Conspiracy theories aside, I think we can safely say that one of the world’s most wanted terrorists is dead. On May 1, an elite team of US Seals located and killed Osama bin Laden who has been dodging the United States for nearly ten years. But his death should bring much concern to anyone in the travel industry and here’s why.
It remains to be seen if his death does anything to reduce the threat of terrorism against the United States. Many suggest that by killing him, we have only incented his followers. Yet others believe that by taking out the leader of al-Qaeda we are on our way to a terror few existence. The reality will likely land us somewhere in the middle. I don’t see us as out of the woods yet, but it is a start.
Let’s face it, sensationalism sells. It brings advertisers. It brings clicks. It brings pageviews. If you don’t believe it, try a sensational headline in your next blog post and see what it does to your traffic. Regardless of what bin Laden’s death does to the terror climate, you can rest assured that the media, and to a lesser extent the government, will sensationalize it and will create a “terror boogieman” for travelers. If you need proof, look to Mexico. While some of the attention was warranted and valid, much of it was indeed fear-mongering.
The government will also play into the fears of the traveling public. They always do. But, unlike the media, they will not sensationalize it. However, they will err to the side of ridiculousness. Toddlers will be subjected to invasive TSA searches as will the elderly and infirm all in the name of safety. There will be warnings and advisories issued that will read like Armageddon is upon us. But keep in mind, one of the primary functions of the government is to keep its citizens safe from harm—so an overabundance of caution is to be expected. Just this weekend two flights were diverted due to (at the time of this writing) unspecified security threats. There has been no news about a catastrophic event, so it stands to reason that the threats were unfounded. Everyone is on edge. As a travel professional whose livelihood depends on people traveling, we need to get used to it; and more importantly we need to know how to address it with our clients.
There is none. I am sure that seems like a weak suggestion, but the fact is that we do not know what the government or media will do to impact our business today, tomorrow or next year. In 2002, my agency saw an 84% drop in year over year revenue due to 9-11, the subsequent government warnings and the media frenzy that followed the attacks and the wars. I was certainly not prepared for that. Are you? What we do need to do is to be prepared for absolutely anything—and that will require you to be up to speed on what is happening to your travelers as they travel both domestically and internationally. Your family vacationers will need to know about the choice they will need to make about the backscatter screening equipment. More importantly, they will need to know about the ramifications if they refuse or are otherwise singled out by the TSA for a body search. I am relatively confident that there will be some changed regulations in the near future like we saw with the 3 ounce liquid rules. Passport applications are changing as well. After 9-11, the travel world changed instantly. This change will not be as dramatic or swift, but it will occur nonetheless and as a professional you need to be in the loop.
Way back when, our consultancy role was somewhat limited to selecting room categories, ship cabins, seat assignments, and letting the clients know that they will be charged for food on the plane. Today, our jobs are more complex. Seat fees, baggage fees, TSA regulations, entry requirements, exit requirements, passport assistance, travel warnings and alerts (and the difference between the two), search and seizure expectations, and much more.
While the days of simply taking orders have been long gone, travelers are coming back to us from their brief fling with the Internet. The travel industry is cyclical. Back in the 70s it was cumbersome and complex to book. In the 90s and 00s it became commoditized and the Internet was the flavor of the week. But now the complexities have indeed returned and more and more people are looking to the expertise of a professional to help them navigate the waters. Keep on your toes. Keep your ear to the ground and make sure that you are always bringing something to the table to offer your clients that the Internet can’t.