I was happily cruising along in the Caribbean last Friday night when my husband turned on the stateroom television as we got ready for dinner. That’s how we learned about the attacks in Paris. It definitely put a damper on the evening for those passengers that heard the news (it was obvious a good number of passengers hadn’t heard anything yet). The discussions I overheard were full of grief for those in Paris, but you could also hear the panic start to set it.
It’s the panic we hear from clients after any major catastrophe, whether it’s natural (such as hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.) or man-made (such as terrorism), and it all boils down to this: is it safe to travel?
I was not in the travel industry in 2001, but even as an outsider I saw how hard hit the industry was after 9/11. In simple terms, people were terrified to fly. For some people, that fear still exists 14 years later. I was also cruising in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in the United States. A lot of people on the ship were worried about being on a cruise with an active hurricane out there (never mind how much distance there was between our ship and the hurricane). Other passengers sat helplessly on the ship watching the news, watching their homes be destroyed by the hurricane.
Now that I’m in the industry, I seem to deal with the fear on a regular basis. After the Boston Marathon bombing, I fielded questions about whether it’s safe to travel domestically (not just to Boston). Now I’m fielding questions about international travel to ANYWHERE. On the cruise last Friday, I overheard people worried about whether our cruise ship was safe.
Sometimes it is hard to deal with our clients’ fears. If we are worried ourselves, it is hard to sound reassuring. And sometimes it is difficult to deal with the clients who come across as irrational to us. But as travel professionals, we have no choice; we have to be proactive as well as responsive. We can’t belittle a client’s fears, even if we think they are being irrational. And we have to be careful what we say and how we phrase our words, due to liability issues.
Proactive and Responsive
Proactively referrs to what you post on Facebook, blog posts that you publish, what you say in networking group meetings, etc. Don’t wait for someone to bring up the topic, or ask the questions. When a hurricane devastates an island in the Caribbean or Pacific, address it head-on. Become the go-to person for information. Tell people (online or in person) about how to prepare for such events (travel insurance). Explain to them how cruise ship captains can change the itinerary on the fly in the name of safety. Discuss what hotels and resorts do (since they can’t pick up and move the buildings).
Responsive refers to how you react to the questions after the fact, from both existing and prospective clients: When a client calls and wants to cancel their trip to Boston because of the marathon bombing. Or a client sailing in a couple of weeks is in a panic about the pending storms out there. You have to know before they call how you will respond to questions. You have to anticipate what questions and concerns will be expressed, so that you can formulate the answers.
Dealing with the Irrational Clients
You will never convince a client that they are being irrational. All you can do is listen to them, and listen carefully. Can you “hear” any underlying concerns that they aren’t expressing? Is a hurricane really their concern, or do they have other fears about cruising (motion sickness, a fear of being on the water, etc), and they see a hurricane as a “way out”? You don’t want to ever belittle their fears or badger them. Scaring them any further won’t help either. All you can do is listen, reassure them as best as possible (without taking on liability – see below), and in the end if they want to cancel their trip, let them.
Sad to say, even when we are trying to be supportive, our words can come back to haunt us. For example, a client approaches you this week questioning their future trip to France, and you talk them into not cancelling. They go on their trip and something goes wrong (i.e. another attack). Even if they are not physically harmed, a good lawyer could rip you to shreds for the “mental anguish” the clients went through being put into that position. It will all hinge on your words. Did you tell them not to worry? Did you say something like “lightening never strikes twice in the same place” to reassure them that future travel would be safe? Did you say that France is now safer than ever with the newly heightened security? Any comments along those lines can open you up to liability if something does go wrong.
The best advice for a travel professional is to choose your words carefully. If you have access to an attorney, ask their guidance on what to say and how to say it. I’m not an attorney, so I’m not going to tell you what is safe to say (see that? I just covered my own liability there).
When I was outside of the industry as just a consumer looking in, I wondered how this industry had survived so many ups and downs. Now that I am an industry insider, I still wonder if we will survive the next unknown thrown in our path. But one thing I know for sure: we are scrappy and hard to take down. It is hard to remain positive in times like this, but to quote a popular meme: Keep Calm and Ask a Travel Agent.
Susan Schaefer is the owner of Ships ‘N’ Trips Travel located in Tennessee, and specializes in leisure travel with a focus on group travel and charity fundraisers. Through their division Kick Butt Vacations, she focuses on travel for 18 to 23-year-olds. Susan can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (888) 221-1209.