Positive news on Covid vaccine fuels new enthusiasm for travel: Travel Weekly

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Good news about Covid-19 vaccines has been on the uptick this month, and with it, a bump in inquiries to travel agencies about what these medical advances might mean for travel in 2021.

The calls don’t always lead to bookings, advisors said, and although the good news is tempered in part by spiking cases around the country, consumer response to the vaccine news appears to both reflect high levels of pent-up demand and herald the nascent return of broad consumer confidence to travel.

On Nov. 9, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that preliminary data indicates their vaccine is more than 90% effective. A week later, Moderna on Nov. 16 said preliminary analysis found its vaccine was more than 94.5% effective. And just before Thanksgiving, AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford said preliminary data found their vaccine up to 90% effective.

“Within an hour of Pfizer announcing their vaccine, we started getting calls,” said Helen Papa, owner of TBH Travel in Dix Hills, N.Y. “Within an hour. It was amazing.”

Cruise lines also saw some positive effects attributable to vaccine news. During Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings’ most recent financial earnings call, the day after Pfizer’s news, president and CEO Frank Del Rio said bookings in the previous 24 hours were “pretty good; better than the previous four or five Mondays.”

“And that’s, I think, attributable to the vaccine news,” he said. “We did not have any particular promotion or did any outsized marketing.”

Similarly, Royal Caribbean Group chairman Richard Fain addressed the question of positive news about vaccines during Travel Weekly’s CruiseWorld, which was held virtually earlier this month.

“I don’t think it will surprise anybody that when the news is scary, people tend to go back into their cocoons,” Fain said. “As the news gets to be more positive they come out. What’s encouraging is how quickly it responds.”

After both the Pfizer and Moderna news broke, Skyscanner found that searches for travel from the U.S. to Mexico surpassed their weekly volume from last year, up 10%. Skyscanner attributed that increase to the vaccine news, as well.

Helen Papa

Helen Papa

For Papa, some of the inquiries she received at TBH have turned into bookings. Clients are “cautiously optimistic,” she said.

On the other side of the country from Papa, Coastline Travel Advisors in Garden Grove, Calif., also received a number of emails and calls from clients following vaccine announcements, according to president Jay Johnson. 

While there has been a general sense of optimism and more confidence in travel’s return by next summer, he said, the influx of inquiries has not yet resulted in new business.

“There is without a doubt a huge amount of pent-up demand to travel in 2021,” Johnson said. “All we need now is confirmation that the vaccines work and a lowering of cases. Then, we’ll be off and running.”

Joshua Bush

Joshua Bush

Avenue Two Travel in Villanova, Pa., saw an uptick in both calls and bookings as a result of the positive vaccine news, but that was tempered by the rising number of cases around the country, said CEO Joshua Bush.

Avenue Two has seen steady, week-over-week increases in travel since mid-August, thanks to domestic travel and clients dreaming about 2021 travel, Bush said. In addition to closer-in domestic bookings, Avenue Two has even been booking things like world cruise segments and expedition trips. Overall, business is down about 70% year over year, but better than the 95 to 97% it was down when the pandemic first hit.

The week before Pfizer had announced its vaccine’s effectiveness, business was “absolutely dead,” which Bush attributed to the unsettled U.S. presidential election. 

But the week of Nov. 16, Bush said, “with the election result [more widely accepted] and the vaccine … we are on track for our best week this year since Covid.” Those bookings were for both the holiday season and 2021 as travelers are getting more optimistic about a vaccine.

At the same time, the good news is offset by the surge in cases and deaths around the world, especially in the U.S.

“We’re hitting milestone death numbers,” Bush said. “We’re hitting milestone cases on individual days. That is really kind of tamping down the news that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. We’re definitely in this still.”

In some places, though, travelers have shown less concern about traveling during the pandemic, and the news of the vaccines was akin to a nonevent. Jeanne Polocheck, owner of Well Traveled Texan in Houston, said her Texas-based clients largely kept traveling during the pandemic. Things had initially slowed early this year, but by Memorial Day clients were out and about again, a trend that has continued. Domestic spots and Mexico have been popular.

She didn’t even get one phone call from a client about vaccines.

A potential stumbling block to the recovery of travel is the resistance among some people to being vaccinated. A Gallup poll conducted between Oct. 19 and Nov. 1, before the vaccine trial results were announced, indicated 58% of adult respondents were willing to get a vaccination, a rise from 50% in September.

Lingering and significant reluctance to be vaccinated will likely present hurdles to overcome with regard to travel in the future, said Ensemble Travel Group CEO David Harris.

He pointed to the flu vaccine: It’s been available for decades, but a portion of the population skips it each year.

However, he is more hopeful about a Covid vaccine, given how serious the impact of the virus has been. While a vaccine will never be 100% effective, it could go a long way to the resumption of travel, he said, by giving confidence to governments to relax requirements for quarantines and other deterrents to travel.

