“For the first two weeks of January, I felt like a genius,” says Lynn Clark.
Heading into Wave season in the middle of a Milwaukee winter, she had upped the hours of the four retail agents at her Travel Leaders franchise from one day a week to three, on condition they call two clients a day—not to sell, just to “remind our best customers we’re still here, and kind of get the pulse of the market.” The clients loved it, and it was generating sales.
Then came January 12. The CDC announced that all inbound travelers must test for Covid before departure, and quarantine in place if they test positive. “We thought ‘OMG,’ it’s all going to go again!”
Clark wasted no time. She immediately went into ClientBase and pulled up the 114 bookings for customers headed for Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica for January through April. Then she started emailing.
“We are being very upfront with our customers,” she says. “We already had all our clients sign a vacation agreement that outlines the Covid requirements upon deposit, but many of these bookings had already deposited and made final payment. So now we reached out to them saying, ‘this is the new requirement and here’s what the hotel is offering—but I want to be very clear that if you are quarantined it is in a quarantine wing, it’s not a continuation of your vacation. And we have a lot of charter flights, some of which only run a few days a week. So if you test positive in Cabo, where there is only one flight a week, you may end up having to figure out another way home—and it’s likely you will have to pay for it.’ We have been doing that via email so it’s in writing, and usually it sparks a phone call so that is documented in ClientBase.”
In the first few days, 34% of the bookings canceled. About 10% switched to AMResorts, the first to offer free testing; “they definitely got some share shift from us,” Clark says. (Within days, most Mexican properties and many international chains also began offering free testing and free stays to quarantined travelers.) Most cancellations have been on Mexico trips, and this time around “more wanted refunds, versus rebooking, than was true a year ago, when people took more travel credits.”
Clark’s next step was “digging in with insurance.” With FunJet and its preferred Tripmate insurance as her primary partners, “we’ve really been trying to understand, if you test positive and you can’t come back, does that qualify as a medical issue or trip interruption, so insurance would cover any costs, your ticket home, hospital, etc.? We called Tripmate directly and they said it would fall under quarantine coverage; you would need a letter from a licensed professional as proof. But they also encourage you to get as much documentation as possible.”
At this point, Clark is hopeful that the second PPP loan will help ease the pain of the lost bookings. Looking back, she is glad she spent the money she got in the first round cautiously.
“2021 has been another roller coaster, that’s for sure,” she says. “Those programs have definitely helped. But we were a company of 21 before the pandemic, and now we are 9. We had four locations, and now we have two. It’s what we had to do to survive.”
Hotels Rush to the Rescue
From the hotel perspective, too, the CDC announcement was just the latest hard knock to cap off 12 hard months.
“I don’t see it becoming easier any time soon and, as hoteliers, we have to be ready,” says Frank Maduro, Marketing VP for the AIC Group, parent of Hard Rock, Nobu and Unico properties in Mexico and the Dominican Republican. “As long as clients are safe and feel comfortable, most of us are willing to adapt.”
At AIC properties, guests who book three days or longer get a full comprehensive medical protection program that includes a test before departure. Guests can make an appointment at check-in for the test they will need to return home, administered onsite by a professional clinician from a nearby hospital. “It takes five seconds and you get results back within 30 minutes, in print and online,” Maduro says. There is no charge for the antigen test required for reentry into the United States; the price varies for the PCR test required by Canada and other countries.
Should a guest test positive, the hotel offers a free quarantine for 14 days in a regular hotel room on the property, under a doctor’s supervision. Patients must quarantine until they get the required clearance from the doctor to travel. The rest of the party can continue a normal stay. If they wish to remain, AIC offers “a deeply discounted room rate” for an additional room for the 14 days of quarantine. Anyone who requires hospitalization will be taken to Hospiten, a world-class medical facility nearby.
Over the long year since Covid hit, no guest has yet reported a case at any AIC property, Maduro says. “We have had employees who tested positive, but we haven’t heard of any guests. Though I assume, now that we are testing, we will see a few cases here and there.”
Still, he is confident that “there’s been no mass infection at any of our hotels because we are being extremely cautious. We instituted our Safe and Sound protocols immediately when we reopened. We have a standard operating procedure for all our hotels as far as testing and medical protocols, and we contract with the same hospitals in both destinations. It is quite an expensive undertaking—but we must provide it to give our guests the comfort to travel.”
