In this Live with Lisa: Candid Conversations Series, I interviewed Melissa Downham as we reviewed the topic:Travel.
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Featured Speaker Biography
Melissa Downham has traveled to 45 countries. She is an independent travel advisor with Departure Lounge, a luxury travel agency located in Austin, and an avid travel blogger, specializing in family and couple's travel. Her knowledge in all things travel has helped hundreds of families create lifetime memories. She lives in Denver with her husband and children.
Lisa: How did you get into the travel industry?
Melissa: Hi Lisa! My career in the travel industry began 25 years ago, right after college....and then took lots of twists and turns to where it is today. My first job out of college was in the hotel industry. I wanted to become a ski bum and somehow found myself with a full-time 8:30-5 job at the Westin in Vail, Colorado. That Westin is now the Grand Hyatt. Upon moving back to Chicago, I got into the corporate world, which quickly became something I knew was NOT me. So I enrolled in photography school and embarked on a 13 year career as a photographer. When my husband was offered a job overseas in Qatar, we jumped on it because of all the traveling we knew we would be able to do while in the Middle East. We learned what tour operators were the best, what hotels were perfect and how to navigate very, very different cultures. After settling in Denver, I started a travel blog to document our travels. Various hand surgeries and general burn-out ended my photography career and I soon found my host agency, Departure Lounge, in an article in Forbes magazine. One call to them and I jumped right in!
Lisa: The effects of Covid-19 must have been a very interesting time as a travel advisor. What has it been like for you?
Melissa: Covid has been more than interesting that's for sure! Out of my several career twists - hotels, advertising, public relations, photography and now travel - Covid has been the most challenging event I have ever navigated in my entire professional life. I know agents who have been in the industry for 40 or 50 years and they have told me they've never experienced anything like it. 9/11 didn't even come close. The advent of OTAs (Expedia, Travelocity, etc) didn't come close. The birth of the internet didn't even come close. Covid has absolutely ravaged the travel industry and most people are struggling. I recently read that since March, the pandemic has resulted in $434 billion in cumulative losses for the U.S. travel economy. And that's just the United States. The numbers are truly astonishing.
The hardest thing about Covid is, not only has it devastated many travel advisors financially, it seems never ending. We are still constantly dealing with cancellations, refunds, reschedules, changing rules and just generally trying to keep up with everything - and not getting paid despite the full time work we are putting in. And seeing friends get laid off or furloughed and have to totally reinvent themselves and possibly find a new career is tough. The good news is that travel is slowly coming back. It remains to be seen what will happen in the future, given rising Covid numbers.
Lisa: What is open and what isn't at this time?
Melissa: That is a question that many people have and the answer is, it changes almost weekly! There are actually quite a lot! Currently Mexico, Belize, Honduras, Colombia and Costa Rica are open. And Hawaii just opened. Along with several Caribbean islands - Antigua, Aruba, Bermuda, Dominican Republic and several more. In Europe, Croatia and Montenegro are both open. As is Turkey. In North Africa, Morocco and Egypt are open. In East Africa, Kenya and Tanzania. As well as Zambia and Zimbabwe. So there are many, but most of them do require negative Covid tests, some require travel insurance and some have website apps that you must download onto your phone and register with. This article has a decent list of what is open to Americans - although it's worth noting that some of the countries still have a 2 week quarantine in place so it's best to check with individual country's websites before planning a trip.
Lisa: What countries can we go to right now?
Melissa: See list above
Lisa: Where can people get a Covid test in 72 hours?
Melissa: This seems to change on the daily also! There are many places that test around the country, but I do occasionally hear stories where people aren't getting their tests back in time. So far, none of my travelers have had an issue and many countries even post their preferred testing site on their tourism websites. For example, Turk and Caicos has a great option for a mail in test that comes back to you within 24 hours (see www.tcisafe.com). You cannot self test - you must take the swab to a doctor and have them swab you, but after you mail it in, you'll get it back within 24 hours for peace of mind. In addition, I just found a great resource for testing labs around the country that list what kind of test (PCR or rapid test) and how long the wait is. Check here.
Lisa: Is flying safe?
Melissa: I'm sure it depends on who you talk to but in my opinion, yes, flying is safe. Even the CDC has stated that air filtration systems on airplanes make it difficult for visuses to spread easily. Most people think that all the air on a plane is "recycled". Not true. About 40% of a cabin's air gets filtered through Hepa filters (the same filters used in hospital operating rooms) and 60% is brought in from outside the airplane every three minutes or so. Very few Covid cases can actually be traced back to an airplane. You're much more likely to get it from something you do frequently, such as go to a gym or a grocery store. I think this is the perfect time to fly actually. It breaks my heart to see all the flight attendants ad pilots being laid off because of this. That being said, if you are seriously immunocompromised or feel uncomfortable in any way, best to lay low and not travel for the time being.
Lisa: What recommendation do you make in terms of safety measures?
Melissa: Wear masks when inside, such as at a grocery store or walking through a restaurant. Wash hands frequently. Basically I recommend the same things the CDC has always recommended.
Lisa: Do you recommend travel insurance?
