Maintaining professionalism in a disaster

By Charlie Funk
Charlie FunkIt was Friday, Jan. 13, and Sherrie and I were watching TV just before bedtime. As is my wont, I was also Internet surfing when I was alerted to a new email. Almost simultaneously there was another, both concerning the Costa Concordia going aground. One showed a nighttime photo of the ship with a modest list to starboard. In short order, more messages came in, one saying that Italian authorities were reporting several fatalities.

A quick log-in to my office computer confirmed we had no passengers on the sailing. My immediate thought was that even though the ship's list didn't look that bad, if there were indeed fatalities, history told me this wasn't going to be a typical weekend.

Saturday morning was rife with reports of chaotic conditions getting passengers into lifeboats and abandoning the ship, of no one on the ship having had an emergency boat drill and worse.

And now the photos showed Concordia lying on its side on a reef.

Within a few hours, the Internet was abuzz with anecdotal reports of poor crew behavior, a captain allegedly abandoning ship well before all passengers were accounted for and even video taken last August that appeared to show the Concordia sailing close to Giglio, sounding its horn in a salute to someone ashore.

Network news organizations were escalating reports, almost as if each was trying to be more sensational than competitors.

We've been doing this thing we do for 30 years. As rare as incidents involving cruise ships have been in that time, we knew we had to start drafting talking points to address concerns clients might have.

I received an email from a reporter for a very large national newspaper requesting an interview. Scheduling issues kept us from chatting until Sunday, which was really better for me because it gave me time to do research and address several inaccurate reports, such as the early claim that no one onboard had participated in an emergency lifeboat drill.

I had thought the intent of the interview would be to discuss how travel professionals were responding to client concerns and addressing and allaying fears. I was wrong.

Despite efforts to stay focused on cruise safety and like topics, the discussion kept looping back to leading questions regarding the terrible impact this disaster was going to have on cruise booking, especially in the middle of Wave season.

My observation that our booking activity was up substantially since Christmas was skipped over.

"The cruise lines have been doing really bad recently, right?" the reporter asked. "So isn't this going to really hurt them even more right now?"

After a fourth attempt by the reporter to elicit a gloom-and-doom prognosis, I offered that it would be Pollyannaish to suggest that there wouldn't be anyone who canceled as a result of the accident. Rather, it was a matter of how many would cancel and what percentage they represented.

We have had very few contacts of any kind from clients about the Concordia. In a conversation clearly devoid of empathy and the milk of human kindness, we did get a call early Monday morning from a client wondering if this incident might mean her cruise price would go down.

In most conversations, we have compared this event to similar incidents involving other modes of transportation that occur far more frequently.

We point out that incidents involving ships receive an inordinate amount of publicity simply because they are so unusual.

We also are careful to point out that this particular event was the result of human error and apparent bad judgment, not a design flaw, technical issue or other uncontrollable factor likely to repeat and somehow affect clients on any cruise they might ever consider taking.

We sometimes have clients who are overwrought, lashing out at us because we're at hand and they need anxieties and uncertainty addressed.

It is all too easy to become defensive in circumstances such as this. Such occurrences are indeed the best tests of our professionalism when we maintain decorum and control of the conversation.

The important thing is to be factually more informed than the person with whom you're speaking, keep the situation in perspective, never joke about it and remain calm and reassuring.

If clients still choose to cancel or modify their reservation, we take even greater pains to ensure they understand any consequences arising from doing so, in great part because the situation is emotionally charged and the information they receive might be selective or inaccurate.

If significant penalties will derive, we are empathetic, explaining that it is not our policy but that of the supplier that creates the financial loss.

In short, put the black hat on someone else and be your client's advocate.

It is noteworthy that we have had no cancellations traceable to the Concordia.

In fact, booking activity that began vigorously on Dec. 26 has continued unabated, and we see indicators that this could be our best year since 2007.

Charlie and Sherrie Funk own Just Cruisin' Plus in Brentwood, Tenn., and have provided agent and agency-owner training throughout North America on every facet of travel agency operations. They are the authors of several books, including "A Recipe for Travel Agency Success" "Creating a Blueprint for Growing Your Agency" and "You're Invited," a complete guide to hosting consumer travel events. 
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