Today feels like the last nine months didn’t happen. And not in a good way. I feel as though we’re exactly where we were in those first few horrible days of March 2020, watching helplessly as airlines suspend routes and tickets cancel before our eyes. As someone dedicated to her role as a service provider (and naturally a bit of a people-pleaser), March 2020 was the worst month of my career. Opening up my booking system this morning, I was hit with the same horrible sinking feeling, as more cancellations and suspensions pop up and the prospect of disappointing more of my clients looms large. I feel as though that’s all I’ve been doing for nearly a year.
I hate this, and I’m not coping well. I want my career back. I want my phone to go back to ringing day and night with queries large and small. I want to spend hours putting together flight routings and researching hotels and plotting itineraries. I want to go back to arguing with car-hire companies and cadging favours from airline reps, and to complaining about how I never get on top of my To Do list. I miss every single annoying thing about my job — the long hours, the missed weekends, the heavy demands and the magic-wand expectations that every travel professional will recognise as part of the deal.
Most of all (MOST OF ALL) I miss the people for whom my profession exists — all those travellers who allowed me to be a part of their lives for a while. Sixteen years of personal connection. My leisure travellers, who filled my life with vicarious adventure as they jetted off to explore the world. No matter the destination, every single trip was different because the travellers were different. No two package holidays, honeymoons, anniversary trips, birthday surprises, solo tours or family getaways are the same and I have been privy to countless memorable moments and once-in-a-lifetime experiences through the eyes of my wonderful clients. I miss them, and I miss my corporate travellers, too. People with whom I would correspond daily (or at the very least weekly) as I co-ordinated business trips all over the country and all over the world, and to whom I have not spoken for months as the pandemic makes all business travel an unnecessary risk. Their long-suffering PAs and I would send flowers in celebration of each other’s birthdays because we were that closely involved with each other’s lives. I was one of the team at every company I worked for, and that gave me a sense of belonging and worth. I long for that.
There are others missing from my life now, too. Battered and bruised by COVID-19, the travel trade in South Africa (what’s left of it) has lost countless travel professionals. Some to other industries, some to the promise of a better life overseas and some, tragically and irretrievably, to the virus itself. The loss of expertise to the industry is profound and we will be counting the cost of this for decades to come. Faces who became familiar to me during my 16 years in the industry, who added colour and depth to my own career in travel, and who I will likely never see again. No farewells, no time to celebrate their accomplishments or acknowledge their contributions to the trade — just big, empty spaces where they used to be. I want to cry when I think about it. I am crying!
I’m trying to focus on the positive. I’m researching domestic holiday destinations and working hard to discover local gems so that my clients have options when they call. There are so many incredible places to visit in South Africa, and there’s no reason why my business can’t survive on domestic travel alone. I’m here. I’m at my desk. My phone is on. I’m showing up.
And I know that there’s still hope. I know that the vaccines are on their way and that South Africans are still allowed to travel domestically under the new Level 3 restrictions. I know that this cannot last forever… but that doesn’t mean that I’m okay. None of us are. I know I’m not the only one of my ilk struggling with a horrible sense of déjà vu right now, so my plea is this: if you know someone in travel, send (virtual, socially-distant) hugs. We need them. This sucks.