Melissa: Always. And we don't travel without it and never have. It has reimbursed us for several snafus over the years. People always think they are going on a the trip no matter what. I ask them, what happens if one of your kids breaks a leg? Your mom dies? Unfortunately things happen beyond our control and there are times when a trip doesn't happen. That being said, travel insurance doesn't technically cover Pandemics or Epidemics. Travel insurance won't cover you if you cancel and call the insurance agency and say you are scared to travel because of the Pandemic. Never has, never will! It WILL cover you however, if you test positive for Covid a few days prior to the trip and can't go - it counts as an illness, which is a covered reason. Or you're hospitalized in another country. Cancel for Any Reason insurance has always been the most comprehensive and one of the covered reasons is a simple "Don't want to go anymore". Which would cover you if you were fearful of Covid. Sadly, in Covid times, finding Cancel for Any Reason insurance is pretty rare - I can only think of one agency and now I believe they only cover 60% of the trip or so.
Lisa: How has this pandemic affected hospitality?
Melissa: Very adversely. Hotels and tours are only allowed to book at certain capacities, so have had to let people go. Therefore, 5 star service has been affected. If there aren't enough staff, mistakes are going to get made. Food quality may go down because the 5 star chef has been furloughed. Many of the usual amenities I can get as an advisor aren't working out as well because my contact at that particular hotel had been let go and there is a young, inexperienced staffer has taken her place. This summer, I had a great client, whom I love, not get a balcony room when we told her she would. Why? My contact at that hotel has been laid off. New staff didn't pay attention. And client was paying 5 star prices for a 5 star hotel. These things matter to people on their vacations and sadly, I think there is a long way to go before things are back to normal. And many people think there are going to be deals out there. There really aren't a lot. Hotels simply can't afford it. They have lost millions upon millions and are really struggling.
Lisa: How has it affected the airlines?
Melissa: Again, very adversely. Number 1, they're dealing with the rumors that they are basically germ factories. Number 2, they lost untold amounts of money. Again more and more people laid off. Currently most airlines are keeping a middle seat open, but eventually that is going to have to end if airlines hope to profit. Travelers are going to have to understand that. Personally, an open seat doesn't give me any more comfort - that extra foot and a half of space isn't going to make you safer. A person uncontrollably coughing on the other hand....that would make me uncomfortable.
Lisa: How have they responded?
Melissa: Airlines and hotels are actually responding well. Or at least, as best they can. Airlines are really trying to make people feel comfortable and hotels are too. And visiting a hotel in Mexico when it's only 50% full? It has its advantages. Very personalized treatment in most cases!
Lisa: What has been your greatest disappointment as a travel advisor during this time?
Melissa: For the most part, my job is extremely rewarding. I try to remember how lucky I am even when I'm filling out my unemployment forms! I think my biggest disappointment is in the media to be honest. I feel that they have thrived on headlines that are half truths, or generally designed to insight panic in people when it came to travel. They were doing it even before Covid was declared a Pandemic.
Lisa: What is your hope for the future of travel?
Melissa: I just want it to go back to where it was! With people calling me, genuinely excited to start planning that bucket list trip with their kids. Longing to see a place that they've only dreamed about. I can't wait for people to return from Paris and tell all their friends how magical it was. Or make a new friend on a Kenyan safari, with whom they'll always keep in touch with. Travel truly unites the world and I think people are longing for that connection again. I believe it will come back - but it's going to be a long road. I just hope people are willing to do their part - whether that's wearing a mask on a flight if that is what is required, or just giving grace to other people.
Lisa: What changes do you think may be permanently made?
Melissa: I think masks on airplanes are probably here to stay - at least for most people and particularly during cold and flu season. I also think readily available hand sanitizer throughout a resort or the airport are here to stay also. Traveling may become more personal - with people taking longer trips to bucket list places and spending more money, rather than taking several shorter trips throughout the year. I think the pandemic could eventually be a boon for the travel industry - everyone I know is dying to travel and I think they're willing to spend more to make it perfect.
Lisa: I know you are an avid traveler. What do you miss?
Melissa: I miss planning a big trip with my kids and husband. The feeling of really looking forward to something. A few years ago, we went to Tanzania and Zanzibar and it was perfect in every way. I'm longing for a trip like that in my future. I so love introducing my kids to something new and a completely different culture.
Lisa: Where is your favorite place to travel to and why?
Melissa: For a quick and easy trip from Denver, I love Mexico. The beach, the food, the ruins, the culture, the people. It's just a spectacular country and has so much more than people know. I recently just designed an itinerary to Cabo for a client, but instead of spending all their time on the typical Cabo San Lucas experience, they are traveling north to La Paz, a beautiful little fishing town on the Sea of Cortez, where they plan to snorkel with sea lions on Espiratu Santo Island and then snorkel with whale sharks, because it's whale shark season in the Sea of Cortez. Then they are going to drive back down to Cabo by way of Todos Santos, a town given the designation of Pueblos Magicos - "Magical Town." There are around 83 towns given this recognition by the Mexican Tourism Association.
Lisa: What location should be on all of our bucket lists?
Melissa: Definitely an African safari. We did Tanzania - Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater and Taragire National Parks - and then spent some time on Zanzibar island and we still talk about it all the time. It was my kids absolute favorite experience of all time!
Learn More about Melissa Downham here:
- Instagram: @theroamingfamily
- Facebook: @theroamingfamily
- Follow her blog here
- Find her on LinkedIn here
- Phone: 303-506-4324
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