Local travel agencies affected by COVID-19 see increased interest

With the recent distribution and administration of the COVID-19 vaccine in Iowa and across the country, local travel agencies who have been struggling with the restrictions have seen an increase in travel inquiries and bookings.

Claire Benson, News Reporter

Local travel agencies in Iowa City are seeing an uptick in future travel inquiries and trip bookings as COVID-19 vaccine distribution ramps up across the country. 

This comes as former President Trump recently lessened international travel restrictions, lifting the ban on travelers from Europe and Brazil entering the United States on Jan. 18.

Planning future travel during the pandemic has been difficult for many Americans, with the risk of further COVID-19 spread and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention frequently adjusting recommendations and proposed guidelines for those seeking to travel.

Travel agencies, especially smaller, locally owned agencies, have felt pressure from the instability of the travel industry in the past year, which has brought about financial difficulties.

Travel Leaders / Destinations Unlimited CEO and owner Duane Jasper said his business – based out of Cedar Rapids and Coralville – was significantly impacted at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020.

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“With CDC restrictions and everyone being concerned about spreading the virus, it caused travel, basically, to almost halt in the first and second quarter of last year,” Jasper said. “It has been picking up slowly but steadily since then. But it’s certainly had an impact on anybody in the travel industry, whether you’re a hotel supplier, or car rental company, airline, or travel industry.”

Jasper said he was forced to evaluate the amount of work that was necessary for employees to complete. During this time, he said the agency received an influx of cancellations and rescheduling requests.

Once these were completed, he said the workload shrunk.

“In the end, our business took a pretty significant hit like everyone in traveling, and we had to reduce everyone’s hours,” Jasper said. “Most of our staff are still employed, still working from home, some from the office, but we anticipate having everybody back sometime in the next couple of months.”

Jasper said with this reduction in hours for several employees, the agency leaders felt it was best to focus on staffing one office instead of two, and temporarily closed its office in Coralville.

He said Coralville employees were now working for the office located in Cedar Rapids.

Annette Reed, owner of Iowa City’s Hawkeye World Travel, said her agency also received many requests to cancel travel plans or temporarily halt them last March when stricter COVID-19 travel restrictions were put in place.

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However, Reed said her agency remained financially stable throughout the past year despite the pandemic and did not have to lay off employees or reduce employee hours.

Reed said she has seen an increase in new and returning customers looking to rebook trips or receive quotes for potential trip expenses with an end to the pandemic in sight.

“We’re just kind of watching what’s happening and making sure that our folks who are traveling are safe and that they’ve got all the information that they need to take a vacation and feel comfortable with the choice that they’ve made,” Reed said.

Jasper said with COVID-19 blocking travel plans and straining personal finances, he has seen many new customers reach out to his agency, seeking travel advice to avoid these issues in the future.

“The good thing for our industry right now is that all of the leads and inquiries that we’re getting, so many of them are new people that are reaching out to a travel agency or a travel advisor for the first time,” Jasper said. “They’re doing that because maybe they experienced issues canceling a trip when COVID first became an issue.”

Jasper said within the past 30 days, he has seen a significant rise in the number of travel inquiries his agency has received, which he said he believes is largely due to the distribution of the vaccine.

“We know that it’s going to continue to be a slow increase in travel,” Jasper said. “But, as the vaccine rolls out, we anticipate that both vacation and corporate travel will continue to rebound.”

Iowa City Downtown District Executive Director Nancy Bird said she believes the distribution and administration of the COVID-19 vaccine will encourage travel, which will help local businesses and travel agencies that have been affected by the pandemic.

“The vaccine rollout will really help with traveling,” Bird said.