Travel agencies seeing business ramp back up

A JetBlue Airways flight leaves from the main runway at T.F. Green Airport in Warwick. JetBlue’s operations resumed last summer after a brief suspension in the spring when the coronavirus 
hit the U.S. / PBN FILE PHOTO/
RHODE ISLAND TRAVEL AGENCIES are experiencing a significant increase in calls and bookings pointing toward cautious optimism that the travel industry is rebounding. / PBN FILE PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO

PROVIDENCE  – Rhode Island’s travel agencies are experiencing a rise in calls and bookings, indicating that the travel industry is rebounding from the deep impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the industry.

The agencies said that while clients have been booking domestic trips due to pent up demand, there is hope that an easing of travel restrictions would continue to bolster their business. The renewed interest in booking travel, they said, is partly due to the rollout of vaccines.

“We’re busy. We think there is so much demand we’re going to be booking double the number of trips we would normally have in one year,” said Matt Balsamo, an agent at the East Greenwich-based Donovan Travel.

Balsamo said his agency senses a turning of the corner from little to no bookings during the pandemic to a significant increase in call volume. He said that clients are booking vacations domestically, geared toward “more intimate, private trips,” as a shift in behavior provides new opportunities.

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“We’re seeing a lot of domestic travel – people who don’t want to travel out of the country because of the pandemic,” noted Balsamo. “And we are also seeing a lot of people travel to Mexico and the Caribbean.”

Balsamo said his agency went from receiving “no calls” from about March of 2020 through the summer, to now landing two to three new clients a day. He said clients want the security of booking through an agent rather than gambling by making reservations via a website, such as Expedia.

Amelia Sugerman, a spokesperson for Collette, a Pawtucket-based travel agency, said that her agency is busy as well. “We have increased more than 50% of calls since Jan. 1,” she said. “So, we’re seeing about double already.”

Sugerman said Collette credits the rollout of the vaccine in consumer confidence. As the doses started increasing, she said, the agency saw an increase in phone calls and traffic to its website.

She said her agency refunded clients “more than $135 million last year” as part of its waiver protection policy. “We don’t spend our clients’ money until they are out on a tour,” she said, noting that the waiver policy has been in place for 25 years of the agency’s 103 years in existence. “We put our customers first.”

“I think people learned, especially over the past year that you can’t predict what is going to happen,” said Sugerman. “You’ve probably heard stories of people who were scheduled to go somewhere and now they’re trying to fight to get their money back. We don’t operate like that. People that call us know they can trust us.”

Sugerman said the indicators are promising for her agency. Over the last eight to 12 weeks the agency has seen “a substantial increase in calls. 2020 was supposed to be our best year. We’re not yet seeing numbers like 2020, but we’re starting to see numbers come back to where they were in 2018 and 2019.”

Balsamo said his agency is “at the stage where we’re seeing things are changing week-to-week because of the vaccines. We’re definitely heading out of [the downturn in business]. Announcements are being made regarding the cruise lines on a weekly basis.”

His clients, he said, are booking “more private type vacations,” with an emphasis on social distancing. That means an increase in the booking of villas, rather than “big hotels” have become the norm, he said.

Both agencies said they are cautiously optimistic about the upward trend they are experiencing due to the unknown factors, such as variants, surges, and consumer behavioral shifts, etc.

“The next big shoe to drop is going to be Europe. Once that happens the floodgates are going to open, because there is a huge demand to travel there,” said Balsamo.

Sugerman agreed. She said Europe is an unknown, but it could be a game changer if travel restrictions are lifted.

Balsamo said it is not known when Europe will open to international travel. “The thinking is that it could happen in the summer some time,” when people are prone to travel, he said.

“I can tell you that overall, domestic travel is going to be huge this summer, as we’re seeing an increase in both inquiries, as well as bookings overall,” said Sugerman.

Balsamo said the new challenge for the travel business will be “getting more places open, so we have more choices” for clients.

Testing for COVID seems to be the “big issue,” he said. “Right now, some of the testing is a deterrent for people” because of the CDC’s quarantine rules. It presents a bit of “a nightmare scenario,” because people envision getting stuck in quarantine for a period in a foreign locale.

“A lot of the resorts are providing testing on site, and if you test positive, some of them are allowing people to stay there quarantined at no charge,” said Balsamo. “That’s how desperate they are to encourage people to come. They figure it’s worth the gamble to offer that courtesy.”

Balsamo said that some cruise lines are only allowing passengers who have been vaccinated. “They’re creating a bubble.” It is an insurance policy of sorts, insulating them from “a media nightmare,” he said.

Balsamo said the signs are encouraging, and the agency is headed toward bringing back its staff fulltime. He noted that Donovan Travel held its first staff meeting last week since the pandemic led to a decrease in hours, and it was strange seeing colleagues in the office.

“Our agency stayed open, with one person in the office at a time, but we were always open, we never closed,” he said.

Sugerman said, “As travel restrictions continue to ease, and more and more Americans get vaccinated, we’re definitely experiencing that long awaited travel boom for the second half of 2021 and beyond.”

Cassius Shuman is a PBN staff writer. Email him at

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