Some businesses betting travel picks up in 2021

Traveler traffic at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport was down 62 percent last year but some small businesses that rely on both business and personal travel are optimistic for 2021.

Adam Jennings has to pinch himself. He’s the new owner of Now Boarding, a dog, cat and critter boarding and daycare facility on 28th Avenue South on the northside of MSP Airport. The Animal Humane Society shuttered it last summer, so for Jennings it was a turnkey opportunity with great facilities and location, plus staff and loyal clients.

Now he just needs the travelers.

“With any business there’s calculated risk,” Jennings said. “But I am optimistic about the days ahead. I think the worst days are behind us at this point.”

The Metropolitan Airports Commission reported a 62 percent drop in travelers from 2019 to 2020 — and that’s even with 2 and a half normal months to start of the year.

“Air travel is so far away from pre-COVID normal,” Kyle Potter, executive editor of Thrifty Traveler, a Minnesota-based flight deal and travel website, said. “And just to hammer that point home, the folks at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport say that they don’t expect to hit 2019 travel levels until 2024.”

Right now, the flying experience is different, Potter said, because major airlines make decisions based on corporate and business travelers. In the past, as an example, MSP travelers could pick at least a dozen Delta flights direct to Chicago’s airports. Now it’s no more than four and only to O’Hare, not Midway.

“62 percent does not tell the whole story,” Potter said. “In reality, we’re going on a year of travel being down 70 if not 75 percent. It’s been choppy throughout that. It plummeted. By the time we got to April 2020 it was down about 95 percent, maybe even a little bit more than that.”

Potter said business and international travel will be slow to catch up — adding that he doesn’t foresee the rise of Zoom replacing corporate travel in the future — but the more people who get vaccinated, the more people might feel safe traveling to visit family, something Jennings has witnessed.

“We’ve had several people who have called or emailed or on social media talking about, ‘My husband just got his first vaccine, I’m already fully vaccinated. We can’t wait to get out and travel.’ There’s been such an uptick not only in people interested in getting out and about but there have been a lot of animals that have been adopted during the pandemic as well, so I think there are bright days ahead for us.”

The CDC and Minnesota Department of Health are still cautioning against travel, even domestically, citing the increase in variants.

On Now Boarding’s first day back open Monday there were more than a dozen dogs happily greeting this reporter, but the facility can handle up to 200 dogs, cats and critters. Jennings’ staff stands at 17, which he’s hoping to grow as travel picks up. He said he’s hoping to break even.

Lawmakers have considered a travel tax credit, but aside from a solid safety net for businesses affected by travel during the pandemic, a package for travel-related businesses would be complex. Potter said it’s hard to predict, but a return will happen.

“Just given how the last year has gone, it’s hard to even hope that everything is going to go smoothly,” Potter said. “Especially with the new variants of COVID popping up. We are going to get to a place where people can travel again. Exactly when that happens and what happens along the way to get there, that’s what I’m not totally sure of right now.”