Moving Up the Scale
Jamie Jones, owner of Whirlaway Travel in West Chester PA, took it a step farther than ever before—and went for her first partial-ship charter on AMA for 2022. “We did a webinar with our AMA rep and ended up selling out our space within two weeks,” she said.
As luck would have it, the trip had begun as a fundraiser for the local Rotary Club, for whom the price she posted included a $300 donation. But the club got nervous as the virus spread and pulled out, leaving the extra $300 per cabin in Jones’s hands. “Our intent was philanthropic, but we already sold the cabins and now all of that is coming to our bottom line,” she says.
As for the decision to wait until 2022, “it’s far enough off that people can make a commitment but not make payments, something to look forward to, but not stress over.”
The trip includes The Essence of Burgundy and Provence, with a pre-trip in Geneva and a post in Barcelona. Jones hasn’t sold those yet; “I will use that in 2021 to keep in touch with our clients, to keep them engaged, because it’s such a long lead time.”
For marketing, she relies on Signature and regular phone calls to a minimum of 10 clients per week.
At East End Journeys in Lynbrook, NY, John Sposato still is hesitant to sell 2021—so he shifts the conversation. “My first thought was Oceania; I’m working on the Baltic and Scandinavia. I tell customers they can move that 2021 budget into 2022 and get a better deal, so their dream vacation is easily in their grasp. Instead of the Caribbean, why not spend New Years in Paris? Go someplace you normally wouldn’t be able to afford and take something good from this horrendous situation.”
His sales are up 20% over where he normally would be in the cycle at this point, “that’s a lot for me; I never thought I’d be booking this many so far in advance,” he says. “Some may cancel, but it seems to be snowballing. A client called this morning to ask if he can share my email with his friends.”
With sales down about 40% in 2021, “I tell them part of the joy of traveling is to have fun. So, instead of worrying, let’s just reschedule for 2022, so you feel comfortable going and I feel safe sending you.”
Dream Vacations franchisee Karen Quinn-Panzer has been amazed at the response since she started promoting 2022 in August. She has 25 people on an Ama Lower Danube and 26 on NCL’s Extraordinary Journeys to the Norwegian fjords, Iceland, and Ireland. For the first, she put together a Taste of AMA virtual cruise night that focused on this one for the last 20 minutes, offering a special enhanced rate, and sold six on the spot. Then she asked if they had friends who might want to join.
The NCL cruise originated in an “Around the World in 80 days” Facebook posting she put together highlighting “places I had been and fun facts, keeping the dream alive and inspiring people—and at the end I talked about the Norwegian fjords. And since I believe you have to have a great picture, I posted one provided by (Dream Vacations parent) World Travel Holdings, and said I’ve always wanted to go there and I’m planning to go in September 2022 on a cruise that also includes Ireland and Iceland! And all these people said OMG I want to go too.
“I have never gotten such a huge response to a Facebook post. I sold five cabins right away from that post. Then one thing led to another, and then I started mentioning it on the phone and sending an email. It’s a completely refundable deposit and payment is not until June 2022, so people feel comfortable—and they just want to get some hope on the calendar.”
To top it all off, it has brought in a whole new customer base, she said. “My groups in Europe tend to be river cruises and custom trips; though I sell contemporary lines to Bermuda, Caribbean, and Alaska. This trip was $5,000 for a couple for a balcony for 12 nights. Using Norwegian for Europe for the first time allowed me to bring in a clientele that couldn’t afford a more expensive trip, new customers who haven’t traveled with us yet, personal friends where we never presented the right trip at the right price.”
Cheryl’s 40-year career in journalism is bookended by roles in the travel industry, including Executive Editor of Business Travel News in the 1990s, and recently, Editor in Chief of Travel Market Report and admin of Cheryl Rosen’s Group for Travel Professionals, a news and support group on Facebook.
As an independent contractor since retiring from the 9-to-5 to travel more, she has written regular articles about the life and business of travel agents for Luxury Travel Advisor, Travel Agent and Insider Travel Report. She also writes and edits for professional publications in the financial services, business and technology sectors.