For advisors looking to cash in on group travel as the world prepares to reopen, the impact COVID has on groups is multiplying the complexity of organizing and selling these trips.
Some travel advisors are asking themselves if they should require vaccinations for all group guests, even when traveling to a destination that doesn’t require it. If they do, that could hurt sales with prospects who say they have no intention of getting vaccinated—about one in five Americans according to the latest polls.
If advisors don’t require vaccines, might the prospect of being in close contact with group members who aren’t vaccinated dampen interest for travelers who are?
And what happens if, while traveling, a guest in the group starts to exhibit COVID symptoms? Does the whole group shut down?
I posed these questions and more to three attorneys, including Tammy O’Hara, who also happens to own a travel company—Million Miles Travel Agency, Brooklyn, New York.
Their responses essentially boil down to the following advice:
- Consult with a competent attorney. COVID isn’t cut and dried. Don’t assume your current policies, communications, client waivers, etc., cover your liability.
- When you make a decision, own it. For example, if you require vaccinations for group members, broadcast it early in the sales cycle, clearly and conspicuously.
- This is a very fluid situation. Stay on top of new travel requirements and how they are being communicated to the general traveling public, and be ready to adapt.
These decisions may not be easy ones, especially given the shutdown of travel these last 13 months.
“After the year we’ve had, and the hesitance of some people to travel, it’s difficult to think about putting in place policies that could turn away business,” O’Hara said. “At the same time, as a business owner, I have to think about trip dynamics and which policies work for me and my guests.”
“You definitely need to address this separately from all of the other health issues we have had to manage over the last years and decades,” agreed Paul Ruden, longtime travel industry attorney and onetime general counsel at the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA).
“This is a situation that is going to be with us indefinitely. It will evolve. If you do not take the requisite public health measures into your business model, you’re potentially leaving yourself open to liability.”
Not every destination and supplier a travel advisor might use for their groups will do things the same way, making group travel communications and operations even more complex.
“It is likely that, as vaccination numbers increase, much will be dictated by various destinations’ health and safety and immigration requirements,” predicted GAdventures spokeswoman Kim Greiner. “A lot remains unknown and it is unlikely that all the countries we travel to will implement the same requirements in order to enter and travel about the country, so protocols may vary.”
No matter what you do, travel advisors should protect themselves by communicating all of their policies up front.
“Before you take anybody’s money, you have to let them know the terms and conditions of traveling with you,” said longtime travel attorney Jeff Ment. Display the information “early and conspicuously,” he said.
If someone presses you on your rules, Ruden said, tell them “There is nothing to talk about. If you don’t want to comply, take someone else’s trip.”
But likewise, an advisor doesn’t make the rules of the places a group is visiting, so make it clear what policies of admission are for the places you don’t control. “These are all, in my mind, good defenses for travel advisors,” Ment said.
Having links to destination, supplier, and venue COVID requirements upfront “will weed out those people who don’t feel comfortable complying with your rules,” O’Hara said. “If someone is an anti-masker and is with others who wear masks, eventually it will come to a head, and that could destroy the experience for everyone.”
Once you set and communicate a policy, ensure you are prepared to follow through on compliance. “If someone is on your bus and decides, ‘I’ve had it with this mask thing,’ What are you going to do?” Ruden said.
“Be clear in all of your communications about the consequences of not complying with something like wearing a mask. And it cannot be buried in pages of rules and regulations, terms and conditions.”
While establishing rules are the easiest part, Ruden said, “what is complicated is the choice of language and the way you represent your rules.”
Ruden pointed out how consumer disclosure rules for travel advisors are typically governed by state laws, so advice an advisor might receive from a colleague from another state may be misleading.
All of the lawyers I spoke to recommended running your COVID requirements by a competent attorney in the travel space.
Plan for The Trip
On the operations side of a tour, travel advisors need to think about the most important possible “What If” scenarios, and how they would respond if say someone came down with COVID symptoms.
O’Hara is running through the myriad touchpoints she might require, including hospitals, close-by testing centers, and medical clinics. “Have those plans in your back pocket at the ready if a situation develops,” she recommended.
GAdventures says in its Health and Safety Guidelines that it will work with the local group leader (called a GAdventures “CEO”) and their on-the-ground teams, “as well as with the local countries, to determine the procedures should this happen. We will always follow governmental advice on how to proceed.”
But all three attorneys urged travel advisors not to play physician. “COVID symptoms mimic so many other illnesses, that you cannot make any assumptions,” Ruden said.
To Bubble, or Not to Bubble
I asked these attorneys about developing rules restricting group member movement outside of the trip’s activities—so-called “staying within the bubble” policies. “Adding a general behavior clause in your group code of conduct might not be a bad idea,” O’Hara said.
“Normally we say things about going out alone at night. Maybe add wording that states once you go outside of our bubble, you won’t know what you are getting yourself into, so you need to exercise caution in these matters, social distance, wear your mask, etc.”
GAdventures’ Travel with Confidence health and safety protocols include the wearing of PPE, physical distancing and enhanced sanitation, but I didn’t see anything about venturing outside of the group.
Ment says policies like these are up to each group travel advisor. “But whatever you choose, communicate it in advance. If you don’t, you can’t say it afterwards when someone comes to you on the trip and says they are stepping out of the group dinner and grabbing a meal in another part of town,” he said.
If a guest does come down with COVID symptoms, a group travel advisor is well within their rights to tell that guest whether they can join group touring activities.
“If you advise them in advance that you retain that right, you can tell someone, ‘you don’t look good and you don’t sound good. I can’t let you continue with the group,’” Ment said.
In fact, GAdventures specifically states this in their guest “Health and Safety Guidelines.”
“G Adventures reserves the right to remove any participants or leaders from the group if they are unwell, show symptoms, do not comply with rules around health and safety, handwashing, physical distancing, etc. and/or are unwilling to be tested.”
Be Prepared to Adapt
Like I wrote at the top of this column, this situation is fluid and group travel advisors will no doubt have to continue adapting for the next 12-18 months at a minimum. For example, when I asked GAdventures if they require vaccinations for all guests yet, they hedged their bets and told me “not currently.”
Finally, in three hours of interviews with O’Hara, Ment and Ruden I could barely scratch the surface of other scenarios, like what an advisor should do about informing guests if they learn a client tests COVID positive.
Ment has a tour operator client who has informed group members post-trip that another guest they traveled with developed COVID after they returned home. Ment said he conceded to the operator’s decision, though “it doesn’t strike me as a legal requirement.”
Group travel has always been a lot more complicated than most outsiders understand. COVID has presented a whole new level of complexity and to the need to communicate clearly and often. If you are going to stay in the group game, like all three lawyers told me, proceed with caution.