Sibling-run travel agency weathers shutdown

TRIPS ON HOLD—Siblings Caren and Lee Ginsburg, in front of their family’s company, Michael’s Travel…

TRIPS ON HOLD—Siblings Caren and Lee Ginsburg, in front of their family’s company, Michael’s Travel Centre, say the pandemic has resulted in a 90% decline in their business. They had to cancel this year’s travel show, which the agency has hosted for 28 consecutive years at the Hyatt Regency Westlake. RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers

TRIPS ON HOLD—Siblings Caren and Lee Ginsburg, in front of their family’s company, Michael’s Travel Centre, say the pandemic has resulted in a 90% decline in their business. They had to cancel this year’s travel show, which the agency has hosted for 28 consecutive years at the Hyatt Regency Westlake. RICHARD GILLARD/Acorn Newspapers

Caren Ginsburg saw the vacation industry grind to a halt firsthand.

The Westlake Village travel agent was on a Regent Seven Seas cruise off the coast of Australia in March 2020 when precautions against the emergence of a new strain of coronavirus started to close ports of call. First the ship’s planned stops in Singapore, Bali and Melbourne were canceled. Then the ship had to cancel its voyage, a world cruise, and dock in Perth so passengers could disembark and fly home.

Ginsburg called her brother, Lee, with whom she runs the family travel agency, and he was able to get her on a flight right away. She came home to Oak Park and an industry that’s been in free fall for the past year.

“Our business declined by 90%,” she said.

But the family-owned business is pinning its hopes on the future.

While they are sending small numbers of people to Hawaii and Mexico, Ginsburg said, much of their current business is for future travel as people plan for 2022, when the COVID-19 vaccine is expected to be widely available and restrictions on travel should be lifted. She said they have seen particular interest in cruises and African safaris.

“People are wanting to go. They just can’t,” she said.

Ginsburg’s parents, Michael and Michele, opened Michael’s Travel Centre in Agoura Hills in 1979. Caren Ginsburg joined the family business in 1988. Until the pandemic, her father was still working four days a week.

Lee Ginsburg, who describes himself as “an old family guy,” said the best part of being a travel agent is being able to create special moments for families.

“We’re helping people with their dreams. Seeing the enjoyment they get planning the trip, then seeing the pictures, never gets old,” he said.

But there’s less enjoyment to go around this year. For the past 28 years the agency has hosted an annual travel show at the Hyatt Regency Westlake featuring cruise and tour operators. The show sometimes draws crowds of up to 1,500 visitors. It was canceled this year due to the pandemic.

“We can’t have our travel show this year, but we want people to know we’re here. We want to make their dreams come true and send them on their greatest adventure,” Caren Ginsburg said.

COVID isn’t the first challenge travel agencies have had to face.

The business took a hit when booking websites emerged, but Ginsburg said people still use the services because agents are members of travel networks that provide special amenities and upgrades at hotels and are experts when it comes to cancellations, re-booking trips, last-minute changes and personalized experiences.

“We’re always able to do those special touches. You can’t do that online. We’re not just a person on the other end of the phone to take an order. We’re not order takers. We’re advisors,” she said.

Lee Ginsburg said the pandemic has affected his own travel plans, as well. He and his family toured national parks this summer as a pandemic friendly vacation option compared to their usual river cruises and ski trips.

A newly minted grandfather, he said that with the vaccine there is light at the end of the tunnel as people show interest in booking trips for next year.

“I’m just excited for people to see the world again,” he said. “One thing we’ve been seeing is the dream trips that people have put on the back burner are now coming to the front burner. Why wait anymore?”