Airline layoffs, travel bans, quarantine orders – it’s been a disastrous year for the travel and tourism industry.
And Chicago’s independent travel agencies, scattered across the neighborhoods, were far from immune.
One of them is Venus Travel on West Belmont Avenue, which has been an integral part of Chicago’s Northwest Side since it opened in 1968.
Owner John Conenna officially took over the business from his father Vince in the early 1990s and provided customer service he didn’t think he would get from his online competitors.
And business was booming until February of this year. Then COVID-19 changed everything in a common refrain.
“It was like a switch, like going into your bedroom at night and turning off the lights,” said Conenna. “The phone calls turned into cancellations and refunds, doubts and questions that no one could answer, instead of bookings.”
Conenna says he processed 700 refunds because his customers, like so many others, canceled trips to Europe, Mexico and around the world.
But eight months into the pandemic, Conenna still comes to work every day in the building where his father started this business more than 50 years ago.
“I can’t close this door. I have people, friends, family who still tell me, ‘What are you doing at Venus Travel?’ “, He said. “I have work to do. It’s not the work I wanted to do, but it was still taking care of the customer and helping the customer get it done.”
Conenna has booked some emergency trips for some customers. But he says it’s a small part of his old business.
Across town in Edgewater, Pleasant Travel is located near Devon Avenue in a similar location.
Manager Ali Khan has been based in this location since the late 1990s and works with his wife and son to book trips for the area’s large immigrant communities.
“I deal mainly with all ethnic groups,” said Khan. “People who travel to Africa, people who travel to Europe, people who travel to the Middle East, and especially people who travel to Asia, where India and Pakistan are our main concentration.”
As with Venus Travel, Khan has only booked a small number of trips due to the coronavirus – mostly to countries like Pakistan and Ethiopia, where travel restrictions have been eased.
“Our business is down to almost 95% – 95% of the business is gone,” he said.
However, Khan says because his business is small and family run, he’s confident they can keep it up.
“[We are] I hope that once things get back to normal, we will see people come back, ”he said. “It may take a while, but we hope we’ll be in a little better shape than we are now by late February or early March.”
After the slump in March, the travel volume is slowly growing again. The TSA reports an increase in air traffic for October, although the numbers are well below pre-pandemic numbers.
And for Golden Travel and Accounting, located in West Lawn on Chicago’s Southwest Side, the travel booth meant almost entirely giving up that part of their business.
Even before COVID-19, owner Raul Benavides had moved from mostly travel bookings – usually flights to Mexico and Latin America – to almost exclusively bookkeeping and tax preparation for small businesses.
“Electronic ticketing on the Internet has come to us, they are killing us. So we’re not currently booking while traveling. We are currently booking taxes, accounting and payroll, ”said Benavides.
Benavides says he hasn’t booked a single trip since March.
“It’s not a business to spend half an hour paying an employee to find out the ticket [price]with the fee and the customer saying “no thanks.” So we can’t afford that, ”he said.
Back on West Belmont Avenue, Conenna remains cautiously upbeat even as a new wave of COVID-19 waves emerges.
“This place has given me everything in my life and for some reason I just don’t want my dad’s dream to go away,” he said. “But I really feel like I have to make up my mind when it takes another year. So I’ll try to give it another year. “
Note: this story is updated with video.