I sure am looking forward to the return of cruising. I love the sea, a good meal, and a great mojito—topped off by some interesting entertainment and conversation. But, four weeks after being fully vaccinated and starting to travel again, I’m really just pining for some good old-fashioned customer service.
I’ve been following the typical post-vaccine travel pattern: Two brief land excursions with family, then one domestic airline flight, on Delta, my favorite airline, with the empty middle seats. True, I haven’t yet gone to a luxury hotel or one of the all-inclusives in Mexico and the Caribbean, where I hear staff has been jumping through hoops to make guests feel welcome. But here in the US, I’m feeling concerned that our customers, eager as they are to see a piece of land that’s not in their hometown, will come home disappointed by the experience. Travel is just not fun right now. And I’m really hoping the cruise lines deliver on their promise to turn that around.
For me, Hershey Park over Easter vacation teetered on disaster. Hordes of desperate parents and bored kids outpaced the capabilities of a new and young staff on Opening Day. Food was a huge issue; Hershey simply was unable to feed all of its own guests in the Hershey Lodge or in the park. There were no dinner reservations to be had the night we arrived, and no room service. Desperate to feed the kids, we came up with the idea of ordering food to-go from the hotel restaurant and eating in our rooms (an option that neither the restaurants nor the concierge had thought to offer). The water park at Hershey Lodge, though, was well managed, every guest signed up for 90 minutes each day to keep the crowd thinned.
In the park, it took an hour to get a slice from the pizza stand, as two young kids behind the counter struggled with the equipment and the crowds and their own rising emotions—with no supervisor or support in sight. And a hungry crowd is never a happy crowd. We had to bribe our seven-year-old grandson to go back for the second day by promising we wouldn’t stay long, and would just eat ice cream and donuts for lunch rather than wait on those endless food lines again.
Hoping for a little touch of luxury, I booked an overnight at the Marriott Renaissance Allentown on the way home. But alas, that was not to be. The restaurant listed on the hotel website was closed and there was no room service. No ice. No bellman. No housekeeping. Brand new to the hospitality industry, and on her third day at the front desk, the friendly woman who tried to check us in had to call for help.
Our trip to Florida? I noticed our boarding passes did not have TSA Pre-Check and texted Delta at 7 pm; they replied at 7 am, when I was already in line at the airport.
Cruises and All-Inclusives Step Up
I will say I was not completely surprised by what I found out there. I was, in fact, expecting these trips to be a little rough. For months, I’ve been following a Hospitality Industry message board where exhausted staffers are amazed that guests still have expectations of ice machines and minibars. “Don’t they know there’s a pandemic?” they ask.
I read a Bloomberg survey that measures service-industry activity, which noted that our hospitality industry experienced the fastest growth on record in March. And Michael Skordeles, a senior US macro strategist at Trust Financial Corp., wrote in an April 2 note that the lift to the economy from the “superfecta” of spring weather, vaccines and a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill is unparalleled in our history—and the industry is struggling to cope.
I was buoyed, therefore, by a chat I had last week with Norwegian Cruise Line’s chief sales officer Katina Athanasiou, talking about the line’s relaunch this summer in the Caribbean.
“We didn’t want to start up cruising; we wanted to start up the best vacation,” she said. “It’s important for us to make sure that, when we come out, we do it right, that what we come out with is healthy and safe and what our guests are used to. We want to make sure that, when you set foot back on Norwegian Cruise Line, the experience is exactly what you wanted and better.”
Indeed, she added, “I want our travel partners to be confident that what we are going to deliver is not just the healthiest, but also the best, experience.”
Travel Advisors Step into the Breach
More than ever, I think, the best way to ensure a good experience these days is to tap the expertise and network of a good travel advisor.
Many travel advisors are themselves hitting the road to scope out the territory, and sharing information on whom to trust and whom to avoid with their colleagues.
Beth Pearlman Brownstein, of Peace, Love & Travel in Grayslake, IL, for example, says her customers returned from Aruba, which went into lockdown while they were there, feeling the trip was “mostly good, but not exactly what they had expected.”
“I’ve been telling my clients that one of the things I loved about my job pre-Covid was helping to advise them on what to expect,” Brownstein said. “Now, all I can say is that things can change at a moment’s notice. You just have to roll with it.”
Taunya Altamirano, of Live Love Drink Travel, Dream Vacations in Peoria, AZ, has been to St. Thomas, Punta Cana and Aruba, and to Mexico four times, with mixed success. “Let me tell you, my Punta Cana experience made me never want to go back.”
But these are the times that customers and their travel advisors will remember. Suppliers, she continued, “should be going the extra mile in everything you do. If you want folks to come to your resort/hotel/excursion you need to show them that you care enough to put the extra effort in.”
While she understands the strain that Covid has put on properties, “the one thing you can offer me without fail is customer service,” she says. “If there are things you cannot offer because of Covid, find something else or another way, but please communicate the issues with me—and, for goodness sake, take the time to update your website so it reflects the real experience. As an agent, this is how I do part of my research, and you are setting me up for failure if you are not providing current and realistic information for me to relay to my clients.”
At Vitamin T Vacations in White Lake, MI, Molly Murphy stays on top of the rapidly changing picture through “an amazing Facebook group” where travel advisors provide real-time updates from the resorts they visit—“pictures, procedures, how the testing process was, even if anyone has dealt with clients’ quarantine.” It’s allowed her to give her clients realistic expectations and prepare them for the “new normal.”
Lainey Melnick, of Dream Vacations – Lainey Melnick & Associates, of Austin, TX, cites the cruise industry as a whole, in addition to the St. Regis and Ritz, as well as Sandals Resorts, as brands she has come to trust during the pandemic. “I’ve appreciated the partners who tried to make our jobs easier and keep us all in business,” she says. “Those partners who took care of our clients with easy refunds and future cruise credit bonuses will be the biggest beneficiaries when travel starts again.”
Of course, a change of scenery and time spent with family are worth a little hassle. But travelers need to be prepared for the fact that the hotels and airlines that furloughed so many employees now cannot get them back—and cannot deliver the levels of service many expect without them. And the myriad announcements this month about robots and electronic check-in, and hotel executives’ comments that cost savings are here to stay, do not bode well.
For now, booking with trusted suppliers through professional travel advisors is surely the way to go.
“We have confidence that hotels and airlines will be able to rebound quickly—but demand is going to return first, and there is going to be a period where they have to catch up,” Globus CMO Steve Born told me this week. “From what we’ve seen, travelers are very willing to accept that there are conditions to travel in the short term, and that the experience is going to be one where they are early adopters.”
So it seems the kind of vacation the average American is accustomed to—a road trip to a nice hotel, with a caring staff offering true hospitality, and a nice cocktail and dinner in the hotel restaurant—is increasingly hard to find. It’s in everyone’s best interest to carefully set travelers’ expectations about what to expect. And, even for a simple night’s stay at a hotel brand you know and trust, you really need the advice of a travel advisor who knows the territory.
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.