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The high season for the travel industry should have been just around the corner.
Gwen Books has been running her own boutique luxury firm in Atherton, Calif. for the last 18 years. “My office opens up to my garden,” Books says about working from home. “It’s an inspiring, comfortable environment.”
Catering to “high net worth individuals” in Silicon Valley (as well as “young tech titan billionaires, real estate magnates, fashion designers, and a few movie actors”), the agency provides highly-tailored vacations and journeys. “They rely on us to design and implement their frequent worldwide travels,” Books says.
Books—who has been lauded by The Hollywood Reporter as a “dream vacation agent” in 2015 and by Modern Luxury Silicon Valley as the “Best Lifestyle Concierge” in 2019—works strictly by referral. “Our website is not up to garner new clients,” she explains. “It is up for the sole use of our clients to read about some of the locations, hotels, and journey experiences we offer. Each journey is bespoke; we don’t offer ‘canned’ trips. For the most part, I have stayed in all the hotel properties featured on the blog posts, and my clients trust me to know the perfect property for their escapes.”
Fortune spoke with Books for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy, to ask about how COVID-19 has affected her business and her plans for the future, and to get a sense of how she has been handling this news, both emotionally and financially. The following Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Gwen Books founded her travel and lifestyle business in 2004.
Fortune: What’s your business normally like this time of year? What did a typical day or week look like before this happened?
Books: We would be inundated with planning and reserving hotels, flights, and activities for spring break, summer planning, and itineraries. We’ve canceled all spring break trips to Mexico, Greece, and Amangiri in the desert. Summer is still on hold.
When did you realize that the outbreak of COVID-19 was going to affect your business? How has it so far?
I departed the U.S. for Jordan and Egypt on January 31 for a two-week business journey. The virus news in China was just percolating then; I didn’t feel there was any danger in my travels. When I returned, we went through each and every upcoming itinerary and advised clients of cancel options. Hotels, for the most part, have flexible windows, i.e. 24- to 48-hour cancel [windows]. Hotel du Cap has a 30-day window; they have since modified their cancel window. We have not yet canceled a two-week stay there in late June.
We also advised our clients to wait and think about rescheduling rather than canceling their trips. Airlines—rarely, if ever—provide a refund. If one waits, and the airline cancels flights, they have to provide a refund rather than a credit. We canceled a glorious trip to Greece when Stanford sent kids home to parents; we waited to cancel airfare, and we’re happy to achieve a full refund. Hotels accepted cancellations, and my touring teaming in Athens graciously refunded a non-refundable tour deposit. We’ve made refunds when necessary. Italy has been slow to refund for touring services, but we expect the [local] firm to fully refund.
And we just canceled Wimbledon for a young executive and his family who had tickets for Centre Court in Debenture seats. Several clients have rescheduled significant trips to next year. But we are happy they are still enthusiastic about traveling!
When this is all over, what do you think it will take for the travel industry to recover? And how much time do you think that would require?
I think the travel landscape will change on many fronts, a new business model. Agents are now working from home. Large travel agencies may close physical offices to cut their overhead; they know the new system works. Most have independent contractors, and those who don’t may navigate to that system. I know many agents who have been furloughed.
Time and trust: Families and elderly travelers may be reluctant to head to busy cities. Some who fly commercial may decide to fly privately. In the U.S., travelers need to find a reliable source for accurate information; our government is not providing reliable information.
Cruise ships: Travelers will think twice, if not three times, about being confined on a ship. Visible horror stories still dominate the news. The cruise industry will need to refine their refund policies. I’m in some private social media posts that mention cruise ships are not being particular generous in cancellation policies.
Airlines may be willing to modify their commission structure, but they need agencies now. They have become very stringent in commissions; they will need the industry more than ever.
Some hotels, like The Dorchester brand, is paying its employees; it will ramp up quicker than other hotels. The Beaumont in London is still paying its staff.
Aside from business, how have you been coping—emotionally, mentally—from day- to-day during this tumultuous time?
Since I work from a home office, my routine has not altered. I am set up with the necessary equipment to function at 100%. I’m not sitting at a kitchen table in an uncomfortable, non-ergonomic chair.
I function best with structure. I may sleep later and read more travel magazines in the morning. I’m in my office every day for a least five hours: writing blog posts, pouring over my piles of travel magazines for inspiration, registering for travel conferences for September onward, watching webinars on financial strategies. I took a travel-writing webinar.
I look at this time as a mixed blessing. We are canceling some trips, but we are reserving December festivities, and coordinating a significant South Africa safari for 12 friends in 2021.
I have workout equipment at home since I can’t go to the gym, and I walk with a friend, six feet apart. She is the editor of a luxury magazine, and we brainstorm stories. I feel it has provided time to be more proactive in my business and allows me time to think creatively. When I travel, I find my head is clear of the day-to-day business noise, and this less structured time has provided that same benefit.
Our clients have been grateful for refunds, and for keeping them appraised of cancelations. We have a strong, dedicated client base, and they appreciate our proactive approach. It has inspired tangible loyalty; we have received some lovely thank you notes. “Client love” is how I phrase it on social media.
Am I a little stir crazy? Yes! I love traveling, and the moment we can depart, I will be out the door. A couple of our young tech execs had reservations for Amangiri this week, which of course, were canceled. Amangiri has a new glamping tent area, Camp Sarika, which is supposed to be opening on April 30. I have an invitation to visit the moment they open.
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