“Those should, in theory, be relaxed if you get traction from an effective vaccine,” he said.

Johanna Jainchill contributed to this report.

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From hotels to cruises, Covid vaccines will cause side effects for travel: Travel Weekly

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Earlier this month, a Gallup poll found that 65% of Americans said they would be willing to take an FDA-approved Covid-19 vaccine immediately if it were available at no cost. That leaves more than a third of the population unwilling, for the time being, to be vaccinated.

Travelers, as a subset of the population, seem a bit more willing to get the jab. Industry advocacy group Travel Again’s most recent monthly Traveler Confidence Index found that one in four business travelers and one in five leisure travelers do not plan to get the vaccine when they are eligible.

This complicates efforts to clarify the impact of vaccines on an already knotty system of travel quarantines and testing requirements.

What does seem clear is that the travel experience will change for those who do and don’t get vaccinated. Leora Lanz, associate professor of the practice and chair of the master of management in hospitality program at the Boston University School of Hospitality Administration, said suppliers will need to think now about how they will handle passengers who aren’t vaccinated. 

Leora Lanz

Leora Lanz

For example, cruise lines, she said, may have to expand onboard medical facilities to accommodate daily testing, and certain destinations may require proof of vaccination for entry.

“We’re going to have to think about what’s allowed in the future,” she said, including “where people can travel to if they haven’t been vaccinated.”

Which begs the question: Will suppliers require proof of vaccination from travelers?

Legally, they could, said industry lawyer and Travel Weekly columnist Mark Pestronk.

“A business in the U.S. can legally decide who to do business with or not to do business with, as long as the decision does not violate civil rights laws,” Pestronk said.

David Sherwyn

David Sherwyn

David Sherwyn, professor of hospitality and human resources and the director of the Cornell Center for Innovative Hospitality Labor and Employment Relations, said he believes that some suppliers will opt to require vaccines.

Most likely among them are cruise lines, he said, followed by all-inclusive resorts. Conferences may also require attendees be vaccinated. It is less likely that urban hotels that are typically geared toward business travelers will require vaccinations, but Sherwyn said he could see a future in which a major brand designates a soft brand as vaccine-required.

If cruise lines do require vaccines, they would likely lose some customers, Sherwyn said. “But,” he added, “you’d lose more people who don’t want to be in close quarters with people who haven’t been vaccinated,” and they would get a lift from increased consumer confidence.

Lynn Minnaert

Lynn Minnaert

But Lynn Minnaert, academic chair and clinical associate professor at New York University’s Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality, considers it “fairly unlikely” that most suppliers would require vaccinations.

If it did become a requirement, Minnaert said, it would further complicate travel.

“It’s constantly changing,” she said of regulations. That is especially true in the U.S., she said, where regulations differ from state to state.

Lanz agreed that regulations “are complex and can be confusing.” However, she added, “they will, over time, become easier to navigate. And with that in mind, please let’s all retain the desire to travel, to learn from one another and help local communities and employees, as well.” 

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If you build it, they will come: Travel Weekly

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Jamie Biesiada

Jamie Biesiada

Not all clients are ready to travel again, but for those who are, Cason Travel & Tours owner Christy Cason has the perfect solution: MoBay FunFest, a wellness retreat the Las Vegas-based advisor is planning for 250 guests in June.

“I realize not everyone is ready yet, but for those that are ready,” Cason said, “I wanted to have something available to them. So many festivals canceled last year.”

Cason is no stranger to organizing large events. The 25-year industry veteran started her business in 1995, and she specializes in fundraisers for nonprofits. She started with fundraisers at sea and has since expanded to land vacations.

She particularly likes to work closely with local nonprofits that help send students to college.

Christy Cason

Christy Cason

As was the case for most other agencies, Cason’s phones stopped ringing early last year as the pandemic began. For two months, she delt only with cancellations.

She has started getting inquiries and bookings to the Caribbean and Mexico of late, however. That’s part of what spurred her to put together the MoBay FunFest.

“I know there is a pent-up demand for travel,” Cason said.

The festival will be held at the Jewel Grande Montego Bay Resort and Spa from June 24-28. It will feature musical performances (female performers are being highlighted, which Cason said was important to her), games, wellness activities like yoga and more. The plan is to hold all events outdoors to enable social distancing, which is also why Cason kept the event small at 250 people.

Two nonprofits Cason has worked with before will benefit from the event’s proceeds: The Southern Nevada Black Nurses Association and the nonprofit radio station KUNV 91.5 FM, which has a partnership with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Cason offered this advice for agents who want to arrange their own events.

Do research: Pick a property, figure out if there is a market for an event, identify clients who will attend and identify additional pied pipers to draw in their own groups (for the MoBay FunFest, Cason is working with other independent contractors to bring their small groups in). 

“If you think you can do it, and you want to do it,” she said, “go for it.”

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