Make way for the travel agent’s homecoming

BY D. LARS DOLDER, News + Record Staff
Posted 10/6/21

For at least a decade, online travel sites have eroded clientele from once indispensable travel agencies.

But the new complexities of travel in a pandemic-ridden world — from vaccine …

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Make way for the travel agent’s homecoming

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For at least a decade, online travel sites have eroded clientele from once indispensable travel agencies.

But the new complexities of travel in a pandemic-ridden world — from vaccine requirements to mandatory quarantines and regular COVID-19 testing — have made the bygone travel agent a resurgent superstar.

“People are coming to us who used to be our clients,” said Margaret de St. Aubin, president of Siler City’s North Carolina Travel, “and they’re saying, ‘I’m so sorry, I apologize, I used Expedia and it was horrible. I couldn’t ever get a person, and I had to cancel, but nothing worked. Please forgive me, I’m coming back to you.’ And I’m like, ‘Well I didn’t know you had left, but thank you.’”

De St. Aubin has operated the agency since 1988. Back then, 50% of the company’s business came from corporate travelers. As Siler City’s once-thriving industry sector dwindled, so too did North Carolina Travel’s client pool evaporate.

The agency pivoted and made leisure travel its bread and butter. But then came the internet, and again prospects looked grim.

“The travel industry, at least for travel agents, had seen a slump because of the internet because, I mean, everyone’s a travel agent now,” de St. Aubin said. “So that had been frustrating.”

COVID-19 seemed like it would deal her company its final blow — federal mandates forbade most travel, airlines were grounded and widespread fear tanked traveler enthusiasm. Instead, the pandemic ignited a revival.

“It was, of course, slow at first. But we’re getting back into business because travel is more complicated now,” de St. Aubin said. “I think a lot of people are coming to travel agents now because they need more resources, particularly about what’s open, what’s not open. And those things can change, it seems, day-to-day sometimes.”

De St. Aubin’s experience isn’t a one-off. A New York Times report confirms travel agents countrywide are seeing renewed interest from would-be travelers struggling to negotiate labyrinthine regulations.

“Many travel agents are seeing an unprecedented surge of business, as COVID-19 has given them a new relevancy,” the story said, “thanks largely to the morass of constantly changing rules and restrictions that travelers must navigate.”

Some countries require visitors submit regular COVID testing results. Others want new arrivals to quarantine. Still others permit entry only from select locations. The intricacies of travel can baffle laymen. But such impediments are no longer quelling widespread zeal. A year of confinement bred a population consumed by wanderlust.

“People are dying to get out there and take the trips they had to miss,” de St. Aubin said. “It’s been a long time for a lot of people stuck at home waiting for the chance to do something again.”

Still, de St. Aubin is a realist. She recognizes the swell might subside when post-pandemic travel returns to normal.

“It’s never going to get back to what it was in the old days,” she said. “And we’ll see what it’s like as things start to calm down.”

But de St. Aubin is glad for renewed interest in her company, and will enjoy it as long as she can.

“When things were at their worst, my manager and I said, ‘We don’t want it to end this way. We’ve got to give it another try for a while,’” de St. Aubin said. “So we’re grateful that we did and for the way things are going now, and hopefully it’ll pan out.”

Other business news

In his first week as Raleigh’s economic development director, Kyle Touchstone — Chatham’s former Economic Development Corporation president — is already making waves.

During his brief tenure, which began last Monday, Touchstone has seen a major company, Ineos Automotive, announce it would establish a new North American headquarters in the Triangle. And more announcements could be on the way, including the arrivals of Fortune 500 companies.

“Fortune headquarters are always a goal for this region,” Touchstone told Triangle Business Journal. “While I can’t disclose who’s looking, I think there is a strong possibility that we’re being considered by these largest companies in the U.S.”

Candidates come from “life sciences to tech to manufacturing,” according to TBJ.

Other major companies, such as Google and Apple, are already in process of establishing Triangle sites, all within short driving distances of Pittsboro where the Chatham Park development and other neighborhoods are preparing to welcome more than 50,000 new residents over coming decades.

“We want to make sure we maintain a very diverse set of businesses,” Touchstone told the TBJ. “But we also have to continue building on the momentum that is in place. We can’t win projects in the region and then say, ‘Well, we’ve won and we can stop now.’ I think the city of Raleigh is at a phenomenal place in time for us to really capitalize on the wins of the region, the commercial real estate development that is occurring throughout the city.”


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