The 2021 Travel Agent COVID Report
How has COVID impacted travel advisors? HAR’s 2021 Travel Agent Survey profiled travel advisors of all kinds—hosted advisors, independent advisors (who have their own accreditation), franchisees, and travel agent employees. This year, with critical support from our industry friends, we received 1,100+ responses who weighed in on travel agent income and fees.
This steller turnout provides us with a unique opportunity to take a critical look at advisor income, bookings, sales, job satisfaction, business operations, and more. In particular, we adjusted the survey to gauge how COVID impacted these factors for advisors.
We’re going to take a hard look at some hard data. Here’s what we’ll cover in our COVID report (click on links below to fast-forward to the section).
⭐️ HAR Article Highlights: ⭐️
- The 2021 Travel Agent COVID Report [Infographic]: A visual look at the data
- Travel Advisors’ Work Reduction During COVID
- Do Advisors Plan to Return to Their Previous Workload?
- COVID’s Income Impact: How much did travel advisors’ sales decrease in 2020?
- Which Advisors Didn’t Lose Sales?: The shared qualities of industry unicorns
- Participation in Assistance Programs: How many advisors applied and what assistance did they receive?
- Outside Employment: How many advisors worked outside the industry during COVID?
- Agency Operations: What did agencies do to cut costs during COVID?
- How Did COVID Impact Travel Advisors’ Fee Charging Habits?
- Travel Advisors and Vaccination: How do advisors’ vaccination rates compare to the overall U.S. population?
- Bonus: What hobbies did advisors pick up during the pandemic?
It’s hardly a spoiler alert to write that the travel industry (among many) was capsized by COVID’s impact. But before we launch into data that quantifies the extent of the damage, we want to start with a piece of good news: travel advisors have an opportunity to resurface to brighter opportunities for the profession.
44% of travelers who didn't originally use a travel advisor before the pandemic plan to when they begin traveling
There’s pent-up demand for travel. Travelers are ready to get back on the road, and they’re already booking trips. ARC reported an August 2021 Travel Agency Air Ticket Sales Increase of 328% (from 2020).
Better yet, this pent-up demand translates to a higher demand for travel advisor services. Erika Richter, Senior Director of Communication for ASTA, noted at the ASTA Global Convention that 44% of travelers who didn't originally use a travel advisor before the pandemic plan to when they begin traveling and 97% of those who used a travel advisor pre-pandemic will continue to do so.
And it’s not just the travel industry that’s noticing the increased need for travel advisors. The Boston Globe, Consumer Reports, Wall Street Journal, and Barron's all recently published pieces about the importance of travel advisors.
What this means is that advisors’ measures to rebuild, to advocate for greater congressional support, and to resume operations are not merely a matter of salvaging the industry. It’s doing the hard work of rebuilding the industry to place it on a trajectory toward a more promising future.
The 2021 Travel Agent COVID Report [Infographic]
The infographic below offers a look at what topics you can expect to dig into during this report. It’s kind of like the crib notes:
Work Reduction: COVID'S impact on travel advisors' livelihoods
When the travel restrictions began to take effect in March 2020, many travel advisors remained busy canceling bookings, rebooking trips, processing refunds, and securing future cruise credits (FCCs) and letters of credit. Additionally, advisors also assisted clients who were traveling during the outbreak to navigate quickly-developing travel restrictions for a safe return home.
Once the dust settled on the initial flurry of cancellations and securing routes home, workloads among travel advisors were overwhelmingly reduced.
In the following sections, we look at how COVID impacted advisors’ work hours and income stability.
FROM FULL-TIME TO PART-TIME: MOST TRAVEL ADVISORS REDUCE WORK HOURS
During COVID, the majority of advisors transitioned from working full-time (FT) hours (30+ hours/week) to working part-time (PT) hours ≤30 hours/week), with the percentage of agents who reported selling travel FT dropping from 60% to 25%. The graph below compares the FT/PT distribution pre-pandemic versus during the pandemic:
This trend is most clearly defined by looking at minimal hours (≤5 hours/week) worked. Before the pandemic, only 7% of agents reported working minimal hours. However, during the pandemic, this percentage skyrocketed to 30%, with nearly ⅓ of all respondents working ≤5 hours weekly.
