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Why you need a Travel Agent more than ever

The value of a travel agent. We are a solutions-based business.

Finding solutions for our clients is what we do! Check out our latest story detailing the epic timeline to get two clients stuck in Bali up to Europe before the borders closed. It was intense, stressful and time critical! There are many more stories that we could write about over the last month, that demonstrates how the role of a travel advisor is going to be even more important, more critical than before. I don’t believe that the new issues around border controls, additional security, reduced transit options will go away anytime soon. Travellers will need a travel advisor by their side, researching, supporting and offering solutions as we all start to travel again in the ‘new norm’.

In March we had clients stuck in Bali, they had been on their way to Italy to get a client’s new boat ready for their June arrival.  We couldn’t return them to NZ as they were travelling on Australian and South African passports and our borders had been closed. We couldn’t take them into Europe as Italy had closed its borders and Emirates had cancelled their flights.  The decision was made that they would hunker down in Bali and wait it out… what we didn’t know, was how much worse things were going to get.

Fast forward to April.

9.56pm Thursday 23rd April.  The Indonesian government make an announcement at 9.56pm that there is to be a ban on domestic and international air travel starting Friday 24th of April – just 24 hours’ notice.  The ban is to remain in place until 01 June.

The crew need to get to Europe as the clients take possession of their boat on 25th May.

10.30am Friday 24th April. I am sitting in my home office and receive an email from the clients in Bali – the pressure is on to find a solution for them.  The notice regarding the ban is slightly vague in that it states ‘foreign nationals’ may be able to leave after midnight on 24th April. 

There are travel issues that we have to work through, such as transit points in Singapore and Hong Kong closed now to foreigners, borders closed in Europe. Even taking them back to Australia and then to Europe is no longer an option, as Australia has also closed its border to all other nations.

12.56pm Friday 24th April. After a couple of hours of research, we secure them the last Qatar flight out of Bali on the 25th, nice transit via Doha into Italy…perfect solution. A couple of issues to sort through for this option around flying directing into Italy from Doha.  You can’t enter Italy as a tourist. Yes, another spanner in the works, however we discover a loophole…  these clients can enter Italy on business.  More research by our team uncovers that actually this isn’t going to work, as they can only enter for business purposes for a total of 72 hours… they will be there for one month.  Helplessness kicks in for us all…. We have exhausted every option, our clients are trapped.  Do we hold them a flight out of Rome 3 days later so we can at least get them in...? Hold on… more researching and we discover that the rule is different for seafarers.  We are good to go!

3.00pm Friday 24th April. We get further advice to say that Bali airport will be cancelling all flights at midnight on the 24th.  We try and contact Qatar to get some advice from them, as their website is still showing the 25th April flights in place. You can’t contact them by phone during lockdown and it has to be done via email. At least we have a preferred travel agents email address.

They need to get out that day, or else they will be stuck in Bali until at least 1st June. Again, the pressure comes on.  We spend another hour or more looking for any options out on the 24th… it seems as fast as we can look, flights are cancelling out of the system.

Qatar helpdesk get back to us and advise that as far as they know, their flight on the 25th is still active  and will depart… but we have checked the Denpasar airport departure site and all flights for 25th April now show as cancelled. Crikey, the airlines themselves haven’t been advised or updated their systems. We find options departing the 24th via Jakarta to Doha into Frankfurt, into Paris…but they are all a no-go as they have now also closed their borders The clients are getting more stressed but know that we are doing our best.  They are madly packing up their stuff, getting ready to leave for the airport as soon as we tell them to go.

It is a team effort now, with a number of our staff looking/searching for flights, then making sense of self-isolation rules, transit rules, border controls.  There is not ‘one’ website or google that can find all the answers; there are numerous, government sites, IATA travel sites, airport sites, airlines sites, safe travel sites that need to be checked out, read, understood. This is our new norm!

We think we have an option but need the client at the airport in 30 minutes. They still don’t have the correct documentation to enter Italy on business, so they can’t leave… aargh!

4.00pm Friday – Do we give up?  Are we trying for the impossible? Need a break so a quick power walk to the beach and back to clear the head and get the brain working again.  I have my phone with me and take two more calls from the client.

5.00pm Friday  (1pm in Bali) Two of us are back at our home desks working on this… two minds are better than one, we reason. We find a flight to Jakarta has just become available, departing in  3.5 hours’ time, then a Japan Airlines flight via Tokyo to London, departs at 11.40pm - this could be our last option!  Again, we check new transit rules, border controls and self-isolation, we can get them to London, they have to stay two nights in London as flights are oversold and then we would fly them to Rome.  We are hearing rumours on BBC and from other sources that the UK are likely to close their borders, this is a race against time now. Will they close the borders before we can get the clients into the UK and out to Rome?

7.00pm Friday. Clients on their way to the airport to get on their first flight to Jakarta.

8.12pm Friday. The first flight options cancels, the next option is delayed 2 hours, they can still make the connection.

11.10pm Friday. I am still in contact via WhatsApp and the flight is further delayed. Now the connection is starting to get tight in Jakarta. I try to check them in online but as it is a codeshare flight with Garuda, I am unable to do this.  It’s nail biting stuff.

12.48am Saturday. I am still awake; they are finally on the plane, but the doors are still not shut. If the flight leaves in the next 10 minutes, they will land an hour before their international flight departs… this may not work as they will need to collect their luggage and check in for their flight.

1.09am Saturday. The clients message me again to advise that the crew are now rearranging passengers to give everyone more space, doors are still not shut on the aircraft.

1.24am Saturday. Doors finally close and they let me know that are about to take off.  I try and get some sleep, but my mind is on my clients, praying that they will make up some time in the air or their next flight is delayed or for some sort of miracle.  I get up and cancel the hotel in London as I don’t want them to have to pay a no-show fee…. I wait.

4.28am Saturday. The annoying WhatsApp alert sounds again on my phone. I have it turned up to the max so I don’t sleep through and miss a call from them. They made it. 45 minutes before the flight was due to depart, I don’t know how they were even able to talk themselves through customs and onto the flight but they did it. Big emoji high fives, hearts, thumbs up and thank you all round!

I am tired, exhausted but elated at the same time. This is why I am in this industry, this is what I love, to serve our clients, to find solutions for them, to empathise and support them. I have been in the industry for 35 years and know that my knowledge, experience and determination was the winner here.

10.00am Saturday – No peace for me now as I need to get their accommodation rebooked in London and I need to call them to make sure that if the restaurant wasn’t open, they would still be providing room service. Finally, great news, the waitlist to get them to Rome a day earlier has now cleared, so I can reissue their ticket. I send them an updated itinerary and start to work on finding them suitable accommodation in Italy for their 14-day self-isolation. I need to call Italy to ensure that they can organize food for them in the apartment for them and to check on their cleaning policy. 

I have realised through this experience, and the many other travel stories I could write about over the last month, that the role of a travel advisor is going to be even more important, more critical than before. I don’t believe that the new issues around border controls, additional security, reduced transit options will go away anytime soon. Travellers will need a travel advisor by their side, researching, supporting and offering solutions as we all start to travel again in the ‘new norm’. I wonder, what would a professional services provider (ie lawyer or accountant) have charged for this type of advice, support, knowledge and experience?

Google could not have done the job of an experienced travel advisor.