Q&A With Travel Expert & AIV CEO, Mikael Audebert

Travel Industry & COVID-19

April 16, 2020

We are travelers, NOT tourists. Traveling is part of our lives, and we know you miss it as much as we do! In the longer term, we will never stop being curious, and wanting to see and learn more about the beautiful world that surrounds us. Even in the most challenging times, some things…never change! In today's Q&A, we feature our very own Mikael Audebert, CEO and Founder of Art in Voyage. If you've ever been on an Art in Voyage journey, you would have certainly gotten to know Mikael at some point, and you will know that what you're about to read is honest, heartfelt and based on a fountain of knowledge!

The travel industry has undoubtedly been shaken, yet travelers are dying to know when they will be able to continue seeing the world. When do you expect to see travel plans back in place?

Well, some would say it all depends on how quickly people can understand lockdowns and quarantines are the only way to get out of this. Personally, I think returning to normal will be more than just flattening the curve. It will be about the logistics involved and the possible hesitations to get back into “crowds”.

Many airlines are hurting, many may never recover. So it’s more a matter of how quickly we can get planes to take off again and borders to re-open. The way we board, fly and even get greeted at our destinations will be forever changed. I’d expect stringent sanitary controls on departure and arrival. I’m an optimist and also hoping to attend the birth of my grand nephew in Provence this June!

If we can see a decrease in cases over the next 3-5 weeks, we should be back online late May/early June. But it all depends on everyone doing their part, and it will be slow. We may not all agree with the process or the reasons behind it. At this stage however, it’s pretty clear that until that curve “flattens”, authorities won’t reopen their borders, or airports.

For those wanting to cancel flights, tours and accommodation, what is the best way to handle the process of being refunded?

Unfortunately, many airlines are bleeding cash, so they are mostly offering credits. And that is fine if they can make sure people can rebook far in the future. For instance, Emirates has put all open tickets on a 24-month rebooking hold. No questions asked! Others, are playing plain and simple shady (Icelandair is one of them).

They know they can’t fly, and they won’t cancel flights until the last minute. That way, they hang on to their cash as long as possible. You see, if YOU cancel, you basically forfeit your rights. If THEY cancel, they owe you a refund (per the U.S Department of Transportation rules. Don’t let them tell you otherwise).

Talk to your agent or tour operator. Confirm with them what they plan is to safeguard your payments. For instance, at Art in Voyage, we have a strong internal insurance coverage and escrow policies in place. We have been prepared for this type of downfall, mostly based on a recession scenario that was due to arrive soon)

Remember the little guys: In some instances, your payments were probably going to local suppliers and vendors. So if you can, instead of flat out canceling, agree to a new date, or agree to a credit for future travel. You will do your part safeguarding small businesses at your destination, and that’s a “feel good” moment.

If you’re unable to travel and credit won’t work, talk to your booking agent and discuss your options. Preferably, options that won’t negatively affect you or the agent.
In doubt, please don’t hesitate to contact me directly at mikael@artinvoyage.com – I am always happy to assist, even if you did not book through us.

There are some incredible travel deals out there currently that are keeping avid travelers excited. What destinations would you suggest considering/what destinations would be best to take advantage of during this time?

I have a team member dedicated to reaching out and gathering specials that some of our suppliers and partners may want to offer. However, they are slow coming. I think there is still a sentiment of disbelief and local suppliers, partners and hotels are not changing their rates beyond June. There’s a natural hope for a quick recovery and a strong desire to travel again.

However, we’re monitoring destinations and airlines for specials that will more likely come out once it has become a little less “insensitive” to discuss travel. But yes, those are more likely coming.

That said, remember, getting a deal is a fantastic way to get back on the road. But more importantly, you will do something incredible for local communities at chosen destinations that have been decimated by the complete stop of the flow of tourists.

I’d say Europe will be on the list of huge sales, as much as 40% off for cities like Rome, Paris, London. Other destinations like South Africa, currently suffering from the shut-down and a collapsing currency, or even French Polynesia . Those will be offering special packages and think about these destinations if you are enjoying some “social distancing”.

Cruise companies will more likely offer huge discounts as well. Are you really ready to get back on a 5,000 passenger ship though? That will be the question. I’d favor smaller ships (Seabourn, Silverseas, Oceania) or even River cruises. If you are a cruise type of traveler, and have any doubts, we can assist with some guidance
(Little known fact: We do certain cruises too).

Throughout history, Italy has been one of the most popular travel destinations, but has taken a massive hit this year. Do you expect Italy to recover and regain its popularity, or do you think a ‘newcomer’ destination will replace Italy’s position?

I think Italy will make a strong come back. Its position will remain unchanged and may even improve, if for no other reasons than due to a sympathy factor (sort of “let’s get behind Italy” movement”). I do expect an increase in travel to their countryside though. I strongly believe people will start traveling better and smarter. Using more sustainable accommodations and places focused on authenticity and smaller crowds is the way forward.

