Tour operators have realized they can't get complacent about guest safety as any possible large-scale Covid outbreak will threaten their bottom line. So expect them to devote more resources to keep their clients safe amidst the rise of the Omicron variant.
However, despite widespread layoffs throughout the sector, several tour operators created positions in the last 18 months to help customers cope with travel’s murky present and future.
What exactly do they do?
“Their role is primarily to ensure that all of our suppliers — the restaurants, the hotels, any attractions or venues that we go to — are all adhering to whatever the local protocols are,” said Melissa DaSilva, the U.S. president of Trafalgar. “They are ensuring that our guests can get any questions answered that come up during their travels.”
Guy Young, the president of Insight Vacations, credits Stanley Tollman, the former chair of its parent company, the Travel Corporation, for having come up with the idea for the new job title.
“When the pandemic hit, Mr. Tollman said we wanted to be able to give extra comfort, extra peace of mind, and extra attention to our guests during these somewhat turbulent times,” Young said. “We wanted to make sure we didn’t take away from the responsibility of the travel director, which is really to ensure that the trip runs smoothly and that the guests are having a great time.”
Young added that Insight doesn’t want the travel directors — who have always been a part of the company’s trips — to be distracted by the issues that have arisen during the pandemic. Travel directors, he said, have largely welcomed having an extra person to handle certain logistics, such as arranging for testing for travelers returning to the United States.
How do the wellbeing directors handle situations regarding suppliers’ adherence to established protocols? Young said that while the directors report back to company headquarters if suppliers aren’t following any in-country or Insight protocols, he said such a scenario hasn’t taken place yet. But if it did, an Insight staff member would reach out to the hotel, restaurant or venue to inform the location that protocol wasn’t followed and try to ensure that doesn’t happen in future trips.
The pause in tourism led to lots of job losses. Young said many well-qualified travel directors were out of work, so the company could hire and train them to serve as wellbeing directors.
So while a Travel Corporation representative said the number of wellbeing directors the company uses fluctuates based on the season and how many trips the company operates, Young believes they have been a great addition to Insight Vacations.
“It does take (away) an enormous amount of stress and concern that our guests might have when traveling,” Young said.
Meanwhile, another tour operator, Exodus Travels, didn’t necessarily add personnel but widened responsibilities. “We’ve had people help out — left, right and center — particularly on the safety tasks,” said Mike James, the company’s product and operations director, who’s also in charge of health and safety issues.
As the travel industry grapples with an emerging Covid variant that could stymie the ongoing recovery, both Insight and Exodus have expressed willingness to create positions to keep travelers safe.
“With these changes come opportunities for new jobs,” said Robin Brooks, the company’s marketing director.
Indeed, Exodus has plans to increase the number of its safety specialists. The company currently has two on its payroll, and plans to add a third starting in January.
James said the safety specialists do written risk assessments for every holiday from their desktops and go overseas regularly to visit their partners and check their operational standards.
“I wouldn’t say there’s always a direct link between the number of people working in health and safety and how safe you can keep people,” James said. “But obviously, you have to be correctly staffed.”
“We will never hold back on recruitment in health and safety. Everyone’s more nervous about travel, so we have to be showing that we’re best in class.”
UPDATE: This article has been updated to include that Luxury Gold also uses a wellbeing director on trips it runs.
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Photo credit: A member of an Exodus Travels trip following proper protocol. Exodus Travels