Indeed, while occupancy “hasn’t been anywhere near the levels of 2019,” it’s been better than expected. There has been a decline in guests from the Northeast. But the Midwest, West, and South have been strong, and Cabos “has been seeing big demand from California.”
Given the unfortunate state of travel these days, AIC properties “have plenty of inventory” to accommodate patients at this point.
At Haven Riviera Cancun Hotels, meanwhile, director Fernando Sànchez credits the complimentary health insurance with the fact that he has seen “surprisingly, no cancellations” at all since the CDC announcement. “Thankfully, it’s given guests peace of mind,” he says.
Here, too, guests who test positive are quarantined in their rooms with anything they need being delivered via the Privacy Box in the wall. Insurance covers any hospital stay necessary, and their flight home if they need to rebook it.
Been There, Done That
Inside Europe owner Sandra Weinacht of Los Angeles happened to be in Cozumel when the new regulations were issued. Scheduled to return on January 25, the day before the new regulations took effect, she couldn’t resist extending her trip to check things out first-hand.
She reached out to the concierge team at her hotel, the Intercontinental Presidente Cozumel, who offered to book her an appointment at a private hospital nearby. The PCR test required by Canada costs 2,500 Mexican pesos or $130 per person, and results are available within 24 to 48 hours. The antigen test that suffices for the US costs 999 pesos or $50. Guests can get the test administered at the hotel for an additional 350 pesos.
The concierge arranged for her to be tested first thing in the morning, so she did not have to wait in line. At Costamed hospital, in the city center of San Miguel, they took her temperature, “disinfected me with a generous amount of disinfectant,” and double-checked her passport. She paid the fee and was tested by a nurse. This part of the hospital, “which seemed to cater to scuba divers, was very clean, very modern and very quiet,” she says. The staff spoke English, and the entire process took about 20 minutes. She got her results (negative) about two hours later.
The next day, she headed to CZM airport, “with the printed test PDF documents in hand, [and] the result uploaded on the Verify app, but unable to locate the CDC form that seemed to be another requirement.” American Airlines staff looked over her paperwork and had her (and the other 16 travelers on her flight) complete a Passenger Attestation form.
Landing in Charlotte, Weinacht was disappointed that no one checked her paperwork, and that some fellow travelers removed their masks in the baggage claim area. “We went to little family-owned coffee shops on Cozumel that had more Covid procedures in place than our US home airport,” she says. “Here is the link to the Passenger Attestation, which I recommend printing out ahead of time. Take a picture of it before they collect it, as the Verifly app asked for it as well.”
Travel Advisors Field the Calls
For all travel advisors, the new requirements have brought a new round of inquiries and cancellations. Dream Vacations franchisee Susan Pretkus-Combs, for example, has had only two customers cancel trips to Mexico—but many calling for information and support.
Based in Trabuco Canyon, CA, her agency, Combs, Catalina & Associates: Dream Vacations, has associates and customers all over the country. “The biggest worry is not about getting tested, it’s about the quality of the tests they would get and what happens if they test positive, especially if it’s a false positive. The other issue is having to wear a mask all the time. And, since these latest regulations have come out, some clients have just felt less secure about traveling altogether.”
Her response has been to give clients “the most specific and up-to-date information available and encourage them to continue checking with the CDC, the country and resort they are visiting, and me.”
She hasn’t found it necessary to have clients sign a waiver. But she did move a charter river cruise scheduled for June to next year, “so they feel more comfortable and we don’t come up against any issues.” While some members of that group expressed concern over the new regulations, none canceled, “but they all were relieved when I changed the date,” she says. “They feel more comfortable about traveling after they get the vaccine, and even more so if vaccines are required for everyone.”
While she has been booking more domestic in the short term, most of her business is international; “bookings are up for next fall and into subsequent years—and the phones are still ringing,” she says. Indeed, sales have been up “ever since people started getting vaccinated. I think people are looking at the regulations as being either temporary or surmountable.”
While Mexican resorts have stepped up, those in other countries have not followed—and travel advisors are feeling the sting. At Berman Travel in Ventnor, NJ, for example, Susan Berman’s incentive group of about 30, headed to Secrets Papagayo Costa Rica at the end of January, canceled following the CDC mandate.
Costa Rica is not set up for Rapid Antigen Covid testing yet. It’s only equipped for the more expensive PCR test, and the resort would not cover the cost of $200 to $300 per person, she says. In addition, Costa Rica requires medical insurance—and, because this is an incentive trip, where the business owner is paying for everyone, the cost of the tests plus the insurance for 30 people was prohibitive.
