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As the fast-spreading coronavirus stokes fears and shakes up travel plans to Asia and beyond, travel advisors are scrambling to handle cancellations and rerouting, reassure jittery clients, and get answers and support from suppliers.
For travel agencies like Travel Design USA that do a lot of leisure business to Asia, the situation is especially vexing.
“The coronavirus has impacted us tremendously in regards to our clients’ travel plans,” said Craig Hsu, vice president of the Los Angeles-based agency. “They are canceling their trips to China, and some are looking at more local destinations such as Hawaii or Alaska. We have a large group that canceled their trip entirely.”
It isn’t only travel plans to China that are in jeopardy, said Dan Ilves, vice president of leisure for TravelStore, also headquartered in Los Angeles.
“Travelers are quite fearful and are canceling travel plans to Asia, not just China,” he said. “We even had one client express fears about a trip to Spain because of this virus.”
When trips to Asia are going forward, travel advisors are finding themselves doing more hand-holding than usual. Among them is Thomas Carpenter, owner of Huckleberry Travel in New York City, which had a group about to leave for a tour of Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand.
“They have been extremely nervous about traveling to Asia, even though the cases of coronavirus in those countries are few, isolated, and contained,” he said. “Even with providing them regular updates, they’ve been calling us for reassurance on a daily basis.”
While not seeing clients cancel travel plans to Asia, Jennifer Donscecz, president of VIP Vacations, said the coronavirus is requiring a lot of extra work with rerouting flights that had been scheduled through China.
“Delta notified several of our clients recently that their flights through Shanghai were canceled, so we stepped in and waited the two-and-a-half-hour hold time for suitable options,” she said. “For our clients, we were the hero — which is our goal during times of crisis.”
Support from Industry Groups
With confusion rampant, travel agency consortiums and other industry groups are communicating with members about the best courses of action to take.
In a statement to members, the American Society of Travel Advisors counseled against making recommendations to clients about whether or not to travel to affected areas. Instead, it said travel advisors should encourage clients to contact the Centers for Disease Control for the most up-to-date information.
Since news of the virus first hit, the Travel Leaders consortium has been active in offering support to members, including providing frequent updates from suppliers and webinars with experts in risk management and travel medicine, said John Lovell, president of leisure travel, supplier relations, and networks.
“We’ve been providing updated talking points to all Travel Leaders Group advisors on a near daily basis as new information surfaces,” he said. “Our proprietary systems also assist advisors in identifying passengers whose travel may be impacted.”
Ensemble Travel Group has also leaped into action, providing updates through its member portal from suppliers, travel industry organizations, the Centers for Disease Control, and the U.S. State Department, said Brian Chapin, senior director of supplier relations.
“We had more questions last week when there was more confusion and uncertainty about the situation,” he said. “But now that advisories have been issued not to travel to China and several airlines have canclled flights, the decision whether or not to travel has been made for them.”
In a letter to members, Mathew Upchurch, CEO of Virtuoso, said the consortium has dedicated a full-time employee to keep travel advisors updated with coronavirus information. The letter also provided links to preferred partner and global health resources and said Virtuoso is in the process of developing support materials for travel advisors to use in communication with clients.
Given that the coronavirus is just one of many crises that have disrupted travel in recent years, including the SARS epidemic of the early 2000s, how well are suppliers doing in managing the situation and giving travel advisors and their clients the support they need?
Gary Pollard, president of Ambassador Tours, a San Francisco-based travel agency, thinks suppliers, especially cruise lines, are doing a much better job this time around.
“The professionalism coming out of the cruise lines is the best I’ve ever seen during an outbreak,” he said. “They’re keeping on top if the situation, modifying itineraries, and keeping travel advisors informed so we can keep our clients informed. Plus, they’ve done a great job in educating on-board staff on avoiding spreading a virus.”
By contrast, Huckleberry Travel’s Carpenter said he and his clients are frustrated with poor communication.
“We have some clients who will be on a cruise that’s supposed to terminate in Hong Kong,” he said. “Of course, our clients have been asking about this for the past couple of weeks, but we only just today heard from the cruise line that their itinerary is being altered and that the end of the cruise will be a different port. But they haven’t told us any of the details. So, I think the cruise lines are scrambling.”
Check Primary Sources
How are risk management experts advising travel professionals, particularly those with groups heading to Asia, to make decisions on whether or not to cancel or reroute tours or incentive programs?
Alan Kleinfeld, director of Arrive Management Solutions, advises against overreaction.
“It’s important to keep things in perspective. Last year 37 million Americans got the flu and 36,000 died of it, so that’s a more dangerous situation that we’ve normalized,” he said. “Of course, what makes the coronavirus scary is that we don’t yet know how to fight it.”
In making travel decisions, Kleinfeld recommended consulting directly with entities such as the World Health Organization or Centers for Disease Control as well as partners in the destination, rather than relying on media or social media sources.
“Headlines can often make a situation sound much worse for travelers than it actually is, which was the case last fall with the protests in Hong Kong,” he said. “You have to go to sources in the destination to find out what’s really happening.”
Also noting that the flu is, as yet, more deadly than the coronavirus, Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, co-owner of Valerie Wilson Travel in New York City, believed travel advisors can play a role in mitigating unnecessary fear and panic among clients.
“We need to remind people of the statistics and the real comparisons,” she said. “With the 24/7 news cycle, people are much more aware of what is happening in the world, but the information and misinformation needs to be set in context.”
At the same time, travel advisors need to give credence to their clients’ concerns, whether the facts actually warrant canceling a trip or not, said Pollard.
“We should tell clients that if they don’t feel comfortable, we’ll help you get as much money back as we can,” he said. “We can’t force behavior, we can just be compassionate.”