Bongs, Michael Phelps and travel: Handling mistakes | TravelResearchOnline


Bongs, Michael Phelps and travel: Handling mistakes

Last week, Michael Phelps got into a little trouble for smoking a bong. He immediately went into damage control and apologized for his “youthful exuberance” and hoped for the best. He made a mistake. He realized it. And now the cards will fall where they may—he has already been suspended from competition by USA Swimming and Kellogg’s dropped him. In a matter of three days, he probably lost $20 million dollars and a good chunk of his reputation. Michael Phelps will likely be fine—a bit less wealthy, but I think he will pull through and compete in London in 2012. But what happens when you make a mistake in your travel business?

While it would be the rare mistake (I hope) that would cost an agency $20 million, losing your reputation is a lot easier than you might imagine. Obviously if you are scamming your clients, your reputation will be shot—and rightfully so. But, what happens when you make an honest mistake? Will your clients be forgiving and give you a second chance? Will they take you to court to make it right in their eyes? Or will they take to the Internet and expose your mistake to the world?  The work we do is complex, tedious and requires a lot of attention to detail.

  • Panama City (Panama or Florida)
  • Paris (Orly or DeGaul)
  • Visas for a cruise that stops in Brazil
  • Proper Inoculations for travel to Viet Nam
  • 45 minute connection in Chicago in winter
  • A transposed city code

All of these can (and have) caused heartache for agents across the globe, and angst for their clients. Can you survive a major mess up? Most likely you can if you are proactive and be the first to step up and admit the mistake.

True mistakes can never be avoided. They will always surface and if it is found that you tried to hide or avoid it, you can likely count your client as an ex-client and perhaps even count yourself as an ex-travel agent. Mike Caplin spoke about being nice recently. And owning up to your mistakes might be an appropriate corollary.

If you discover a potential problem, fix it. If you can’t, advise your client accordingly and provide options. Apologize to your client and let them know what you intend to do to make sure it never happens again. Most of the time, this will resolve the mistake.  If not, ask the client what you need to do to make amends; and if reasonable, make them.

Several years ago, Apple Vacations had a horrible contract with Southeast Air to Nassau from Baltimore. If the plane landed near water within a week of the scheduled arrival we were doing good. They were horrible. Equipment failure, lost luggage, crew delays, diversions—you name it Southeast experienced it. But Apple was stuck with them for the duration of the contract. Well, one by one, my clients would call (or return) with horror stories and demand that I do something. Now this was really out of my sphere of influence and to a lesser degree out of Apple’s as well. After much negotiation, I convinced Apple to simply issue vouchers for a 3 night return trip within the year (land only) for the clients that were impacted by Southeast.

Over a three month period, we had 117 complaints. 117 complaints could have easily put me out of business had they not been resolved. But with my good relationship with Apple Vacations, we turned all of them around. We now had 117 clients telling stories about how bad it was and how good we made it. Can you guess how many of the vouchers were redeemed? Four!

I was not surprised. I had seen it time and time again. People are looking for validation of their issue—perhaps more than the resolution itself. When the clients came back, we immediately owned up to the mistake and told them we would correct it. We preempted a potential disaster.  You can as well.

Last week, Michael Phelps attacked his mistake head on. He could have easily denied it was him in the photo. He could have said there was nothing in the bong. He could have claimed it was PhotoShopped. But he didn’t. He owned up to it and is taking his lumps. I am sure Michael felt that the photo would be the end of his career; and it looks like that is not the case—likely because of the way he handled it. Don’t fall victim to your mistakes. We all make them. We all will continue to make them. It is how you handle them that will set you apart from the competition.

  One thought on “Bongs, Michael Phelps and travel: Handling mistakes

  1. Dear John: Thanks so much for this. 99 and 44/100ths of the time, our clients adore what we do for them, and all the extra services that we provide for travelers on our deluxe rail tours. However, I am still trembling over a mistake I made, which I had to correct while I was waiting for my daughter’s graduation to start at Smith College years ago. The music was playing, parents were fanning themselves with the progams anticipating the start, and my cell phone rang. My clients were calling from Sardinia. They were very nice about it overall; however, they had failed to send me the name and location of the big weekend party they were attending. They asked me to make their air arrangements. I did it — but I took them into the larger international airport that was hours from the location, not the one nearest them. Lesson learned: NEVER do air or hotels unless you have in writing the locations. We paid big in picking up the tab for the cab. (Long ago: our travel agent made the same mistake for us — taking us out of the airport which was 4 hours from our St. Lucia hotel, not the airport 15 min. away!) I apologized profusely. But my mantra since then has been: get it in writing, especially if clients are traveling to tiny, rugged islands! Also: never do private transfers to locations unless I book the location.

    Eleanor Hardy
    The Society of International Railway Travelers

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