June Warfield felt as if she and her family had stepped off their cruise ship into a strange new world when they docked in San Diego on March 19. The city, normally brimming with people strolling palm-lined streets, was deserted. The new arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. had shut the doors of restaurants and bars, so their only source of dinner was sandwich take-out from the hotel’s sundry shop.
The next day the airport was sparse, and their flight back to Atlanta was only half full, slightly reassuring for the unmasked passengers who, with every breath, feared inhaling particles of the virus.
Warfield, her husband, daughter, daughter-in-law and granddaughter had spent two weeks in the ship’s protective bubble. There were only 158 cases of COVID reported in the U.S. when their Disney cruise departed from New Orleans to San Diego by way of the Panama Canal. The ship made two scheduled stops in Cozumel and the Grand Caymans before fear of the virus cancelled their other ports of call. While the crew scrambled to keep passengers entertained with Disney movies and impromptu grandparent brag sessions, Warfield and her husband were fearful of the end of the cruise.
“God only knows what we’re coming back to,” she remembers thinking.
Thankfully, they made it through the hotel and airport, all the way back to Atlanta and their cars that took them safely home to Athens without incident.
But she wasn’t prepared for the next several months of isolation. Like most people, she adapted quickly to Zoom conversations with family and friends, practiced her Duo-Lingo language lessons, and posted photos of past trips on Facebook for friends to guess locations. She was coping like everyone else, but when she broke down in tears at her annual checkup in the fall, it wasn’t because she’d gained a few pounds since March. She and her doctor knew then that things were not well with her.
“This is the first time in years that when someones asks me, ‘Where are you going next?’ that I don’t have an answer—I don’t have any reservations. We had planned as soon as we got back from Disney to take a trip in early 2021 to go to Machu Picchu and the Galapagos.”
Warfield, 72, and her husband Mike, 69, are seasoned travellers, with all seven continents and 21 cruises under their belts. So the lack of travel and trip planning has presented a significant loss of purpose and structure.
“I was going through days crying because I was isolated. And a lot of that is from not having something to plan.”
Warfield is not alone in her desolate feelings from lack of travel. According to TheWanderingRV.com, around 73 million Boomers spend $157 billion a year on travel. Last year, 53% of Boomers planned 1-2 international trips a year. Three out of 10 Boomers took cruises. Before the pandemic hit, 94% of Boomers planned to travel domestically in 2020, and 48% were projected to take both international and domestic trips, a six% increase from 2019.
But COVID-19 has changed traveling plans for millions of Boomers across America who are putting their dreams on hold until the virus recedes and safe travel resumes.
The pandemic has been swift and merciless for Tiffany Hines, CEO of Global Escapes Travel Agency in Athens, whose livelihood depends on the travel industry. Hines got a firsthand perspective of how her clients are feeling when she also had to cancel a major milestone trip.
“My husband and I were supposed to leave on March 14th to go to Italy to celebrate our 21st anniversary and his 50th birthday.”
She sent her team home on March 13, including the three new travel advisors she’d just hired, with instructions to keep in touch and wait it out. Several months later, Hines is navigating a sea of uncertainty like most agencies, trying to make the best decisions day-to-day.
“I’ve got a senior this year. We’re planning her graduation trip to Greece. We hope it happens, you know, but we don’t have really anything carved in stone.”
The pandemic has created an unspeakable strain on the small travel agencies that depend on personal and corporate travel and whose budgets have been slashed. Hines’ overall business is down by 80% from this time last year, which required cutting staff and taking creative approaches to staying afloat by maintaining client relationships and promoting travel through social media and their website.
“We’re trying to create hope and optimism for people,” Hines says of the new webinar series her agency has created for current and future clients. Global Escapes hosts a 15-minute webinar every other Thursday to provide people with something to look forward to. “It’s really just information and inspiration,” she says.
Her webinars have featured speakers from a Montana resort, British Virgin Islands, Turks and Caicos, Charleston, and even a company that promotes private jet travel.
It’s been particularly devastating to small agencies whose clients fall into the most vulnerable category of contracting COVID-19.
Kari Dyngeland’s agency had been open for business only 21 months and could barely keep up with demand when the nation shut down in March. Adventures by Kari, a boutique travel agency in Wasceca, Minn., just south of the Twin Cities, caters to travelers 50 and older.
“It was amazing, wonderful—until COVID. And then of course [business] went to zero. I had work, but it was cancelling or moving trips or getting refunds,” she says.
Dyngeland quickly shifted gears from booking travel to posting informative messages on her business Facebook page, everything from travel protocol to country openings and closings, to how to plan for future travel. She’s stayed connected with her clients by posting inspiring travel destination photos and reflections on her own travel.
New COVID-19 vaccines rolling off the shelf bring hope for travel once again, and both Hines and Dyngeland urge those wanting to travel to start planning now.
“I’ve had a few trips booked for February, but you know, my clients are very cautious, and I want them to be. So I’m looking out for them.” says Dyngeland.
Hines agrees. “What we’re seeing now is that people are ready. By the end of first quarter into the second quarter of the next year, we should begin to see substantial movement of countries opening back up, cruise ships getting back on the water, things really kind of starting to move again. Capacity is going to be limited next year for a lot of hotels, cruise lines, and airlines. So when you start to see people booking again, you’re going to have a supply-demand issue. I expect prices will be higher in some cases.”
The good news, says Hines, is that suppliers are rewarding those who are proactive.
“There are some special deals for people who can get things booked now. But I think those kinds of deals are going to be much more limited as we get further into the new year. Even if it’s two years from now, [people] just need something to look forward to.”
Boomers like Warfield, who cancelled her June 2020 Eastern Caribbean cruise, realize their sadness for not being able to travel is trivial compared to those who are experiencing real loss from the virus.
“People are dying, losing their jobs, and losing their homes. I sit safely in my home and am financially secure.”
But planning trips is necessary to maintain hope for the future, especially for Boomers who connect with others through travel. It’s also vital for those who own and work for businesses that support travel.
“Planning future trips gives you hope, that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and something to look forward to, other than the four walls that you’re in.” says Dyngeland.
Warfield and her husband are looking forward to making reservations for the Galapagos and Machu Picchu after they are vaccinated, with hopes of travel in 2022.