Over the last ten months, just about everyone I follow on social media seems to have earned a degree in virology. At least that’s the way their social media activity comes across.
They’re using this “degree” to not only make decisions for themselves, but to help make decisions for others. I have fallen into this trap myself at times, thinking that reading studies and staying on top of the latest developments makes me some kind of expert.
Of course, I’m not.
I hope I haven’t led anyone astray with the facts that I have interpreted and the knowledge that I have repeated – especially since so much is on the line for the travel industry, travelers and the general public.
Well, to get level set, I decided to speak to someone in the travel industry who also happens to be a registered nurse, and part of a large family of healthcare professionals.
Nadia Henry has been offering travel services through her company, Travel with Sparkle, since 2007. She specializes in international group travel, individual travel and family travel, with a focus on the Caribbean and cruises.
What I wanted to understand from Nadia was how she is digesting the daily bombardment of coronavirus news to make decisions about selling travel. I wanted to know how she is deciding to travel herself. With her education and personal background, I figure, she’s a better barometer of smart travel decision-making than most people I know.
A little bit about Nadia first. Not only is she a registered nurse (19 years), so is her mom. Her mother’s sister is an infectious disease doctor, and her brother is an emergency room physician at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.
At First, an Overabundance of Caution
When the pandemic first became news, Henry was “very worried and nervous” about how the virus was going to spread and how much of an impact it would have on her family and the travel industry. When cases multiplied across the world in the spring, and quarantines and border restrictions clamped down on travel, Henry essentially shut down actively marketing and booking travel.
“This was a tough decision that left me out of work from March until July. During that time, I tried to remain hopeful and positive,” she told me. “There was a ton of uncertainty with my business, a lot of questions from my clients about traveling, and some financial burdens I had to face. I had to reschedule group trips, cancels trips, and work for free.”
Like with most advisors, the financial hardship on Henry was huge. But she wasn’t comfortable booking anyone anywhere, not having a firm grasp herself on how safe her clients would be.
“As a professional and expert, I spend a lot of time and energy on researching, planning, booking and creating partnerships with hotels, resorts, and other businesses to give my clients the best experiences and memories while traveling. Before I send my clients anywhere, I always travel to the places first to share an honest and relatable reportage of experiences and recommendations,” she said.
By June, Henry was receiving a rising number of inquiries from her clients about traveling again. “They were questioning the protocols the resorts had in place for visitors. So, I decided that I would travel myself and report back.”
Henry began to plan her first FAM trip –four nights at the Atelier Resort in Playa Mujeres, with an additional night at the Unico Riviera Maya, traveling with a colleague. But first she needed to feel comfortable about her own personal safety, and the safety of the industry’s workers.
Trusting in Science and the Travel Industry
“My brother (a physician AND a travel advisor) was a huge resource and support system for me. He laid down the facts from a doctor’s standpoint, and I used my knowledge as a professional nurse to make the final decision to travel.”
Henry took the universal precautions she was taught in nursing school, traveling with a face shield, goggles, mask, gloves, Clorox wipes, and hand sanitizer. During her travel journey, she was on heightened alert. She washed her hands frequently or used hand sanitizer, and wiped down her immediate area with Clorox wipes.
But “once I got to Mexico and saw how the resorts were implementing the protocols, I felt relaxed. I felt safer in Mexico than traveling from New York.”
Henry said that if not for her family’s healthcare background and her own pre-travel career as a nurse, “I would be more leery about traveling during Covid. Understanding science and medicine relieved the fear of me traveling during the pandemic.”
Henry said she “felt a sense of relief knowing what to tell my clients who wanted to travel during the pandemic to Mexico. After the trip, I was okay sending my clients to Mexico – as long as they knew they had to abide by the protocols the resorts have in place. For example, masks have to be worn in all public places and social distancing is a must.”
Henry has been on a total of eight trips since the pandemic started, including Mexico three more times, Dubai, the Dominican Republic and an RV group trip to Niagara Falls, New York.
“I was one of the first Americans to travel to Dubai during the pandemic. It was no surprise the UAE had COVID precautions under control. I was amazed at all the protocols they had in place. Dubai is the only place that I’ve seen with ‘human washing machines.’ Upon entering hotels, restaurants and other various public places you have to go through a sanitizing machine.”
The Phone is Ringing Again
By going out into the world, Henry’s phone started ringing again. “My business started to pick up after my clients followed me on social media and saw live videos that I posted regarding the protocols the airlines, hotels, etc. had in place. When I traveled to Dubai, I informed my clients of my travels and what it was like. As soon as I returned from Dubai, I booked two group trips and a FIT booking for a client to go the next month after I returned.
“My 4th quarter picked up tremendously in sales. I am not promoting or marketing current travel during the pandemic. I am only booking clients who come to me and would like to travel now, and only marketing for future travel dates of mid-2021 and beyond.”
Still, Henry is being very practical about the future. “I’ve changed my business model. I charge a consultation fee and now charge a cancellation fee. I also reconstructed my terms and agreements for my company to include a force majeure clause. I’ve added a COVID waiver that clients must sign, if they decide to travel during the pandemic. The waiver outlines the risks while traveling during the pandemic. Travel with Sparkle will not be held accountable if clients get sick while in destination.”
But she is also optimistic about the future, and encourages other advisors to consider how they will be making more fact-based decisions about opening travel again. The first decision, Henry says, is growing comfortable traveling yourself.
“Honestly, I think the only way for your business to pick up during this time is to actively go and scout out countries that are open for travel. Advisors need to travel themselves. Clients get excited when they see you travel. You are the travel advisor. We are the news reporters for our clients to book vacations.”
Richard D’Ambrosio is a master storyteller who, for more than 30 years, has helped leading brands like American Express, Virgin Atlantic Airways, the Family Travel Association (FTA), and Thomas Cook Travel tell their stories to their customers, the media, and employees. A professional business coach and content marketing consultant with his own firm, Travel Business Mastermind, Richard most recently has worked with The Travel Institute, Flight Centre USA and a variety of host agencies and tour companies, helping entrepreneurs refine their brands and sharpen their sales and marketing skills. Richard writes regularly about retail travel agencies, social media & marketing, and business management.