Ditch the fam trips? Suggest they quarantine before they go? Travel advisors must find their individual moral truths about travel. As many head to Mexico this month, they are asking the tough questions — and preparing for some shaming they likely will face.
For a Texan, some might say, Chad Shields has been following a moderate path these past few months. The owner of Engage Vacations has been adhering to the required protocols regarding social distancing and wearing masks on his three trips to Mexico — and encouraging his clients to do the same.
“Taking the proper precautions reduces the risks associated with travel during the pandemic,” he says, and allows him to support his family and his travel-industry colleagues south of the border. Documenting his travels has given many of his clients the confidence to travel again, and he is back to booking 75% of his monthly sale average from 2019.
Cruise Planners owner Marc Bokoff, meanwhile, thinks that having offices in Connecticut and Florida gives him a unique insight into the differing opinions about travel among his customers north and south of the Mason Dixon line. Since the cruise business that used to be his bread and butter evaporated overnight, he’s been to Mexico, too, preparing for a renewed focus on the all-inclusives and land vacations he thinks will define the business through the coming months.
And yet, many travel advisors, especially in the Northeast Bubble, say it is just too soon… that they are sending customers into danger and helping the virus spread. Some sell what their customers demand, only after lengthy discussions; some refuse to book travel at all.
In part, Shields acknowledges, his comfort level in Mexico comes from the fact that he simply feels safer at the resorts there than going out in public at home in Texas. He has been very impressed with the safety protocols on his first trip with his wife and partner Teresa, the next with his son, and the third with his whole family. But he acknowledges there is still risk involved in international travel — not only in exposure to the virus, but also if you become symptomatic while far from home.
“The main thing I am worried about is failing the thermal screening or any other testing protocols while out of the country,” he says. “I tell my customers to be very honest with themselves and their condition the morning of their flight. If they are running a fever or showing any other symptoms, they should cancel their trip.”
Still, they could become symptomatic after they depart; he communicates this risk and encourages them to take precautions in the weeks leading up to their travel, including quarantining if possible. To date, he says, he has not heard of any American tourists failing the screening in Mexico.
Shields is careful about his own safety too. He is going back to Cancun with a fellow Nexion agent at the end of the month to tour more properties, but doesn’t plan to join any of the group fams to which he’s been invited.
“I’m not a big proponent of seeing 10 or 12 agents from around the country traveling together, having dinner together every night, and being in situations where they are in close proximity without masks on. I just can’t trust that they’ve taken this situation with Covid as seriously as I have at home.”
Just back in Florida, after 10 days in Cabo, Bokoff also felt completely comfortable and safe. “No stores in the United States are doing any kind of protocol that matches what’s going on in Cabo,” he said, “and there’s nobody who isn’t wearing a mask. We went to Cabo Pulmo, one of the top beach destinations in the world, about two hours from Cabo St. Lucas and very remote. We pulled up to the entrance to the national park and we couldn’t get in without the guard disinfecting the car.”
Like Shields, he arranged his own trip – and “it felt a lot like when I first started in the business, with agent rates and respect for travel advisors that was significantly higher than anything I’ve seen in a while. The rates were all inclusive, about $300 for two at many properties, and a Marriott Famtastic rate.”
From a business perspective, he said, the point is “to protect myself in a way that will allow me to sell the land vacations that I think will come back first.” After Mexico, he is headed to the Dominican Republic, then to Tahiti, “all destinations that are brand new to me, after 32 years in the business. I’m doing things very strategically; for me this is all an investment in the business going forward.”
While no one has posted a negative comment in response to his Facebook postings, “I can’t say if I’ve turned off any clients as a result of having traveled ‘too soon.’ But I asked if anyone would be interested in coming in a group and bringing their friends in 2021, and I got three resounding yesses. I think people are somewhat excited by the idea that someone else is the guinea pig.”
Still, he makes it clear to his customers that there are new protocols to be observed, including wearing a mask for about eight hours each way. And he definitely noticed that most guests in the Mexican resorts were from California and Texas rather than the Northeast.
“My Connecticut customers are still being cautious,” he says. “But I did feel like the people in Mexico know that their livelihoods rely on safe, healthy customers and staff. And they are doing everything they can to take precautions.”
At Signature Travel Network, Alex Sharpe agreed that travel advisors are held to a higher standard than suppliers; as true advisors, it’s important to know your customers and only market to those who are ready to hear the message.
“But it’s important to do it properly. You have to explain the risks. And since the best way to learn is hands-on, many travel advisors feel they need to be there. As much as I feel for those who can’t travel because they are at risk or don’t have the financial means, I’d still feel more comfortable booking with someone who’s seen it in person.”
And yet, many disagree — some more vocally and publicly than others. “I’ve been invited on three fams, but I’m not ready to go and socialize with agents from all over the country that I don’t know are following the same safety covid protocols that I am,” posted Patricia Gonzalez in one Facebook group for travel professionals.
Wrong Time, Wrong Place, Some Say
In New York City, where “we have seen so much death and sickness,” Vicki Winters thinks it is “unsafe and irresponsible to travel at this time. We are unwittingly and perhaps unknowingly spreading the virus in favor of a free trip. I find it selfish and reckless.”
“I just don’t think pushing trips in the immediate future is a good idea, unless the agent is pretty sure a destination is safe and encourages the clients to practice safe protocols,” posted another in reply to an online comment by Shields.
For agents who do get negative feedback, Shields recommends sticking to the facts and addressing the concerns head-on.
“They are going to talk about the risks, so I talk about the masks and social distancing and all the precautions,” he said. “Don’t try to normalize it; things are not back to normal in Mexico. But they are taking protocols seriously, doing everything they can to keep their staffs and guests safe. If you can enjoy yourself through what you have to go through on the plane and not everything being open, and not really doing much outside the hotel, then you can still have a really nice vacation experience. I’m not pushing it; I’m letting people know what it’s like and letting them decide if now is the right time or if next year is the right time.”
In all, he has had 30 customers travel since May, 28 of them to Mexico; “I’ve never heard so many ‘I want to travel next week’s,” he said, “but the groups are looking at spring and fall 2021, partly at my recommendation. My going has been critical in their being comfortable booking.”
With groups, he has emphasized his concern about someone failing the thermal test, and suggested postponing. “That cost me a lot of money but I’d rather not have that responsibility hanging over my head. And every group said that my sharing that concern solidified me as their agent in the future.”
In short, he says, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with people going if they take it seriously and follow the protocols. Pack your common sense now more than ever. If you feel like you have to not sell right now, you may not survive. I don’t see how you can survive if you are going to turn away bookings for people who are willing to follow the protocols.
“I believe travel advisors will do really really well when this is over. But you have to be around. You have to survive until then. I’m being super-strategic every time I leave my house. And Mexico is part of my strategy.”
Cheryl’s 40-year career in journalism is bookended by roles in the travel industry, including Executive Editor of Business Travel News in the 1990s, and recently, Editor in Chief of Travel Market Report and admin of Cheryl Rosen’s Group for Travel Professionals, a news and support group on Facebook.
As an independent contractor since retiring from the 9-to-5 to travel more, she has written regular articles about the life and business of travel agents for Luxury Travel Advisor, Travel Agent and Insider Travel Report. She also writes and edits for professional publications in the financial services, business and technology sectors.