Last August, the American Society of Travel Advisors issued a dire warning. An estimated 77% of the members were facing closure. To travel agents who have read about their demise for more than a quarter of a century – ever since Delta Air Lines cut their commissions and Bill Gates bragged that Expedia would take them out of business – a global pandemic that brought the entire travel industry to a standstill only seems stronger to have done.

Virtuoso CEO Matthew D. Upchurch reaches out to consultants and partners who participate in its annual travel week in. take part … [+] Las Vegas. The conference had approximately 1,500 face-to-face participants and a simultaneous virtual event.

Doug Gollan

Cranky Flyer reports more than two dozen airlines closed last year. Timeout released a list of 68 popular Chicago restaurants that went out of business during this never-ending pandemic. Icons like Omni Berkshire Place in New York City have been closed for good.

This week in Las Vegas, however, travel advisors will be part of the virtuoso Network, personally and virtually gathered, injured, but far from defeated. They are apparently well on their way to gaining a bigger share of the luxury travel market.

In fact, Gates’ forecast looks more wrong than ever. Consultants say online travel agencies like Expedia are growing some of their net worth.

In April 2020, The New York Times published an article entitled “Why is it so hard to get a refund from an online travel agent?”

More than 150 readers piled up and shared their stories of poor service.

MORE FROM FORBESIn a Covid-19 world, you should use a travel agentOf Doug Gollan

Sarah Waffle Gavin, Vice President at Expedia, could only tell the newspaper: “We get hundreds of thousands more calls every day.”

At the start of the pandemic, travel consultants were also overwhelmed, says Matthew D. Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso.

Instead of putting customers on hold, they got bored. Consultants did what he calls “heroic” work, stayed through the night, stranded clients overseas Back at home and helping travelers who weren’t their customers – those who couldn’t get to directly booked airlines or OTAs.

The consultants also spent hours themselves waiting, harassing, and negotiating with suppliers to process customer refunds.

Consultants and partners of the Virtuoso travel agency network are meeting in person for the first time … [+] since the Travel Week 2019 conference. Last year’s edition took place virtually due to the pandemic.

Doug Gollan

While Virtuoso’s revenue has been stunted – a spokesperson refused to say how far it fell from the group’s $ 32 billion high in 2019 – the advisory network remains largely intact. The total number of consultants decreased by only 10% from 22,000 to 20,000, with half of that loss in South America.

Becky Powell, Chief Strategy Officer of Global Travel Collection, which also includes Virtuoso member agencies, says, “We have left very few (consultants) and most are retired.”

Indeed, a trend remains strong before the pandemic. She says there has been an increase in job changers – lawyers, nurses, and other professionals who have decided to leave their cubicles and stations to pursue a career that will help you plan happy vacations and celebrations.

Powell is among several agency managers who believe that promoting OTAs non-stop with high profile actors like Kaley Cuoco and Rashida Jones will help bring new clients to traditional consultants. Jones plays a fairy godmother who supposedly saves an Expedia user the day her flight is canceled.

The Jones ad closes with the promise: “Expedia will be a great companion throughout your trip.”

“Customers who had never used a travel agency or an OTA before and then ran into problems … They were stuck on hold; they weren’t able to get any refunds … we’ve got a lot of new customers who want great service, ”says Powell.

Erina Pindar, Chief Marketing Officer at SmartFlyer, says the online travel agents can’t compete with their 275 consultants. “We are first and foremost experts for our customers. Once we understand our customers’ needs, we have the resources to make it happen. “

OTAs should also capture the next generation of forward digital consumers who reportedly prefer tapping their iPhone to human interaction.

That didn’t happen. The New York agency’s consultants – Smarties, as they are known in the industry – are rejuvenating and bringing their friends and friends of those friends who are young, wealthy, and travel enthusiasts with them.

“Our customers have never stopped traveling,” she says. “They switched to domestic destinations last year when the borders were closed, but now they are going international.” SmartFlyer’s sales are already above 2019 levels, she says.

Like the Global Travel Group, Pindar says, the agency has continued to attract new consultants.

And while OTAs and suppliers may have large budgets for advertising and public markets to raise capital, consultants, often acting as independent contractors, are light-footed entrepreneurs. When the wind changes, thick layers of management won’t paralyze them.

Joshua Bush, CEO of Avenue Two Travel in Bryn Mawr, near Philadelphia, invented a technique he calls “trip stacking” during the pandemic.

After booking, canceling, rebooking and canceling the same trips over and over again for customers, he now uses flexible cancellation policies to book two different trips for the same customer on the same dates, a first choice and a second choice.

If ever changing travel restrictions wipe out, its customers will still go away. He says customers buy more and travel more because then they rebook the canceled trip and pile it up with a second choice for new dates and another vacation.

In Fresno, viewers of the NBC subsidiary get something better than empty promises from TV actors. From one corner of the press room, Craig Mungary, owner of Elite Global Journeys, spent the conference recording interviews with executives from luxury travel companies. They are broadcast on the broadcaster’s local version of Today.

He says the subsidiary was thrilled to end coverage of high school sports and local politics with previews of new cruise ships and resorts.

Since travel is harder than ever, agents say another benefit of using knowledgeable travel agents is that they’ll think ahead for you.

ON big problem Nowadays you show up at your hotel and reduced staff means limited opening times in restaurants and spas. Guests who pay high prices are of the opinion that there is no time for the long-awaited Peruvian stone and herbal massage.

Tania Swasbrook, President of Travelworld International in San Diego, helps her customers avoid these pitfalls. Once confirmed her travels, she makes spa appointments, arranges tee times, and reservations for dinner in the hot restaurants.

When she sends you the itinerary with all your favorite activities, the typical answer is: “Oh my god, thank you!”

Another challenge for travelers today is often having a hard time assessing what level of service to expect when planning a trip, be it next week or next month.

Powell, who points to Four Seasons, Montage, and Auberge Resorts as three groups that have kept 5-star service despite labor and supply issues, says consultants often have open discussions with hotel managers prior to booking.

While real estate websites don’t always report reduced service levels, she says, “Hotel managers know they’ll lose a lot of business if they’re not honest with us.”

While many companies are still struggling to adjust to work at home and discuss a return to office ordinances, Pindar is baffled. She notes: “Many of our advisors worked from home before the pandemic. They were already pretty adept at using technology to work remotely. ”Agents should certainly thank Bill Gates for that.