Surviving During Times Of Coronavirus: How Costa Rica Travel Agencies Are Adapting

Travel expert Justin DeBooon talks about how Costa Rica travel agencies are adapting to life during the coronavirus pandemic and offers some thoughts on how they can survive.

The coronavirus pandemic has destroyed the global tourism industry. In a world where no-one can travel, what can travel agencies and tour operators do?

Do they close their doors, fire all their staff, and hunker down for the long ride or do they stay as active as they can?

Here in Costa Rica, where tourism directly accounts for over ten percent of all employment, we’re seeing a variety of things happen with travel agencies. Everything from calling it quits and closing their doors to reinventing their business and finding new ways to attract potential clients.

I work for Costa Rican Vacations, part of the Namu Travel Group and we’re no different from anyone else.

We’ve been through the wringer these past few weeks since tourism stopped. As a company, we’ve experienced fear, desperation, denial, hope, exhaustion, and exultation. Oftentimes all within a few minutes. But we haven’t given up. In fact, we’ve increased our marketing efforts, we’re still making sales, and we’re changing our way of doing business.

It might be crazy to say, but this crisis might end up being an opportunity. Not an opportunity we asked for or wanted, but an opportunity nonetheless.

Before COVID-19 stopped everything, travel agencies around the world were in trouble.

The rise of Google Travel has boded ill for travel agencies in recent years. We’ve all found ourselves lower down the search rankings, paying more to stay relevant. It’s been tougher to market ourselves as Google became our competition.

Sure, in our case, we were on track to have our most successful high season ever before all this. We were doing well. But we had to work harder than ever to market ourselves.

It’s likely now that life after this pandemic will be good for travel agencies. People will be warier about traveling. They will travel less and as a result, look for more quality in their valuable vacations.

This is where specialty agencies like us will prove their worth. In a world where we no longer take travel for granted, we’ll use experts to ensure we have the best possible experiences.

In a way, COVID-19 might turn out to be the salvation of the boutique, specialist travel agency.

But only if we survive the short-to-medium term. So what are we doing to keep our lights on right now?

1. We’re preparing for the local market.

We all know that at some point, the international traveler will come back. What we don’t know is when. Will it be as soon as the borders reopen or months/years down the line? It’s too early to say.

But there’s one sector of travelers who will be the first to get going again. The local tourist.

The local traveler has been around forever and has little to no restrictions on them. No need to cross borders or rely on international airlines. We’re already seeing some tour partners and hotels start campaigns to target locals here in Costa Rica.

Once the beaches and national parks open up, even on a restricted basis, watch these campaigns click into action.

2. We’re asking for help.

The hashtag #Don’tCancelPostpone has gone viral worldwide since this crisis started and Costa Rica is no exception. In fact, I’d say the concept means more here than in most places, given the critical importance of the tourist economy.

The simple truth is, we’ve been asking our booked clients to consider postponing their trips instead of canceling outright.

Of course, we understand that postponing isn’t feasible for some. But for those who can, they’ll not only be giving themselves something to look forward to, they’ll also be helping local people stay in employment.

By radically changing our cancelation policies and honoring present prices into the future, #Don’tCancelPostpone can work out well for the savvy traveler.

3. We’re selling travel credits now for future use.

Like the concept of not canceling, selling travel credits seems to be a common practice in tourism, including here. Everyone needs something to believe in.

Granted, your family’s health and safety is first priority, but if you have nothing to look forward to, it’s hard to know what you’re fighting for.

The vacation has become an essential motivator for many over the years. Knowing you have something good coming up helps people cope with the day-to-day grind.

We don’t know when we can travel again but buying travel credit for a future trip can provide a critical psychological boost. It can provide much-needed HOPE for the future.

It can also provide you with a deal. Many agencies and operators are offering great savings on these vouchers while infusing cash into a decimated local economy. A win-win on all sides.

4. We’re remembering our loyal repeat clients.

For the past few years, tourism has been so good in Costa Rica that many of us have forgotten how to actually sell our product. We all got a bit lazy and enjoyed the low-hanging fruit of people calling and booking trips.

But this is like a reset. We’re having to start over and work on our contact lists. Every travel agency, hotel, or tour operator in Costa Rica has impacted their clients’ lives in one way or another. So what better way to jump-start your business then targeting those who already know and love you?

Sometimes a simple email or call, letting your client know you’re still here is enough. The vast majority of people want to help others.

If we inform past clients of what’s happening and what offers are available, many times they will buy something just to help.

It’s kind of like the street vendor selling palm frond origami.

No one needs that right now, but knowing someone is working and trying to make an honest living is often enough to do what you can.

5. We’re pushing the benefits of Costa Rica as a post-COVID tourist destination.

I know we’re biased but we believe Costa Rica is the best destination in the world.

And more than anything else, we also believe Costa Rica will play a major role in the world’s post-pandemic recovery.

Costa Rica, with its plethora of smaller, boutique hotels set in spacious natural surroundings, offers a perfect environment to both recover and social-distance at the same time.

Once the travel restrictions lift, we know Costa Rica will be back in demand as people look for an oasis of natural beauty and calm in the world. No country offers this like Costa Rica.

We may be in a unique destination in general, but I believe the tourism industry has to remember its roots.

Our mission statement is, “Creating lifelong memories through the joy of travel.” For the most part, our DNA pushes us to explore. That ancient trait still lives in us all. All we need to do is remind ourselves that beautiful experiences and memories await us outside the confines of our homes.

Justin DeBoom lives with his wife Lucia in Jaco, Costa Rica where they run Caribsea Sportfishing. Justin also works as a travel consultant and fishing specialist at Namu Travel, where he helps people plan trips to Costa Rica and Panama. He can be contacted at justindeboom@namutravel.com.