Travel Agents Saved the Day When the Pandemic Caused Chaos. Now, Travelers Need Them More Than Ever.

Dream Vacations' Debbie Fiorno has had a front-row seat to it all, and she says the industry is primed for a comeback.

This story appears in the October 2021 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Docked cruise ships, flight cancellations, tour refunds — when the travel industry went into free fall in March 2020, Debbie Fiorino saw the chaos up close. As the chief operating officer of travel agency Dream Vacations, Fiorino worked tirelessly to support the company’s more than 1,500 franchisees, who were scrambling to assist thousands of panicked clients with abruptly canceled plans.

Courtesy of Dream Vacations

A year and a half of lockdowns later, those clients are ready for a vacation, and they’re returning to the agents who helped them in their time of need. With constantly changing COVID-19 testing and vaccine requirements, travel agents have become a vital source of information for many confused travelers. Plus, being stuck at home gave new franchisees time to set up shop. Fiorino discusses what it’s been like keeping Dream Vacations afloat and preparing for travel’s big comeback.

Related: This Hotel Franchisee Decided to Become a Restaurant Franchisor. Here's How It's Going.

How has the pandemic impacted demand for travel agents?

The value of a travel agent had been increasing pre-COVID — but when the pandemic hit, people were trying to get home, they were trying to cancel their flights, and they were spending six to eight hours on the phone trying to reach online travel agencies that didn’t have a real person they could talk to. I think people recognized right then and there: If I had a travel agent, they would have been doing that for me.

How is the franchise capitalizing on this realization?

Customers need to understand that the world has changed and they may not understand everything that’s needed in order to travel. In the beginning, we helped our agents talk to their customers in a way that wasn’t salesy or pushy but sent the message “We know you need to stay home right now, but when you’re ready, we’re here.” We created technology to help customers track future cruise credits and sent emails to those customers saying, “Hey, don’t forget you have a future cruise credit.” You want to make sure you’re staying in front of your customer in a way that’s very personalized.

Related: This Is What Travel Will Look Like in a Post-Pandemic World

What types of franchisees do you work to bring on?

We definitely go after the vet market. We’ve been doing Operation Vetrepreneur, which is a contest where we give away five franchises, for 10 years. Other types of people we attract are real estate agents and people in service industries. And a significant number of new franchisees came on board in the middle of the pandemic, when they had the time. While they don’t have the history of everything that happened over the past 18 months, they are going to be ready for the pent-up demand that’s coming. They’re already seeing a lot of success.

Has the industry’s uncertainty affected the way the company defines success for its current franchisees?

We’ve pretty much thrown past metrics out the window because travel is so uncertain. But you have to look at every individual circumstance. It’s been more about how we get through and support customers, and less about metrics. One of my franchisees said to me, “It’s not about the cancellation. It’s about keeping the customer.” That’s been the most important metric — How do I make sure my customers stay with me? They might not be able to travel today, but when they’re ready to, they’re going to come back to me.

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