How Chicago’s Travel Agencies Are Surviving the Pandemic

Airline layoffs, travel bans, quarantine orders – it’s been a calamitous year for the travel and tourism industry.

And Chicago’s independent travel agencies, scattered in storefronts across the city’s neighborhoods, have been anything but immune.

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One of them is Venus Travel on West Belmont Avenue, long a fixture on Chicago’s Northwest Side since it opened in 1968.

Owner John Conenna officially took the business over from his dad, Vince, in the early ‘90s, offering a level of customer service he says you won’t get from his online competitors.

And until February of this year, business was booming. Then, in what’s become a common refrain, COVID-19 changed everything.

“It was like a switch, like going into your bedroom at night and shutting off that light,” Conenna said. “The phone calls now did not become bookings, they became cancellations and refunds and doubt and questions that no one could answer.”

Conenna says he’s processed 700 refunds since, as his clients, like so many others, canceled trips to Europe, Mexico, all over the world.

But eight months deep into the pandemic, Conenna is still coming to work every day, to the building where his dad started this business more than 50 years ago.

“I cannot close that door. I have people, friends, family that are still telling me: ‘What are you doing at Venus Travel?’” he said. “I have work to do. It’s not the work that I wanted to do, but it was still servicing the client and helping the client to get through this.”

Conenna has booked some emergency travel for a few clients. But he says it’s a small fraction of his old business.

Across the city in Edgewater, Pleasant Travel near Devon Avenue is in a similar position.

Manager Ali Khan has operated out of this location since the late 1990s, working with his wife and son to book trips for the area’s large immigrant communities.

“I deal mostly with all the ethnic groups,” Khan said. “People traveling to Africa, people traveling to Europe, people traveling to Middle East, and especially people traveling to Asia, where India and Pakistan is our main concentration.”

Like Venus Travel, the coronavirus has left Khan booking only a small number of trips – mostly to countries like Pakistan and Ethiopia, which have loosened travel restrictions.

“Our business has gone down to almost about 95% – 95% of the business is not there no more,” he said.

Khan says, however, because his business is small and family run, he’s confident they’ll be able to stick it out.  

“[We are] hopeful that as soon as things start getting back to normal, we will see the people coming back to us,” he said. “It may take a little time, but we’re hoping by end of February or beginning of March, we should be in little bit better condition than we are now.”

After plummeting in March, travel volume is slowly growing again. The TSA is reporting an uptick in air travel for October, although the numbers remain far below what they were pre-pandemic.

And for Golden Travel and Accounting in West Lawn on Chicago’s Southwest Side, the stall in travel has meant pretty much abandoning that portion of their business entirely. 

Even before COVID-19, owner Raul Benavides had transitioned from doing mostly travel bookings – usually flights to Mexico and Latin America – to almost entirely accounting and tax prep for small businesses.

“Electronic ticketing on the internet, came to us, they kill us. So we are not booking right now in travel. We are booking right now in taxes, and accounting, and payroll,” said Benavides.

Benavides says he hasn’t booked a single trip since March.

“It’s no business to spend half an hour paying an employee to find out the ticket [price], with the fee, and the client saying, ‘No thank you.’ So we cannot afford to do that,” he said.

Back on West Belmont Avenue, Conenna remains cautiously optimistic things will bounce back, even as a new wave of COVID-19 surges.

“This place has given me everything in my life, and for some reason I just don’t want this dream of my father’s to go away,” he said. “But I just really do feel that if it goes on another year, then this will be something I’ll have to decide. So I’m going to try to give it one more year.”

Note: This story will be updated with video.

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