A year ago, Bruce Backman was on track for a record year in the Passover travel business. Reservations were almost sold out and the phones were ringing off the hook.
But that was before the coronavirus brought everything to a dead stop, said Backman, owner of pesachinthesoutheast.com. Some operators went bankrupt, others are still in litigation. But as some operators are still unraveling refunds from last year, this year’s bookings are slowly bouncing back — with an array of pandemic restrictions in place.
“We didn’t make the virus or the policies that shut everything down,” Backman said. “No one had a road map for this thing, so we were all making it up on the fly.”
Like the rest of the travel business, Passover operators are trying to recover from the most devastating season in their history. Of 130 programs, only 25 to 30% are back for 2021, according to industry experts.
But even the ones that have managed to hang on will look different in the pandemic era. Occupancy will be limited to 25 to 50% capacity. COVID-19 testing, mask mandates, temperature checks and outdoor minyans will now be as prevalent as matzo crumbs. Some operators, such as FFH Events in upstate New York, have taken the unprecedented step of having a doctor on site.
Additionally, some of the most popular destinations, including Israel, require a two-week quarantine period, while new locales, such as Dubai and Morocco, are opening up. Travelers will find a wider range of accommodations than ever before – more condos and private villas (with food delivered to your door). It’s all a part of an industry-wide campaign to reassure clients that every precaution has been taken to reduce the risk of transmission.
“The last thing any of us need right now,” said one owner, “is an outbreak at our programs.”
While there have always been a handful of mom-and-pop hotels in the Catskills and Miami Beach that catered to a kosher Passover clientele, the exodus to luxury destinations started gaining momentum in the 1990s.
High-end operators like Kosherica, Presidential Kosher Holidays and Lasko Getaways set up shop at the Hyatt, Ritz-Carlton and other upscale resorts, wooing guests with celebrity chefs, spa services and children’s programs. Even with an average price tag of $10,000 or more per person — not including airfare — many programs were sold out by Thanksgiving.
But that was in the before times. In 2021, customers are proceeding more cautiously, asking about the ventilation system instead of the amenities.
“It wasn’t until late December and January, with the roll-out of the vaccine, that business really started to pick up,” said Raphi Bloom, owner of TotallyJewishTravel.com, an online guide.
But while safety is a priority, so are refunds. Customers and operators, burned by last year’s cancellations, want to make sure they are protected this year. What happens if cases start to rise or there’s a new variant? How do you plan in such a time of uncertainty?
For operators, the problem is timing. They are the middlemen who put these packages together — sometimes buying out entire hotels — six months before the first seder. They hire staff, book entertainers and procure food and wine. By the time the holiday rolls around, those deposits from customers have already been spent. Most programs are not run by big corporations like Marriott or Hilton, but by small business people. In the case of a global pandemic, who exactly is on the hook?
On Passoverlistings.com, a Facebook group with Yelp-like reviews, more than 200 people weighed in on the issue last year, with comments equally divided between those who had sympathy for the operators and those insisting that they were guests, not partners.
“What you are suggesting is that no matter who cancels, it’s on the guest to eat the loss and accept the risk,” posted Benjamin Goldberg at the time. “That’s not how business works.” (All disgruntled comments have now been deleted from the site.)
Doni Schwartz, owner of Passoverlistings.com and Bloom both agreed there was no “one size fits all” when it comes to returning money. Some operators have given back 100 percent of the cost, while others have offered partial refunds, a credit – or some combination of the two.
“The vast majority tried to do their best,” Bloom said. “But, like in any industry, you have a few bad apples.”
Not surprisingly, operators are clearly spelling out their refund policies this year. “I’d say most — if not all— are refunding if it’s due to governmental COVID restrictions,” Schwartz said. “Still, everyone should read the terms and conditions.”
At the Villa Roma Resort in Callicoon, New York the tab for a 10-day stay is about $5,755 per couple per room, according to Alyson Feldman, owner of FFH Events, based in Brooklyn. Last year, she offered several options: 100% refund to clients who rolled over to this year or 30%of the deposit to those who wanted cash back. Clients could also “gift” the voucher to others or could apply the deposit toward prepared food they could bring home for their own seders.
“This year,” said Feldman, “if ever there was another situation like this, we would work with our customers.”
Bloom said many operators are taking lower deposits with a majority of the balance due paid nearer the holiday. Quite a few have customers from last year who are returning with credit so refunds won’t be an issue.
“Certainly both operators and customers are much more clear on returns and cancellation policies,” he said.
Schwartz wants clients to remember that it’s in everyone’s best interest that operators survive, so they can return in the future.
“These are the people you have trusted with your kashruth for years, not some shady operators who take the money and run,” he said.
As for Backman, he’s counting on a successful season this year to repay some of last year’s clients. He moved his program from the Northeast to the Southeast – specifically, Charleston, South Carolina – for more outdoor dining and activities, which he hopes will boost consumer confidence, as well as his bottom line.
“Many programs went bankrupt and will reopen under another name. We aren’t going to do that. Everyone will eventually get their money,” said Backman, who has been in business for 11 years.
This year, he has a cut-off date for refunds of February 25.
“In previous years that never happened. I’m pushing it as far as I can. We’re trying to balance Covid mitigation with people enjoying Pesach. We’re offering everything — mostly flexibility. ”