Travel agencies adjust to some downturn

Despite war in Iraq, business isn't so bad

April 15, 2003|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Area travel agents report that business is down as a result of the war with Iraq, but not as much as they initially had feared.

"I don't think it's as bad as I thought it was going to be," said Carol Pennington, president of Inner Harbor Travel Inc. in Baltimore. "You envision another terrorism attack and wonder whether you're going to be able to survive."

Over a relatively short time span, the travel agency business has struggled with the post- Sept. 11 downturn, recession, commission cuts by airlines, cruise ship maladies, an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and the war, she said.

"You wonder how much more small travel businesses can survive," said Pennington, whose office has four agents.

Overall, Pennington said, her first-quarter travel revenue was less than 10 percent lower than in last year's quarter, though European travel has fallen far more, she said.

"We're not booking Europe and not booking Asia," she said. "I'm doing quite a bit of Caribbean and Mexico. They've switched destinations. They really haven't stopped booking," she said.

According to a recent survey by the Travel Industry Association of America, 71 percent of Americans are not interested in traveling overseas. Of that 71 percent, nearly one-third say their lack of interest is a direct result of the war and the weak economy.

From 2000 to 2001, U.S. travel spending overseas dropped 13 percent, or $10.4 billion, according to the TIA data. Numbers for last year are not yet available.

Brian R. Levin, a travel consultant at Royal Travel Planners in Baltimore, has been surprised that the war has not had a greater impact on the 21-year-old agency.

"Business has been better than I anticipated since the war," he said. "I thought I'd be sitting here doing nothing for days besides watching the war. We're getting calls."

Still, he estimated that business was off about 20 percent during February and March compared with those months last year.

Dino Luzzi, president of Town & Country Travel Inc. in Towson, said he has fared about the same as other local travel agencies.

"Is our volume off?" he said. "Yes. But it's not as bad as I thought it was going to be."

Overall, he said, his first-quarter sales are about 30 percent lower than in last year's quarter. But European travel dropped about 70 percent during the first quarter, he said.

Still, university accounts have continued to bring steady business to his agency, which is split about evenly between corporate and leisure travel, he said.

Towson University's women's gymnastics team recently traveled to Manchester, N.H., and Loyola College's women's lacrosse team is to fly to San Francisco this week, he said.

A recent trip to Las Vegas was another reminder to Luzzi that Americans are still traveling.

"It was mobbed," he said. "The airplanes were overbooked. Of course, Vegas is a popular destination, but this was a Monday afternoon."

Luzzi envisions a summer full of driving vacations, which would not be good for his agency.

"The next month is going to be key for how travel will go for the summer and fall," Luzzi said. "The less coverage of the war on television and in the newspapers, people will feel more comfortable going places. It's still a wait-and-see attitude for another month. We'll see how it plays out."

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