Below the graph offers a full picture of hours worked pre-pandemic compared to during the pandemic:
The graph illustrates the “before and after” effect of COVID on weekly hours worked: The orange bar depicts how the trend reversed during COVID, whereas the pre-covid green bar more closely represents how many weekly hours travel advisors clocked during a typical year.
It’s important to note that the 25% of advisors who worked full time (30+ hrs/week), did not likely invest much time in booking new travel. While HAR didn’t explicitly ask how FT advisors spent in the COVID interim, anecdotally we know advisors spent a significant amount of work hours on professional development—automating communications and implementing new tech; client relationship-building and maintenance; brand, content, and website development—as opposed to booking travel.
BEFORE & DURING COVID: IS SELLING TRAVEL YOUR PRIMARY SOURCE OF INCOME?
To gauge advisors’ income dependence on selling travel, we asked, “Is selling travel your primary source of income?” This year, we adapted the question to COVID times by asking if selling travel was a primary source of income before and during COVID.
During the pandemic, the percentage of advisors selling travel as a primary source of income dropped an additional 16 points, from 52% to 36%.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, 52% of travel agents sold travel as a primary source of income. Pandemic aside, this pre-COVID statistic is a lower number than last year when a record percentage of travel advisors reported selling travel as a primary source of income (64%).1
During the pandemic, the percentage of advisors selling travel as a primary source of income dropped an additional 16 points, from 52% to 36%.
It’s important to note that the 36% of travel advisors who sold travel as a primary source of income during COVID—despite the precipitous decline in bookings—did not indicate a sustainable income. Rather, it suggests they were dependent on travel income despite pandemic conditions and lack of revenue.
In a later section, we’ll review what assistance programs and other revenue streams advisors relied on to make ends meet during the pandemic.
DO TRAVEL ADVISORS PLAN TO RETURN TO THEIR PREVIOUS WORKLOAD?
We asked agents who stopped selling travel as a primary source of income if they planned to resume selling travel as a primary source of income.
The majority of these career travel advisors2 remain committed to a career in selling travel: 78% of travel advisors plan to return to selling travel as a primary source of income, 17% are unsure, and 5% reported they will not go back to selling travel as a primary source of income:
This suggests that career advisors who made it through the pandemic are overwhelmingly motivated to remain on their career trajectory. In a later section, we’ll look at which assistance programs travel agents relied on to continue operations.
Travel Agent Income Loss in 2021: How much did bookings and sales decrease in 2021?
Unless you’re one of the rare industry unicorns who made more bookings during 2020’s COVID summer than the previous year, the overwhelming decrease of bookings and sales will come as no surprise.
Unicorns aside, most advisors (83%) had a decrease in sales in 2020.
The most common response to, What percentage of bookings did you permanently lose in 2020? was 100%.
Among this majority segment, most agents (39%) reported they lost over 81-100% of their sales, and 11% lost over 100% of their sales.
Below you can see the entire breakdown of travel agents’ sales decrease:
This decrease in sales translated directly to lost bookings: the most common response to, “What percentage of bookings did you permanently lose in 2020?” was 100%, and the median amount of lost bookings reported by agents was 75%.
LET’S TALK MORE ABOUT UNICORNS (TRAVEL ADVISORS THAT DIDN’T LOSE SALES IN 2020)
As much as I believe in unicorns, it’s difficult to fathom that even 8% of travel advisors did not lose sales in 2020. We decided to take a closer look at this segment (the industry unicorns) to find some common denominators among the small percentage of advisors who didn’t lose sales.
Here’s what we found out:
- 62% had fewer than three years of experience: 62% of advisors who did not lose sales had fewer than five years of experience. Since it takes time to generate sales when starting an agency (often 3+ years), it makes sense that advisors with fewer years of experience were less likely to lose sales.
- 74% didn’t sell travel as a primary source of income before COVID: A majority, 74%, of advisors who didn’t lose sales in 2020 did not sell travel as a primary source of income before COVID.
- They had fewer clients: We ask in our survey how many clients advisors worked with the previous year. Those who did not lose sales in 2020 worked with the fewest clients. 85% worked with 50 or fewer clients in 2020.
AGENCY OWNERS SLASHED SALARIES
We asked agency owners if they paid themselves a salary as a part of their compensation structure (applicable to S or C Corp business structures). While the majority of travel advisors do not adhere to this compensation model, 14% reported they paid themselves an annual salary in 2020.
