Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

What has become known as the Serenity Prayer -- "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference" -- is approaching its 90th birthday.

But it has never seemed more relevant. 

Penned by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and embraced by Alcoholics Anonymous, poster printers and Internet meme creators, it seems particularly pertinent to the travel industry in 2022. 

More than any time I can remember, travel advisors and suppliers alike are navigating a mickle of dynamics that seem beyond their control. Flight delays and cancellations are numerous and unpredictable. Past experience with specific hotels is no longer a reliable indicator of current conditions.

Do these fall under "things I cannot change"? Can accepting them bring serenity? Not likely. Ours is a service industry; our implied promise to the people who book through travel advisors, purchase a package or sign up for a tour or cruise is that greater benefits will accrue to them than to those who plan and travel independently.

The courage that some airlines and hotels are displaying to "change the things I can" seems more focused on raising prices than on the customer experience. That, indeed, takes cojones! Many airlines appear willing to put at risk long-term relationships, customer loyalty and, if reputation is indeed linked to customer retention, future profits.

But perhaps they're looking at a different clause of the prayer. Perhaps their perspective is that, because public perception is that their collective problems are linked to the Great Resignation, they can view their current operational difficulties as being among "things I cannot change." The test of the validity of that viewpoint is simple enough: Does it lead to serenity? Perhaps, short-term, for their shareholders, but for their frontline employees, passengers, guests and industry partners, not so much.

Any sympathy that industry partners and consumers may have had for problems that aviation and hospitality faced during the pandemic is fading fast. While travel advisors are not in a position to assure clients that Flight A will take off on time (or take off at all) or that meals ordered through room service will appear promptly and hot, they're not helpless as regards adding value to a trip.

In fact, the tools that travel advisors have always had at their disposal are still adding value. In the current situation, perhaps the most valuable tool of all is deployed before the trip even begins: setting expectations. Ironically, this is particularly important when counseling seasoned travelers who are expecting their previous travel patterns and experiences to recur. While it may seem counterintuitive that a sales process should put emphasis on what may go wrong, in the current environment it's a good place to start.

Setting expectations for the existing conditions prepares travelers to understand why an advisor would, for example, recommend taking a more expensive direct flight versus connecting and doubling the risk of a missed or delayed departure. It explains why buying travel insurance and baggage tracking services are critical. It reinforces the value of having an advocate on their side should something go awry at their hotel. And should they travel on a day when air traffic melts down, it's a tremendous advantage to be able to reach out to a travel counselor with access to a GDS versus waiting on hold for hours.

Whereas an advisor's role in the past may have been to guarantee a smooth trip, today it's about minimizing the risk of disruption and discontent. And advisors, who have dealt for months with multiple clients in the current environment, have gained invaluable experience in crisis management.

And even when things appear to be truly broken, travel advisors are not helpless to engage in repair work.

One of the greatest frustrations facing advisors today is the loss of contacts in destinations. Relationships cultivated with receptive tour operators, hotel general managers, concierges and maitre d's may have vanished, but their (likely stressed) replacements are apt to welcome calls that focus on establishing a relationship rather than hearing another complaint. I've always found that relationships formed early on after I've taken a new job can be long-lasting, trusting and deep. While loss of an old contact is frustrating, encountering a new contact is often an opportunity.

I have great respect for the prayer's author and understand that there are times when one must "accept the things I cannot change." (I believe the contemporary expression of this sentiment is, "It is what it is.")

The key insight of the prayer is the importance of having the "wisdom to know the difference" between what can and cannot be changed. It is perfectly true, for instance, that the loss of important contacts abroad and airline operational meltdowns are, for travel advisors, "things that cannot be changed." But that's not a call for inaction. Serenity comes from both the acceptance of change and the courage to move forward from there. 

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