With people “petrified to travel” last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Stonington travel agent Bonnie Clark was scared for the future of Get Your Ears On, her agency that specializes in all things Disney.
Clark said she was able to get $1,000 from the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program and $800 from the Ocean Community Chamber of Commerce but otherwise struggled to get grants or loans.
She collected unemployment and recalled people telling her, “You’ve got to find another industry.” But Clark, going on her 13th year in business, knew her clients and knew they would want to go back.
“Everything’s picking back up again, thank God,” she said Monday.
Clark said things started picking up just slightly around November, but within the past month or so is when she’s been slammed. “I’m being bombarded daily, which is great. I’m not going to complain.”
Some people have booked trips to Disney World for this summer while others are holding off until next year, hoping for a restriction-free experience. Clark noted that while Disney has relaxed some restrictions, the FastPass system isn’t back in place yet, and characters must remain at a distance.
She called this “sort of a blessing in disguise for us,” as the “information overload” on constantly changing restrictions is “driving people to use us even more, which is great.”
Becky Mitchell, who has been with the East Lyme-based Klingerman Travel for 23 years, said there was also a benefit for people to be working with travel agents at the beginning of the pandemic: “We got people’s money back for them because of loopholes we know about that they never would’ve known.”
Mitchell said from early March until about June of last year, staff were very busy despite people not traveling, as they spent hours and hours on hold trying to get refunds for clients. And then, she said, “it literally just stopped.”
Starting in September, she said staff began collecting partial unemployment while working 12 hours a week, and the work was out of fear that if they temporarily closed their doors, they might not reopen. She said the business wouldn’t have survived without the forgivable loan it received from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.
Mitchell said she’s now back up to about 30 hours a week, and “we’re definitely busier. People are calling to make reservations mainly for 2022.”
She said two to three months ago, “the phones just started ringing off the hook again,” with people asking questions about going to Europe or going on a cruise. But she said domestic travel “has been very, very popular,” particularly Florida.
Amy Parmenter, spokesperson for AAA in Connecticut, said travel sales for May and June are 2.5 times as high as in January and February.
She said AAA is booking a lot of trips in Mexico and the Caribbean, but also trips that are “domestic but more extravagant trips, so for instance, Hawaii and Alaska, those places that the travelers feel confident or relatively confident that they can make plans without fear that those plans will be canceled.”
She said travel advisers “are extremely well-versed” and are updated every day on what’s going on in the industry, whether it’s airlines easing restrictions or countries tightening them or the latest with the cruise business.
Bill Potuchek, co-owner of Dream Vacation Travels in Ledyard, said there’s been a fair demand for domestic trips, such as to Las Vegas and the Orlando area, but Iceland is also very popular.
Calls are “definitely picking up,” he said.
Potuchek said while the cruise business recently started up again, the earliest he has a client going on a cruise is around November, and a lot of clients are booking for 2022.
Potuchek and his wife, co-owner Elaine, are going on a two-week national parks tour later this summer, through tour operator Globus. They were originally part of a group of 24 people scheduled to see the Oberammergau Passion Play, which occurs in Germany every 10 years, in 2020. But the play was postponed to 2022, and so now the group is planning to go next September.
“’22 will be a good year for travel, as long as this virus doesn’t stick its head up again, so to speak,” Potuchek said.