I spent three days last week in Punta Cana with 35 travel advisors from all over the U.S. They were there as invited guests on a fam trip sponsored by Travel Weekly and hosted by the Dominican Republic's Ministry of Tourism.
I came away with a new appreciation of and respect for what the agents (or "travel designers," as one agent dubbed her colleagues) do to drive the tourism industry in the DR.
Some were members of various consortia, and most were home-based agents who book everything: luxury family reunions, destination weddings, honeymoons, group get-togethers, romantic getaways and golf vacations among others.
The DR was a favored destination for many of their clients. And it still is. Despite the loss of some business earlier this year due to the frenzy of media reports over the deaths of 11 American tourists, not one of the agents has abandoned the destination and, they continue to endorse, support, promote and sell the DR.
Their role has never been more important than it is today, given the recent downturn in visitor numbers.
"You are our first line of defense," Lucien Echavarria, New York-based director of the Ministry of Tourism, told the fam attendees. "You all know what has happened. The cancellations and drop in arrivals have cost people here their jobs. It is very important to tell consumers why they should visit and why they should keep coming back."
During a panel session on the first day, top executives of three leading hotel companies spoke of the challenges facing DR tourism and voiced support and thanks for the role played by travel advisors.
"This is an uphill battle for all of us, convincing clients to come," said Frank Maduro, vice president of sales for AIC Hotel Group and Hard Rock. "It's all about perception."
Kevin Froemming, executive vice president and chief commercial officer for Playa Hotels & Resorts, added that "there is no better way to overcome false images than to bring educated agents here so they can see the product for themselves. You are our voice. We are all here for you, and we are here to support you and thank you."
John Long, vice president of sales and business development for Iberostar Hotels & Resorts, told the group that "you all tell the truth better than anyone else can."
During my time with the agents, several of them shared with me what I call "success stories," instances where they salvaged bookings just by being calm, knowledgeable and educated.
One told me that she had clients who had booked a family reunion but were on the verge of canceling when the news reports began to flood the airwaves.
"I calmed their fears. They trusted me," she said.
The reunion went off without a hitch.
Suzy Schreiner, owner of Azure Blue Vacations in Seattle, recounted a booking of 19 couples to Punta Cana.
"One couple was very nervous, wanted to cancel. I set up a conference call with the whole group," Schreiner said.
"Because the reservation had been in the works for a year, I had been proactive and had already sent them notes about what medicines to bring in case of stomach issues, which can plague visitors occasionally.
"During the call, I reassured them, reinforcing what I had told them in my earlier conversations. I didn't try to pressure them. I listened and I answered their questions."
Only one couple bowed out.
"The rest of them went, had a blast, posted many photos on social media and are planning to return," Schreiner said.
Gloria Hobbins, president of Global Village Travels in Plainfield, N.J., reminded the audience of the role that travel advisors play.
"We are travel professionals. Our job is to educate. I am an educator, a researcher. I am not a booking engine. Things happen all the time, and it is our responsibility to educate our clients," she said.
A similar story was recounted by Kim Rollins-John, owner of Island Style Vacations in Jackson, N.J.
"My business fell off a bit, but one large group I had already booked for June did go, despite voicing some reservations they had. They had a terrific time and plan to go back," she said.
Another advisor recounted a booking of several friends. Reports of possible tainted liquor in the minibars made one of the women in the group nervous.
"She ended up bringing a bottle of rum with her," the advisor said. "That quelled her fears, and everyone thoroughly loved their visit."