Of this segment, 84% reported decreasing their annual salary in 2020 in response to COVID. The median salary decrease was 60%.
Assistance Programs & Outside Income: What revenue streams did advisors rely on to supplement income during the pandemic in 2020?
55% of travel agents applied for an assistance program, and 95% of travel agents who applied received some type of aid.
The bar graph below shows what percentage of agents applied for different assistance programs:
And below we look at the success rate for different assistance programs:
Pandemic unemployment assistance (PUA) was the most common assistance program travel advisors sought, followed by PPP loans and EIDL.
However, programs with the highest success rate did not align with their popularity. The top 4 programs in terms of success rate were:
- PUA (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance)
- CERB (Canadian Emergency Response Benefit)
- Private Grants
- EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loans)
ADVISORS SOUGHT EMPLOYMENT OUTSIDE THE INDUSTRY
In addition to applying for aid, many travel advisors worked outside the travel industry to buffer their income during COVID. 37% of travel advisors overall reported working outside selling travel due to COVID.
Working outside the travel industry also impacted the likelihood to apply for aid. Among those who did not apply for any assistance, 40% worked outside the travel industry. One explanation may be that alternative employment would preclude advisors from qualifying for the most popular assistance program, pandemic unemployment assistance (PUA).
WHICH ADVISORS APPLIED FOR ASSISTANCE PROGRAMS?
Industry experience played the largest role in the likelihood to apply for assistance. Advisors were more likely to apply for assistance programs as they gained experience.
The graph below illustrates what percent of advisors applied for assistance programs by experience category:
On the other end of the spectrum, new advisors—those with ≤3 year experience—were less likely to apply for pandemic assistance.
However, advisors newer to the industry were less likely to qualify for assistance programs due to the amount of time it takes to generate enough income to become eligible. (Read here why it takes time for new agents to start earning a sustainable income).
While experience had some correlation to the likelihood to apply, it did not impact the success rate of applications among those who did apply. When factoring experience, the percentage of advisors who applied for aid closely aligned with the percentage who received it.
Travel Agency Operations: How the pandemic changed business structures & practices
We asked travel advisors how they adapted their travel agency operations in light of COVID. Here’s a breakdown of what they had to say:
The majority of travel agencies stayed open with limited hours (40%) or regular hours (40%). However, 13% temporarily closed and 2% permanently closed due to COVID.
It’s important to note that the 2% closure rate may be artificially deflated due to the timing and nature of HAR’s survey. Since our survey was released in June 2021, well into the pandemic, it’s not likely it would have attracted agencies that closed prior to our survey period.
While the overwhelming majority of agencies surveyed were home-based (92%) and 8% were storefronts, location influenced how agencies adapted operations. Storefronts were less likely to remain open with full hours compared to home-based agencies, 22% versus 42% respectively.
Additionally, storefront agencies were more likely to temporarily close, 26% compared to 12% of home-based agencies.
DESPITE PANDEMIC AID, MANY AGENCIES DOWNSIZE
Before the coronavirus outbreak, 25% of agencies reported having travel agent employees and/or ICs. Below, the graph shows the breakdown of IC and employee distribution among agencies before March 15, 2020.
By the end of 2020, only 20% of agencies reported having employees and/or ICs. Next, we’ll look at how agencies amended their personnel infrastructure to adapt to COVID.
AGENCIES WITH EMPLOYEES:
71% of agencies that reported having employees before the pandemic had to downsize.
Of those agencies, 53% laid off employees, 45% reduced employee work hours and/or pay, and 48% furloughed employees. The graph below illustrates steps agencies took to downsize:
Respondents were allowed to select more than one choice, which explains why it totals above 100%.
The 5% of agencies replied wrote in “other,” with alternatives to downsizing personnel including:
- Cutting operational budgets
- Did partial unemployment
- Moved to a smaller storefront location
- Closing storefront/ transitioning to a home-based model
AGENCIES WITH INDEPENDENT CONTRACTORS (ICS):
Before COVID, 20% of agencies overall reported having ICs. During the pandemic, a smaller percentage of agencies lost ICs when compared to agencies with employees (34% compared to 71%).
