Sterling travel agent deals with pandemic grounding tourism

 
 
Posted5/9/2020 7:00 AM

STERLING, Ill. -- The global coronavirus pandemic has shut down businesses around the world.

It also has shut down travel around the world, so for those whose business is travel, this has been an especially hard time.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Avril Winkle, owner of Destinations Travel in Sterling, has been booking vacations for 30 years. She's worked around epidemics like H1N1 and Zika, but she has never seen anything quite like this.

'During those times you have cancellations and people making changes, but I have never had a time when we've been quarantined and the government has shut down flights and nobody is going anywhere, no business is happening,' Winkle said.

Under normal circumstances, this would be a big time of year for travel agents, with spring and summer travel to plan. It's also a big time of year for an agency financially '" an agency doesn't get paid until the clients get home from a trip.

'The first quarter of the year is our busiest quarter in terms of new bookings and in terms of clients paying balances, because they are going away over spring break or Easter,' she said.

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'We have the spring break and Easter travel section as well in there, and then as we get into May, that's when people start going to Europe. This is a big time for us, and the business we do typically in the first 6 months of the year kind of carries us through the end of the year.'

As the virus began to make its way through the world, Winkle was seeing early on the effect it was having.

'It started in January, where I was noticing Vietnam river cruises were canceling,' she said. 'People going to Thailand, February is a great time for people to go to Thailand. I had an anniversary couple who had booked a really big Thailand trip the year before, they booked it in April 2019 to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary in February, and obviously that had to be changed, and now they're going to do it in November this year.'

The next to fall of the travel map was Italy, which had to shut down once the virus began to hit there. Beore that, Italy and Greece, seemed like the prime vacation destinations this year, she said.

'We found ourselves back in February, March, having to monitor what was going on in Italy. We knew at that point the chances of some of those April, May trip actually going was going to be slim to none.'

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But travelers who have used Destinations Travel are in many ways in better shape than some who have booked trips online, with customers of bookit.com left in the lurch with no one quite sure if that company was even still in business.

'As soon as (the pandemic) happened, we sent a email to all our clients (saying) 'listen, don't worry ... please trust us to do the right thing and keep you informed and help you navigate through this,'' Winkle said. 'They knew, through us reaching out, we're there.'

Winkle isn't booking anything before July, and knows even that will depend on how things work out. That means her agency will have no income through the next couple of months, at least.

She has reached out for help, looking into the Small Business Association program, although she has not yet gotten any response. She did get some help through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, so she can keep her staff on board.

'That was the important thing for me was, what was going to happen with my team, because I don't have a business if I don't have my team.'

The loan programs are hard to navigate at the state and federal levels, with pages of fine print, and in some cases, businesses can't take money from one fund if they accept a loan from another.

Last week, Sterling's Industrial Development Commission awarded its first round of loans from the Revolving Loan Fund to help 20 local businesses, including one to Destinations Travel.

The Revolving Loan Fund, initially established to help new businesses get off the ground, was reconfigured early in the pandemic to help existing businesses deal with revenue losses. In this round, more than $131,000 from the $300,000 fund was laoned.

The help from groups like the Sauk Valley Chamber of Commerce and Greater Sterling Development Corp. has gone beyond financial, Winlke said

'They've all had something they've been able to share with us as part of a business community, to help us have an understanding and not automatically go into a panic.

'It's nice to have someone you can go to and get their take on things from a business point of view.'

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Source: Sauk Valley Media, https://bit.ly/3av5IlT

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