LA GRANDE — A La Grande-based travel agency and longtime local business is seeking to rebrand itself in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Alegre Travel, a brick-and-mortar mainstay in downtown La Grande, is set to become Find Your Why Travel.
"I've changed the name to reflect what travel means to me," said owner Samantha LeBold. "Traveling — it's taken me on a journey. I've learned a lot about myself, and that's something people who don't travel really don't get. … I've found my 'why' and we'd love to help other people find theirs."
LeBold, who bought the business in 2015, said she is eager to help her customers "find their why." She also said it has proven difficult to find — and keep — those customers during the ongoing pandemic.
"COVID is horrible and what it's doing to our tourism industry is a nightmare," LeBold said, adding the business cancel every trip it had on the books for 2020.
Before the pandemic struck, travel was a multibillion-dollar industry in Oregon. According to a report prepared for the Oregon Tourism Commission in April, the statewide industry accounted for nearly $13 billion in spending in 2019.
That same report found travel and tourism were particularly important to rural Oregonian communities, generating roughly $18 million in tax revenue and 6,200 jobs in Eastern Oregon alone.
Then came 2020, and the coronavirus with it.
Greg Smith, director of the Small Business Development Center at Eastern Oregon University, La Grande, said while some essential businesses have thrived during the coronavirus pandemic, others are "hanging on by a thread."
"The impact is manifold in that you have real winners and real losers," Smith said. "[For] example, if you're running a liquor store you're doing extraordinarily well. On the other hand, if you're dependent on foot traffic coming in and sitting down ... you've obviously seen negative impacts."
Smith, who also is a state representative, said struggling businesses have to adapt to new economic conditions.
"The economy in 2020 has changed and the way people do business has dramatically changed," he said. "The old economy is gone."
Smith added brick-and-mortar businesses may need to "reinvent themselves" and modernize, suggesting transitioning to an online business or communication model.
Find Your Why has made progress in that direction. According to LeBold, she's done a great deal more business via email during the pandemic.
While LeBold said her local clients sometimes travel to Alaska and Hawaii, her personal preference would be to focus on booking small group vacations abroad.
Obstacles and uncertainties surrounding international travel also present a challenge to Find Your Why. Closed borders, mandatory 14-day quarantines in some countries and the risk of contracting the virus have widely stalled international travel.
The U.S. Department of State also warned travelers recently, "If you choose to travel internationally, your trip may be severely disrupted, and it may be difficult to arrange travel back to the United States."
Meanwhile, the travel industry continues to tighten its belt, and businesses such as Find Your Why try to balance safety with the need to put food on the table. For LeBold's part, she said she's urging her clients to decide for themselves.
"I feel so bad because people come in here and they want my opinion on this. I can't even give people a definitive answer on anything because it changes daily," said LeBold. "You should only travel right now if you feel comfortable traveling. You should not listen to me if I say 'oh, it's fine.' It depends on your comfort level."
Find Your Why Travel still will offer vacations domestically and abroad. LeBold stressed she wants her business to serve the same clientele Alegre did and her service would continue despite the pandemic.
As the COVID-19 situation drags on with no clear end in sight, only time will tell what will become of Oregon's travel industry or of brick-and-mortar businesses such as Find Your Why.
Editor's note: The Observer updated this article to reflect Alegre Travel, soon to be Find Your Why Travel, canceled all of its booking for 2020.