By Christine Graf
According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, 2020 is on record as the worst year ever for global tourism. Worldwide travel revenues decreased by $1.3 trillion and are not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2023.
This applies to older people seeking getaways from work or retirees with time on their hands.
“I’ve been in business for 47 years, and this is the worst thing I’ve ever seen,” said Ed Plog, president of Playbill Travel in Saratoga Springs. “I’ve been through airline defaults, fare wars, 9/11, and the Great Recession, and I’ve never experienced anything as bad as this for the industry.”
Plog said he is “ecstatic” that business is beginning to rebound and that his company’s specialty cruises are once again in high demand.
Because of the widespread COVID-19 outbreaks on cruise ships at the beginning of the pandemic, the cruise industry has been especially hard hit. Before that, it was one of the fastest growing segments of the global tourism industry. Although cruises attract people of all ages, they have always been especially popular with the 50-plus demographic.
At Live Life Travel in Saratoga Spring, owner Anne Gordon said business is booming.
For her clients that are in the 50-plus demographic, the company arranges a lot of what Gordon described as “celebration travel.” For example, she recently planned an anniversary trip to Iceland.
“We do a lot of 50th and 40th anniversaries, and we’re doing a lot more 50th birthdays. We’re also getting a lot of requests for multi-generational trips to the Caribbean for next February break and April break. Families are so ready to vacation again, ” she said. “Everything we do is very unique to each client. Our agency doesn’t have anything pre-packaged.”
At Heber Travel in Queensbury, owner Stacie Baxter said bookings are strong. She has spent much of her time in recent months booking and rebooking trips that were canceled because of the pandemic.
“My age group which is 65 and above is saying, ‘If we can go, let’s go. We’re not going to have another chance,’” she said. “If you’re 70 years old, you might not have another five years to travel. But the bothersome point is that other people are not respecting other people at airports.”
Baxter is referring to the uptick in aggressive behavior that is taking place at airports throughout the country, and she is especially concerned about how it could impact her older clients. The Federal Aviation Authority is investigating more than 2,500 cases of violence, the majority related to disputes over mask mandates.
Playbill Travel chartered two ships for its January 2022 Playbill Broadway Cruise Collection cruise, Broadway on the Nile, and both ships are fully booked. Bookings are also strong for their Broadway on the Mediterranean cruise in September 2022.
“We charter luxury ships—usually three or four a year—and we bring on Tony-winning Broadway stars, and they perform on board the ships,” said Plog. “Each night, one star will do a showcase performance and then they are on board the ship and mingle with the guests and go on the tours with us.”
Playbill Travel is a subsidiary of Playbill, publisher of the iconic Playbill theater magazines. Because the cruises are advertised in the publication, they attract the interest of theater goers from all over the country.
“We get people in their 30s and 40s, but the majority are 50-plus. The oldest you would see is early to mid-80s, but the majority are in the sixties and early seventies,” he said. “These folks are diehard theater fans from all over the world.”
Playbill Travel also sells vacations to destinations around the world, and the majority of its customers are over age 50. In recent years, Plog has noticed an increased number of bookings from millennials.
“Over the past five to 10 years, a lot of millennials are using travel advisors. It’s more so that I expected, and I think a lot of it is because they aren’t sure what to do or where to go. It’s a lot easier to have us help them figure it out than figuring it out online.”
Because of the pandemic, Plog has seen an huge surge in interest in travel to the National Parks. Bookings for travel to Florida, Mexico, and the Caribbean have also been strong.
“It will probably be like that for the rest of the year and into next year,” he said. “The main reason for that is because a lot of Europe is still closed because of the pandemic. They are opening gradually, and I think by the fall that most of Europe will be open. But our Europe business just isn’t there for the summer. In the past, Europe was our biggest product seller in the summer and fall. We do a ton of customized Europe vacations for people.”
Plog expects business to pick up in September and anticipates that travel will rebound significantly in 2022.
Live Life Travel specializes in honeymoon travel and is especially busy working with couples who are planning honeymoons that were postponed due to the pandemic.
“We have a backlog of brides,” she said. “We are so busy that we aren’t even marketing right now.”
Because of widespread layoffs in the travel industry during the pandemic, Gordon said booking travel can be especially challenging. Call centers, hotels, and other travel-related businesses were forced to furlough the majority of their employees, and once travel began to resume, they struggled to restaff their operations.
“Everyone is short staffed,” she said.
Some her clients in the 50+ demographic invested in vacation properties during the pandemic. Because of that, they are unlikely to book travel in the near future.
Because of the pandemic, Gordon said it is especially important for clients to read all of the terms and conditions of their travel contracts. Unlike most companies, Live Life Travel issued refunds to their clients who had trips canceled due to COVID-19.
“We now offer insurance to cancel for any reason with some of our companies which is one of the things we did during our downtime during COVID. That’s one of the things I suggest people ask about. There are no more cash back situations,” she said.
According to Heber, some of her customers in the 50-plus demographic are interested in booking a world cruise in 2023. Many of her clients are also booking travel to Europe in the late fall.
“The cruise is 111 days, so a lot of people cannot be gone that long unless they are retired,” she said. “For Europe, the older demographic waits until September or October. I’ve got people booking river cruises and people who want to go for the Christmas markets.”
Spain’s El Camino de Santiago, Europe’s longest pilgrimage route, has also been popular with Baxter’s older demographic. She has a group booked for October, and they are currently training for the long walking journey.
For those interested in traveling abroad, Baxter advises her clients to be cautious and to avoid traveling to countries that have been slow with vaccine administration. For example, she advises against booking travel to South America any time soon.
Baxter also noted that demand is often exceeding demand for domestic travel, and flights are becoming increasingly difficult to book due to labor shortages. Airlines furloughed employees during the pandemic, and they do not have the staffing required to meet surging customer demand.
“They took so many flights away that they are not seeming to bring back,” she said. “A lot of the seasoned pilots retired when all of this was going down, and they are bringing on new pilots and are training them as fast as they can. It’s the same thing with gate agents and reservation agents. We’re also finding the same thing with tour operators. No one is up to speed, and it will be six to eight months before I think it will all filter out.”