When talking to Rose Gray, business relationship director for Fox World Travel, you might not guess how much the travel industry has suffered because of the pandemic. Gray, who exudes a great sense of optimism, says it might be a struggle, but she believes her company is poised to recover quickly.
With eight locations throughout Wisconsin, Fox World Travel is one of the most enduring companies in the industry. It began as a family business, established in 1960 by Harold Juedes as Fox Valley Travel. Harold's son, David, purchased the business in 1979, and David's son, Chip, is in the process of purchasing it. During that time the company has experienced tremendous growth and received numerous awards. Growth was accomplished by adding locations and acquiring more than 20 travel agencies in the 1980s. To reflect the expanded market area, the name was changed to Fox World Travel.
"David and Chip are fully prepared and forward thinking," Gray said. "They have been through recessions, 9/11 , and the effects that the internet has had on the industry. They have weathered the storms and there is no fear that they won't make it through this one."
Gray said that the industry grew by 4.1% in 2019 and a similar rate was anticipated in 2020. Instead, because of the virus, the experts are estimating that the loss could be as great as $84 billion.
"You hear the tired clichés like, 'We have to pivot,' but no one could have predicted this. This is why you need to always be prepared. You have to have a long runway so that there isn't only one part that is making money," she said.
Although purveyors of business development recommend finding a Unique Selling Proposition or defined niche, Gray thinks that those travel companies who did so may have doomed themselves. Those who specialize in cruises, or "sun and fun," or other single areas may not have the depth needed to survive.
In contrast, Fox World focused on developing many areas of expertise including business and vacation travel, cruises, group tours, award travel and destination weddings. As the internet matured, they saw early on the importance of adapting.
"Chip and David invest a great deal in technology," Gray said. "With the evolution of the internet, it was predicted that travel agencies wouldn't survive and those who didn't anticipate the effect, failed. We found that it was better to embrace the change, not ignore it. That's why we developed our website as we did."
That technology has made them a leader in the business by making it easy to manage travel. When the virus forced the cancellation of flights, they had the necessary connections to obtain credits or refunds.
"The core value of Fox was to find a way," Gray said. "We told our clients, 'We will find a way to get you that money back. We will find a way to get you home. We will find a way to manage your travel.'" Employees worked around the clock to handle the calls that were flooding in. The work paid off, and Gray said that, for the most part, no one was just plain out of luck. Either they got a refund or a future credit.
As the pandemic has raged on, Fox World employees have experienced furloughs, but the owners understand the stress and provide a weekly update on the state of the company including a report on what they thought would happen, what didn't happen and what is happening. They are not giving false hope, but rely on transparency.
Gray, and others in the company, have begun fielding more calls from people who are anxious to travel. There is increased interest in travel to areas where restrictions are being eased; that includes plans for destination weddings for those who had to put plans on hold. The question is, "What will future travel look like?"
A blog on the company website, foxworldtravel.com, speculates that touchless technology will expand to hotel room keys and elevators. Facial recognition may allow for touchless ID and cashless payment technology will expand. There are airlines that already have mandatory COVID-19 rapid testing with printed wristbands given to those who pass. The wristbands include a QR code for tracking.
Once there is a vaccine, it might be required for travel. And, of course, masks will likely continue to be mandated. The question is whether or not travelers will accept these changes.
Gray thinks so.
"If you think back to prior to 9/11, you could actually walk someone through the gate and there was no TSA. What happens now is we put our liquids in a Ziploc bag and don't think about it. Was it a big deal at first? It was, but now, it's just what we do."
Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and past district director for SCORE, Wisconsin.