Bekah Eaton came home from ASTA’s annual conference with new ideas, new relationships, and a case of Covid. She believes she caught it from the woman who sat next to her for two hours. “I felt betrayed and almost angry that she would put me in harms way, and expose me without warning or anything.”
Another travel advisor, who asked to remain anonymous, was on a fam trip to Italy when she thanked the woman sitting next to her, whom she knew was opposed to vaccines, for getting vaccinated before the trip. “She went off on me about how she felt forced to get the vaccine—and that was very alienating in a small group atmosphere.”
Then she saw someone attending a FAM in Europe after being at an ASTA event where there were positive cases. “And I’m thinking, weren’t you in that room at ASTA with people who tested positive? Shouldn’t you be quarantining and not on this AMA cruise in Europe?”
Those experiences changed the way she sees those people.
And then there’s the case of the BDM who posted one too many times, using just one too many inflammatory words.
Whether the issue is vaccines or travel closures, the ethics of selling travel during a pandemic or the ethics of holding a conference in person, the travel industry is divided as never before. The issues affect our livelihoods, our health, our children—and emotions run deep. Often the arguments get heated; sometimes we say things we don’t even mean; occasionally the Facebook posts turn personal and mean. And our relationships with our peers and our suppliers are being affected.
“People who are unwilling to be vaccinated are holding us back, and will continue to hold us back for a long time,” one Canadian travel advisor told me. “I haven’t left my province since this whole thing started. I feel like I’ve seen some people model some questionable behavior, and I don’t want to put myself at risk. And once I do get back to traveling, I’ll be a lot pickier about what I will do.”
Said another, “I attended a small conference with 25 or 30 people from all over the country, and they said we would be socially distanced. But when I got there, I was literally the only person wearing a mask. It was alarming to me; I had not sat so close to people at a table since the pandemic began. I left a day early because I just felt so uncomfortable and awkward.”
“I have lost family in Peru, so this is a sensitive subject for me,” says Nina Fogelman, owner of Ancient Summit Inc. “If some in the travel industry don’t care about exposing their fellow citizens to a highly contagious disease, I don’t need to work with them.”
Still, as time goes on some tempers have cooled, and many seem to have found a calmer path.
“I simply unfollow those that rant and rave and stop interacting with them unless directly approached—even within my own large family of Cruise Planners. No need to make a big hullaballoo about it,” says Richard Stieff of Cruise Planners in Boynton Beach, FL. “There are suppliers that I have chosen to no longer do business with based on their handling of the pandemic, and again, no need to raise a stink. There are other suppliers that I’m now building a relationship with for the same reason. It’s a great big industry, we can be different, and have different opinions and still get along—being nasty, however, changes that narrative to one of disassociation.”
“I used to be a lot more harsh with my opinions; I want to not have a Covid Wave 5 or Wave 6, and I was not pleasant in the beginning. I have some regrets around that,” says Elizabeth Buchanan of Paradise Weddings. “I’ve definitely lost friends, a few who have gone down the Q-Anon hole and then just reevaluating how I want to spend my time and whom I want to spend it with. Sometimes you just want to shake your head, but you have to be so diplomatic about it. People are trying to save their businesses and get through this the best they can.”
Still, though, she will think twice about attending those large romance conferences “with hundreds of people in one ballroom, all moving around and talking to different people. It will be a long time before I go to a show like that.”
Agrees Grace DeVita, president of Post Haste Travel, “Sometimes as professionals we need to keep our opinions to ourselves. Anger is very unprofessional. If you have something to say that you wouldn’t say at an industry event, don’t put it on any social media.”
With her own staff, “we do not discuss politics, we do not discuss our personal opinions about anything outside of business. When someone starts, I stop them and say we are not here to discuss that; I just don’t allow those conversations at work. They can talk to me privately, but not in a business situation—and online, it’s always business. It will always come back to bite you.”
And does she feel differently about those who do share their opinions online?
“I wouldn’t want them to work for me,” she says.
Bring On the Psychologists
That’s a smart approach, says Karen Shelton of Luxury Travel PhD in Charlotte—who these days finds her PhD in conflict mediation to be an exceedingly valuable tool in the travel industry.
“I use my psychology background more than you’d think in this business,” she says. When it comes to Covid-related discussions, “trying to parse through our beliefs about vaccines and politics is just not going to get us anywhere. On a professional basis, it’s really important to focus on ‘it is what it is and how do we work together to get through this?’”
The key, Shelton says, is to keep our professional hats on at all times. “In child custody, the focus in all matters is the best interest of the child, to always do what’s best for your client and not make it about you. And that’s the parallel here—what is in the best interest of our mutual clients? Our personal beliefs do not matter.”
So when you come upon a post on social media with which you disagree, just scroll on by and ignore it. “As difficult as it might be, that’s part of the skill of being successful and maintaining relationships. Not everything we agree with or disagree with warrants a comment.”
While it’s hard to just ignore people who have different opinions about things you care deeply about, trying to sway somebody who’s just a name on Facebook and not a real friend is a fool’s errand, she says. “There’s a place for having discussions with others about all these issues, but you have to have the foundation of a personal relationship that is outside of business.”
If you are going to send an email or post on social media, first be sincere about listening to the other person’s comment. Stop and think before you hit enter, Shelton suggests. “Don’t respond in the heat of the moment; pause, think about your response, get the information that is relevant, perhaps consult with a colleague—and review it before you say something that could end up damaging your relationships. Always maintain the highest level of professionalism to keep the respect of your colleagues.”
If the difference is with a client—as when you institute a mask or vaccine mandate for a group you are leading, for example—consider asking your BDM for help on how you can work together to save the group, or talk to colleagues in Facebook groups like mine.
“For my team, I like for them to consult within the team, and I have an inner circle of colleagues to talk things out—to have that safe space to vent before you go back,” Shelton says. “That’s part of my pause process.”
And when it comes to arguments over the ethics of selling travel during a pandemic, remember that ethics are an individual thing.
“It’s very interesting when people decide what’s ethical in this business,” she says. “Psychologists have a Code of Ethics—but if we have one in the travel industry, I don’t think it says it’s not ethical to sell travel during a pandemic.
“Until we do, it’s not about pointing fingers. It’s about listening and understanding.”
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.