Below the graph shows the percentage of agencies that lost, maintained, and gained ICs during COVID:
A majority of agencies, 58%, reported no change in their IC volume whereas 34% lost ICs. 8% of agencies reported they gained ICs during the pandemic.
Gaining ICs during a pre-vaccinated pandemic may seem like an anomaly, but there are two explanations that can account for the IC gain during that window:
- 23% of agencies with a decrease in employees experienced an increase in their IC numbers. This possibly points to an employee-to-IC conversion, which suggests that some agencies' IC gain during the coronavirus pandemic came at the expense of fewer employees. (Note: IC misclassification--treating ICs as employees--can have severe consequences and something every agency with ICs needs to be aware of.)
- IC growth can be attributed to ICs that switched host agencies in 2020: 10% of hosted ICs switched host agencies, which would account for some agencies’ 2020 IC gain. (We’ll dig more into hosted agent info in our 2021 Host Travel Agent Income Report soon!)
ADVISORS MORE LIKELY TO CHARGE FEES IN LIGHT OF COVID
One explanation is that consolidating our fee and income survey into one impacted who participated. In previous years, it’s possible our stand-alone fee survey was more likely to attract fee-charging agents.5
Despite this, a significant percentage of travel advisors who reported charging no fees, 33%, plan to start charging fees in the next 12 months.
COVID was the lead motivating factor for advisors to embrace fees with 70% reporting that the pandemic impacted their decision.
Below the graph indicates advisors’ who previously didn't charge fees intentions in the next 12 months:
COVID was the lead motivating factor for agents to embrace fees with 70% reporting that the pandemic impacted their decision. (In later reports, we’ll take a deeper dive into fee practices and motivations. Sign up for the newsletter to make sure you don't miss it!)
Travel Advisors Overwhelming Embrace Vaccination
To compare the vaccination rate among travel professionals in comparison to the national (US) average, we asked participants about their vaccine status. 85% of travel advisors reported that they were fully vaccinated, 9% reported they were not vaccinated, and 6% asked us to mind our own business :)
Travel advisors are much more likely to be vaccinated compared to the general (US) public, whereas only 49.5% of the general population was fully vaccinated as of the close of our survey (July 31, 2021). 6
We also asked if traveling was a motivating factor to get vaccinated. The majority, 53%, responded that it was:
It’s important to note that our survey closed on July 31st and that it's likely more advisors have become vaccinated since that time.
The Best For Last: Advisors mastered pandemic hobbies you’ve probably never even heard of before
It turns out that nearly 100% of advisors are hobbyists . . . but not the kind of hobbyist that you may be thinking of!
We know all you active entrepreneurs can't really sit still during a pandemic (if you even had that opportunity in the first place). So we asked participants, What hobbies did you pick up during the pandemic?
This is the palate cleanser to our report. I have to say, it’s a beautiful sight to behold. We offered ten different hobby choices for advisors to select plus a write-in option.
But let’s be real. For many, it didn’t slow down one bit for those who weren’t picking up new jobs, working other full-time jobs, managing kids’ school-from-home, caretaking for relatives and/or spending all their “free” time on the phone trying to reach suppliers trying to secure refunds, cancellations, or letters of credit. Seriously, hats off to y’all.
For those who did sneak in a little downtime, here’s what they did:
But hold up, it does NOT end there. In fact, this graph is futile in terms of serving as documentation of advisors’ pandemic hobbies. Why? It doesn’t include the “other” write-in option.
And you’re NOT going to believe this, but we had 298 different write-ins for hobbies. Including one whose pandemic hobby was survey taking. ;)
Some we’ve never even heard of before. (“Diamond art” . . . is that the luxury version of seed art? “Sublimation printing”? Hello, Google!) There’s pet adoption, aircraft operations, Crossfit, prayer, duck hunting, house flipping, home brewing, having babies, providing foster care (💚😭), orange picking, rabbit raising, puppy training, rug making, RVing, wine drinking (LOTs of wine drinking), businesses startups (shoulda seen that one coming too, you entrepreneurs you!), romance (and historical fiction!) novel-writing.
But perhaps what should have been the least surprising write-in was traveling. Should have seen that one coming too. There were also those who were brutally honest with mentions of crying corners.
We love all these hobbies from the bottom of our happy hearts.
