Travel agencies report ups and downs post-Sept. 11

By Bruce Gerstman Special to the Daily Planet
Thursday November 01, 2001

East Bay tour operators who deal in the exotic say their clients, at least those still traveling, are sticking to destinations closer to home.  

“The focus is rediscovering America,” said Rick Snodsmith, sales manager at Berkeley-based Backroads. Snodsmith said his company has felt the sales crunch and, like others, Backroads is adding domestic trips and delaying foreign ones.  

“People think: ‘We were thinking of going to the Loire Valley, but we’re going to keep it close to home this year,’” he said.  

And to adapt to such thinking, Backroads has added three more Wine Country trips, each accommodating 40 to 50 guests on a bike tour through Napa and Sonoma.  

Backroads offered almost 1,000 guided trips last year, ranging in price from about $1,000 for a four-day biking and camping excursion around the San Juan Islands, to about $4,000 to hike, bike and raft through Nepal for nine days.  

But since the attacks, Snodsmith said many clients have stopped flying far, and he predicts trip sales for Backroads will follow the industry’s downturn, sliding 25 to 40 percent for the year.  

The American Society of Travel Agents, a nonprofit association with about 30,000 member travel agencies, reported that agencies lost $1.36 billion in commissions and fee income since the attacks. The organization estimated total revenue will plummet 50 percent between this October and December 2002 – an estimated loss of $4.4 billion for agencies around the nation.  

“People are scared,” said Robin Gorman, director of marketing for Mountain Travel Sobek in El Cerrito. And that’s coming from a company known for serving the more courageous travelers. They offer 21-day hiking trips through Tibetan villages to the 18,450-foot base camp of Mt. Everest ($3,500) and others that voyage around Antarctica for 21 days ($10,000).  

Though sales are down about 20 percent, according to Gorman, Mountain Travel Sobek is confident their clientele will continue to travel.  

“Every trip is going,” she said. “They may not be as full.”  

Even Mountain Travel’s 30-day Pakistan trip scheduled for July is still on. In fact, she said, since Sept. 11, three people signed up for the trek from Islamabad up to the base camp of K2 at 15,000-feet.  

“There’s no need to cancel,” said Gorman, “because it’s not happening for another eight months.”  

Others feel differently. Some companies are delaying or canceling trips. At Backroads, Snodsmith said he is comfortable holding off on some trips, like those to China, Nepal and India. He said they can make up the losses when clients book in other areas.  

Wilderness Travel of Berkeley has also canceled trips. They offer a variety of Middle East adventures, and have cut ones such as their “Iran Unveiled,” in which clients spend 18 days touring medieval and ancient cities like Bam and Esfahan ($3,900 - $4,200).  

Even Mountain Travel is promoting closer trips.  

“South America feels closer to home,” said Gorman, whose Mountain Travel Web site promotes mostly Latin American trips.  

Backroads and Wilderness Travel, another Berkeley retailer, have found sales increasing for this area too.  

Despite cancellations and lagging sales, customers will find few bargains among adventure companies.  

“You can’t entice people with money and discounts to travel who don’t want to travel,” Gorman said. “Discounting is not something we do.”  

Discounting only cheapens the brand, according to Yasmine Ahmed, president and CEO of The Adventure Collection, a group of eight luxury adventure travel companies, including Backroads. Staying away from discounts “may hurt our short-term business, but over the long term it will actually help the overall industry,” she said.  

However, according to Louise Smith, marketing manager at Wilderness Travel, clients independently might find discounts in airfare, which the tour operators exclude from their packages.  

But spending money is not the problem for their demographic, generally 35- to 60-year-olds who have discretionary income.  

“We’ve learned that customers say, it has nothing to do with price, it’s about: ‘Am I feeling good about leaving home right now?’” Ahmed said.  

Despite a lagging economy prior to the attacks, most of these travelers answered yes to that question, and sales are better than last year. Some customers fear neither the economy nor flying. Laura Harrison, a stockbroker in San Francisco, booked her biking excursion in Southern Tuscany after the attacks.  

“The food is great.” Harrison said. “The countryside is beautiful. The people are friendly.”  

It will be Harrison’s sixth trip with Backroads since 1994. “I wouldn’t be eager to travel internationally now,” she said, “but I think you need to get on with your life, and by May things will be fine.”  

Eventually, people will want to travel again, said Snodsmith, who saw a similar trend during the Gulf War. He said guests moved their trips to North America at the time, and many stopped traveling altogether.  

After a while, he said, “there was a huge growth spurt. They got tired of it and said, ‘Forget it, we’re going.’”