I have no doubt Italy and most of Europe will recover from this. It will take a while though. Your question is actually touching on a good point. New destinations will arise from this stronger, and there are those that favor less crowds, are more nature oriented and boast smaller accommodations.

Last but not least, we will more likely see a shift of guests’ reasoning when picking destinations. While there is very little proof the virus spreads slower in warmer temperature, we will see a shift in travel influence based on flu seasons at the selected destinations.

The travel industry overcame the challenges of 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis but saw massive changes in the world of travel, such as new leaders in aviation. What changes in the travel industry do you expect to see as we recover from this period?

I believe airlines and countries will start implementing stronger rules when it comes to flying when sick. I envision more stringent controls at airports, and ports of entries. It is also the only way we are going to build confidence back for the traveling public. I travel a lot myself and I am always amazed to see how irresponsible some people can be, flying while sick.

I believe we are seeing the end of this, through education and enforcement. Airlines already have this on their books but rarely enforce it. I think that airlines will start planning better for future scenarios – alliances, not mergers, may improve by sharing routes. For instance, 1 plane, 3 airlines sharing revenues. It already exists through code-sharing, but that usually happens among airlines of an existing alliance (such as Sky team). I see it been expanded to competing airlines.

I also believe countries that did not previously have travel consumer protection will look at implementing basic financial requirements for travel companies. We did for banks after 2008.

Last but certainly not least, I expect many to start offering travel insurance as part of their packages. I know we are strongly considering doing so at Art In Voyage. This is a peace of mind many people want to have, yet often forget to act on, either because of its cost or simply because they feel invincible.

The phrase “panic lives longer than a virus” is going around online and is certainly a challenge to overcome, especially for the travel industry. How do you plan on dealing with the situation of facts vs fears?

The travel industry will certainly be the last one to come back from this. There is no doubt, and it’s not being pessimistic to admit it. It is just reality. That said, there will always be a portion of the population for whom nothing abroad can be trusted. And for them, covid-19 will be used to justify their existing fears when it comes to traveling.

On our end, we will continue to promote facts, using professionals to make our argument that it is SAFE to travel. There will always be health risks when traveling abroad, or even at home as a matter of fact. But even more so when going to exotic destinations. An informed traveler is a smart traveler.

I personally believe the biggest fear will be related to the impact of closing borders or even refusing cruise ships access to ports. It has made them feel more vulnerable, financially but also logistically. THAT is the challenge we will have to face in the travel industry.

Yet, like for most things in life, people also have a short memory, especially in the era of social media. I’m confident people who want to discover the world and enjoy life will find a way to overcome these fears. Remember though, a good travel agent, a good travel expert will always advise you on places that make you feel safe. They will not force you into traveling to a destination that would bring sentiments of fear or concerns.

Those who are passionate about travel are known to have itchy feet and will be feeling frustrated with the current travel restrictions. What coping mechanisms would you suggest to avid travelers feeling the effects of not traveling?

Plan a trip! You may not be able to jump on a plane, but nothing keeps you from working on a list of dream destinations. Build that excitement and get things in motion. And talk to a travel planner (many of us could use more human interaction to be honest ?)

It may not immediately satisfy that urge to go somewhere, but building excitement is also part of the fun. In the process, you’ll give work to a travel agent who probably needs it more than ever.
Hope received, hope given!

There is plenty of material online to keep the dream alive. In the coming weeks, we will release incredible videos to learn more about several destinations we believe should be discovered.

It’s also really exciting to see live streaming from hotels, galleries and destinations. A new favorite of mine, live daily safaris in the Kruger National Park! Embark on the Sunset Safari at 09:30 AM ET daily from the comfort of your sofa… click here to visit the WildEarth LIVE Youtube channel.

I am pretty certain in a few weeks, this nightmare will be all behind us and for people like me who can’t stay in place more than a few weeks, the world will be, all of the sudden, an even sweeter and more magnificent place to take on than ever before!

You must have some amazing stories to share from your experience and history in the travel industry! What is your favorite memory from your travel expert experience?

I do have quite a few, and many I’ll keep for a book someday. Yet, I’d say this. My greatest joy, as a travel expert but also as a traveler, is to host a journey, or send someone on an adventure that I have designed, only to see them go home in tears..of joy. Thankful for the memories, the new discoveries, the new people they met along the way, the different ways of life they have encountered and the rich culture they have learn about.

There is nothing, absolutely nothing more fulfilling than to witness that joy in someone whose travels have brought a new take on things. A new appreciation for people and very often, a new approach to their own lives. That’s what traveling does to one, and that’s why it will always be a part of what humanity appreciates the most.

Watch it coming back online sooner, and greater than anyone could imagine.