Charlie Funk
Charlie Funk

Most of us were instilled with a sense of responsibility as we grew up, beginning with simple things like making sure the dog had water, cutting the grass and not wrecking the car. If you had an older sibling or were friends with someone who had an older sibling, or had an aunt Ethel, you likely encountered those who not only knew what their responsibilities were but had a good idea what yours were, as well. Not only that, they weren't reticent to tell you what, when and how those responsibilities ought to be discharged.

That brings us to the present day in our careers as travel retailers.

Sherrie and I have served as agent trainers for 20 years or so, and in that time we have shared with thousands of fellow agents things we learned over the years about successful, profitable travel agency operation. I covered the topic in my column "Don't judge a book by its cover; qualify the prospect" (June 8, 2015).

Briefly, the process involved asking the prospect a series of specific questions in a specific order and using the responses to recommend the best one or two choices for a vacation. Those questions at times delved in depth into a person's personal life regarding cuisine, beverage and entertainment preferences.

One area that was always sensitive for me dealt with a person's criminal record, because I needed to know if they had been convicted of a felony that would disqualify them from entering certain countries.

Sometimes even things as seemingly innocuous as making the client aware of the need for a notarized statement from nonaccompanying parent(s) to take a minor child out of the country became a challenge.

We once had a mother who was vague and in some ways evasive in providing such a letter and equally evasive as to why such a letter could not be provided. Ultimately, we came to know that the child was the product of artificial insemination, and she had no idea who the father was. The matter was resolved by obtaining a notarized letter from the clinic that had performed the procedure, which turned out to be sufficient. We know that because she was asked to produce the document prior to boarding. It's those one-time-in-a-thousand issues that we are expected to know and advise clients about.

But just how far should one go in the process?

Early on we learned never to sell from our own pocketbook or to be judgmental about the prospect's ability to pay for a vacation based on any number of factors.

Late one Friday afternoon, a man in ragged jeans, sneakers, a jumbled-up sweatshirt and sporting a three-day beard came to our office. He had never cruised before and wanted information on one that went to the southern Caribbean with Royal Viking Line for 10 nights.

The agent, looking at the man's appearance and based on the fact that he had never cruised, went to get a brochure on three- and four-night cruises instead. I was developing the question list mentioned above and went out and started asking about his past travel, what hotels he liked, etc. In short order, I learned that he, his brother and his dad had just sold their tool and die company and wanted to take the trips they had denied themselves for years. I quickly went to the brochure room (we do not display brochures for consumers to pick up) and brought out the Royal Viking brochure he'd asked about. It was a $13,000 sale, paid for in cash.

We once had a client pay us for a $3,500 resort package in cash. I hear you saying to yourself, "So what?" because we have all had clients pay us in cash. Except this was in ones, fives and 10s. The client owned and operated a vending-machine company, and the thought that popped into my head was, "I wonder if he has reported this money as income."

Another time, a client came in to pay for seven different people, in cash, to the tune of $7,700. At least this was in 10s and 20s, which the client produced from a Kroger grocery bag that contained dozens of quart-size Ziploc bags, each holding different amounts of cash.

Our agent set about counting all the money. About halfway through, he came into my office and said, "Charlie, my fingers are getting numb handling this money." After he assured me he was serious, the thought crossed my mind that the client might well be a drug dealer and all this money was from ill-gotten gains.

Of late, I have seen in social media or been party to discussions about whether or not a cruise ship passenger can:

  • Bring on a 12-pack of bottled water per person, or is it only the one bottle?
  • Somehow smuggle alcohol onto the ship in a mouthwash bottle or similar container?
  • Carry a variety of snacks onboard with them?

The responses have been all over the map, but more than a few have expressed the concern that if some people are so financially stressed that they must resort to these things, can they really afford to be going at all? And that raises the question of whether we, as travel professionals, ought even to have such concerns, let alone express them.

In another case, the matter of how one uses or doesn't use one's income tax refund has come up. Apparently there was concern on the part of a travel professional as to whether the client ought to be advised to use his tax refund to pay off credit card bills, make charitable donations or for something other than travel. It's a well-meaning concern, and indeed we have had clients who knowingly overpaid income tax withholding, with the specific intent to use the refund for travel.

Most of us have faced a situation when someone called for help booking travel that we declined to provide for personal reasons. Each of us has a point too far. Mine has come a couple of times when I was asked to help plan a trip that was clearly unlawful or involved a stated activity (a pedophile traveling to an Asian country) that was morally reprehensible. In those cases, we are obligated to gather more information.

Sometimes, though, clients tell us more than they ought to, or tell us really important things that we never asked.

Some years ago when a voter registration card and government issued photo ID were sufficient to fly to Jamaica, we had a client who didn't even take that much ID to the airport with him. He called really upset, because he had been denied boarding.

His tirade began to wear thin when somehow it turned to all these immigrants who were coming to this country and taking our jobs, and here he was, a red-blooded American citizen whose word was insufficient to get him on a plane. About the time I was ready to terminate this deteriorating conversation, he offered that, "I can prove I'm an American 'cuz I've got a concealed-carry permit with my picture on it." Since he knew where we were located, I decided not to be so short with him after all.

And then there was the frantic call I received one morning barely after 7 from a client whose voice was panicked. She was leaving on her vacation in three days and had just realized her passport had expired. I still get cold chills thinking about it. She was a schoolteacher and, with final exams and grading, she had let the renewal slip past. As I offered calming chatter while I pulled up her reservation, my heart was pounding. And there it was. She was going to Hawaii for a land vacation. When I noted that, she frantically said, "Yes, and my passport has expired!" My reply was that Hawaii was a state, like Kentucky. Her response was dead silence, followed by a click as she hung up the phone.

It's like this: We have an obligation to inquire and use that information to guide a client, but we must avoid becoming the meddlesome neighbor or the older sibling telling the younger how to live his or her life. At the same time, we need to be able to look at the person in the mirror and know that we didn't violate personal ethics or morals just because there was too much money involved.

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