The group, for whom Berman books a trip every year, was “ready to go. They knew all the issues and they knew they had to purchase insurance, and they were fine with that,” she says. The only hold-up at first was that the group was from Atlanta, and Costa Rica had banned travelers from Georgia; “we waited for final payment until they changed that, and then went ahead and booked the air and everything was set. When the CDC rule came out, we waited again, thinking AMResorts would take care of it—but the tough part about AM is that it is a management company, so each resort is run by its owner.”
About a week before departure, the customer canceled, and is now planning to reschedule in March. Delta Airlines and AMResorts “have been good to deal with—everyone is doing the best they can under the circumstances, trying to work with the customers, drop any change and cancel fees, and save the booking.” One positive result of all the drama, she says, “is how all the suppliers are being a little more customer- and travel-advisor-friendly.”
And in St. Lucia, Jennifer Walker, owner of Jennifer Walker Travel, found that an appointment already had been scheduled for her test when she checked into the Sandals Grande St. Lucian resort. The test was performed onsite by a registered nurse, and in two days she a printed copy of the results.
“Since returning to the United States I am honoring the self-quarantine requests by the CDC and plan to re-test tomorrow,” she says. “I should get a frequent flyer discount at my local Covid testing site!”
Out of the 13 resorts she has visited since July, “the resort experience at Sandals Grande St. Lucian felt the most normal, since all of the restaurants and activities were open. Water-based excursions were still going on, but land-based excursions are on hold. The important thing is that the destination of St. Lucia is well worth the hassle of paperwork it takes to get there.”
Among tour operators, meanwhile, Globus this week announced that when it resumes its voyages (currently canceled through April 30), it will require one of the three following proofs:
- Proof of COVID-19 vaccination at least 14 days prior to travel
- Proof of a negative COVID-19 test result within 72 hours of travel
- Proof of recovery from a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis within three months of travel.
“The main thing that drives any decision we make is our guests’ safety, health, and well-being,” says channel marketing manager Cory McGillivray.” Globus is optimistic that it will “potentially operate some domestic trips for US travelers” under the Monograms and Globus brands—and, when it does, it will cover any testing that is required, but as of now “we are not exploring free accommodations.”
Adding Some Extra “Adventure” to Adventure Travel
Perhaps the biggest challenge of all facing travel advisors is the adventure travel space, where the “rooms” tend to be in forests rather than resorts. Tara Short, owner of Las Vegas-based Green Edventures, spent a week rearranging the itinerary of a 10-woman trip scheduled to end with an overnight in San Jose, Costa Rica on February 8, before a morning flight home. Unfortunately, that now would not be enough time to get tested and have the results back.
One woman in the group canceled immediately, but the other nine were in. In the end, Short actually convinced SANSA Airline to add a flight to fly them back to San Jose a day earlier. Then she spent a night trying to correct a clerical error by the hospital, which got the birthdates of four clients wrong on the required paperwork.
“They were in the middle of the jungle on raised platforms. I had to arrange for them to get tested; I had to contact all the hotels, all the guides, all the transfer companies; I had my fingers in every piece of this itinerary from 3,000 miles away,” she says. “I had to have a local contact, whose sister worked in the hospital, go in and fix the paperwork for us, and convince the airline to get us back early. I can’t imagine an individual traveler without a travel advisor working all that out.”
Coming up, she still has a group headed to Mexico in three weeks, going to see the great whales at Magdalena Bay and then camping on an island in the Sea of Cortez. Then she has one going to Anthony’s Key Resort in Honduras, which does not provide free insurance or accommodations like the Mexican resorts do.
“Sometimes I wonder, why don’t I just cancel and wait this out? But people like me, who do really complicated trips in off-the-beaten-path places, are trying to give our customers peace of mind while also trying to stay up to date on all the changing regulations—and that’s fun, that’s a thrilling adventure these days,” Short says. “I have clients saying, ‘let’s just try, let’s do this’—and they are still getting really great tours and really great experiences.
“Adventure travel always requires a level of flexibility and a sense of adventure, and having intrepid travelers is allowing me to continue my momentum and my own story of travel. It’s not just about Throwback Thursdays. If you are locked down and have nothing to share, customers lose sight of you. So, even if I’m at 20%, people are watching me and thinking, ‘Oh man, next year I just have to do that!’”
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.