- During COVID, the majority of advisors transitioned from working full-time (FT) hours (30+ hours/week) to working part-time (PT) hours ≥30 hours/week), with the percentage of agents who reported selling travel FT dropping from 60% to 25%.
- During the pandemic, the percentage of advisors selling travel as a primary source of income dropped an additional 16 points, from 52% to 36%.
- The majority of these career travel advisors remain committed to a career in selling travel: 78% plan to go back to selling travel as a primary source of income, 17% are unsure, and 5% reported they will not go back to selling travel as a primary source of income
- 83% of advisors experienced a decrease in sales in 2020. Among this majority segment, 68% of travel advisors lost over 60% of sales.
- Of the small percentage of agents who did not lose sales in 2020, 81% had less than five years of experience and 74% did not travel as a primary source of income before COVID.
- The median 2020 salary decrease among advisors who paid themselves a salary was 60%.
- 55% of travel agents applied for an assistance program, and 95% of travel agents who applied received some type of aid.
- Advisors with the most experience (15+ years) applied for assistance at the highest rate.
- 71% of agencies with employees before the pandemic downsized in 2020.
- 85% of travel advisors reported that they were fully vaccinated as of July 31, 2021.
Data Is the Gift that Keeps on Giving . . . Stay Tuned
Um. Wow. That was pretty thrilling. If you're as excited by this data as the HAR crew, then you're definitely in the right industry!!!! We are cooking up other great information including a report on independent agents, new-to-industry agents, a demographic report, and travel agency employees!
A Huge THANK YOU
Not gonna lie. The thank you section of this report could be longer than the report itself (31 pages up to this point, but who’s counting? 🙋🏻♀️)
Thank so much to the HAR crew who mind-meld, collaborate, and talk me off ledges as I panic over deadlines and data. Not to wax sentimental, but y’all are my chosen family when it comes to colleagues . . . I’m looking at you, April Oliveira (marketing queen and creators of all graphs and images), Dr. Maga Gei (who I fondly refer to as our “data whisperer”), Steph Lee (does she even need an intro?), and Maureen Bourcy (who’s patience and insights bring my blood pressure down in ten seconds flat . . . even on video chat).
A colossal thank you to these travel organizations: American Society of Travel Advisors, Association of Black Travel Professionals, CCRA, Destination Wedding Honeymoon Specialist Association, Ensemble Travel Group, Gifted Travel Network, Nexion Travel Group, Outside Agents, Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, Travel Quest Network, Travel Leaders Network, Travel Pulse, and Travel Research Online.
The Method to Our Madness
Overall, 1,098 advisors responded to our 2021 Travel Agent Survey.
This report profiles travel advisors of all types; hosted, independent, non-selling agency owners, and/or franchise owners. (This particular report does not include travel agent employees.) 1048 respondents met our criteria to be included in this particular report.
Is the concept of a host agency new to you? I highly recommend you check out this article, "What Is a Host Agency," which will give you a foundation on what HAR is all about.
THE NITTY GRITTY
We know some of you may be seriously loving our data and looking for a few more details on the process.
Here's an overview of how we arrived at our numbers:
1. Respondent data is from 2020: HAR’s income survey was conducted between June 1st and July 31st of 2021. Travel agents used their annual 2020 income numbers to complete our survey.
2. Very few extreme outliers were removed. If you made $80,000,000 during a pandemic then #$%&! Go you. But for report purposes, we’ll go ahead and assume that’s an error.
3. We round to the nearest percent or dollar. What can I say? It's easier on the eyes when you're wading through so much data. (Sorry, decimal points. We still love you.)
- Source: HAR’s 2020 travel agent demographic report. ↩
- Advisors who reported selling travel as a primary source of income ↩
- The question did not specify if fees were charged pre and/or during COVID. ↩
- Source: HAR’s baseline used in “Who’s Charging Fees? A 2020 Demographic Report." ↩
- In 2021, HAR consolidated their travel agent fee report and travel agent income report into one larger report. Last year, HAR’s fee survey attracted a higher percentage of fee charges than compared to the income report: 42% of all advisors reported charging fees in HAR’s 2020 income report compared to 52% of all hosted agents in the fee report the same year. This suggests that HAR’s fee survey may be more likely to attract respondents who charge fees. ↩
- Source: CDC.gov via Way Back Time Machine ↩