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Travel agents fight to stay afloat amid COVID-19 chaos

Travel agents fight to stay afloat amid COVID-19 chaos

When the Small Business Administration announced on Thursday that it is no longer accepting Paycheck Protection Program applications that were not yet approved by lenders, travel advisers were hard hit. A survey by Travel Leaders Network of its members reveals that more than one-third had already applied for a PPP loan as authorized under the CARES Act, but 94.8% reported not receiving approval or funding. Travel Leaders Network is North America’s largest travel agency company and represents nearly 55,000 travel advisers.

“The vast majority of travel advisers are small business owners operating in cities big and small in every state in this country, from Miami, Florida, to Tacoma, Washington, from New York City to San Francisco, and their businesses are hard hit because no one’s traveling right now,” said Roger E. Block, President of Travel Leaders Network. “The financial relief these servants of the traveling public hoped to receive from these loans were going to help pay the salaries of the travel advisers who are still helping clients re-book their travel plans as travel restrictions are extended later into the year with no sign of when travelers will be back in the air, on cruises, at conferences, in hotels or rental cars.”

The survey results from participating Travel Leaders Network agency owners who addressed whether or not they applied for financial relief through the CARES Act or other financial relief programs, reveal a microcosm of many other small business owners whose businesses have been negatively impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the survey, 36.7 percent of respondents reported having applied for the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) and 94.8 percent of them had not yet received the funds. Approximately 60 percent of respondents applied for the SBA Disaster Loan and 98.9 percent had not receive funds, while 51 percent had applied for the SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loan Emergency (EIDL) Advance and 100 percent had not yet received the $10,000 advance from the EIDL.

“The SBA is currently unable to accept new applications for the Paycheck Protection Program based on available appropriations funding,” the SBA said in a statement Thursday morning. What qualifies as a new application includes those forms still sitting with lenders who had not yet submitted them to the SBA even though their clients filled out the forms up to two weeks ago when PPP launched on April 3.

“Paycheck protection is desperately needed for travel advisers, who are in a commission-based business payable only after the date of travel, hampering the cash flow and the ability of agency owners to be able to afford to pay staff when people aren’t traveling,” Block added. “This industry will recover, but at a slower pace than, say, a restaurant or a hair salon that will have the cash flow as soon as someone pays. But travel agencies are intermediaries between the client and the hotel or tour operator or cruise line and airline. Travel agencies are one of the few industries that aren’t paid at the time the trip is booked, but instead after the traveler departs for their journey. That’s why financial relief programs are very critical to the long-term viability of some of the agencies in our network who have seen revenue declines of 70, 80 and 90 percent in the past few weeks.”

Travel Leaders Network, and its parent company, Travel Leaders Group, join with the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) in lobbying for additional funding options for its member agencies so that they can continue to pay staff to assist clients with their short-term and long-term travel planning.

Some of the survey respondents addressed their frustration on the amount of time it was taking for loans to be processed, either by their lender or by the SBA. Here is what the agency owners said:

  • Kristy Osborn, Travel Leaders in Loveland, Colorado: “We applied for the PPP as soon as it became available and as of April 13 my banker said it was in underwriting. I did ask how many applications had they accepted and she said their bank had processed 4,000 and not one is approved yet. We currently continue to pay our staff their existing salaries. They are working from home and are maintaining their original hours. I can’t even grasp what this will do to us if we can’t receive financial assistance.”
  • Sue Tindell, Travel Designers, Rice Lake, Wisconsin: “I started the application the first week in April and got paperwork turned in to my lender on the 7th and 8th. I was approved on the 11th. I am waiting on the final DocuSign and my banker. We were expecting funds to be deposited by April 21. Our store front is closed to the public, but I am here working and the rest of our office is on unemployment. The PPP is great for small business and I hope they extend it.”
  • Alex Kutin, Travel Leaders, Indianapolis, Indiana: “I don’t know anyone who has received any money. Nobody. It’s the ‘Non-existent loan’ situation. I applied for the PPP program the day it came out. I got a notice that I completed it: “Thank you for submitting your application.” And I have heard nothing. The not hearing anything is what is so aggravating. We went to a 30-hour work week, working from home and I am still paying my staff.  It reduced my payroll some. But they are still impacted because they work on a salary plus commission. Without travel, there is no commission because we’re not being paid from the suppliers.”
  • Denise Petricka, Higgins Travel, Eau Claire, Wisconsin: “For the PPP, I uploaded my documents to my bank the week before Easter.  My loan officer told me within an hour that I was approved.  It took another week to get the papers from the bank that I needed to sign. In the meantime, I had to lay off my entire staff and two proceeded with retirements they already had planned.”
  • Dennis Heyde, Travel Leaders in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin: “On March 12 we started investigating sources for loan assistance – once China travel came to an end, I saw this coming and I wasn’t going to sit back and wait. We closed down the office on March 20 when we moved everybody to their homes with their computers and their phones – they are getting paid. We applied under the CARES program. We got a confirmation number, but there is no place to go check the status. There is nowhere to call. You sit blind on this. Finally, on April 16 we were funded at our requested amount for PPP and also for the advance draw for the EIDL.”
  • Suzette Vides, Business Travel & Tours in Reno, Nevada: “I still have not received my loan. A couple of out of state loan officers called me to check in to see if I had questions and to make sure I had all of the right forms and attachments, but I don’t know the status of my loan. They were thinking the funds would show up this week or next.”