Charlie Funk
Charlie Funk

Over the years, I came to have a sense of pride and accomplishment in the professionalism and attention to detail that Sherrie and I brought to our agency and that we instilled in our team members. Central to that was a commitment to be a counselor instead of a credit-card-processing order-taker.

I've written before about what we as travel professionals are obliged to share with our clients ("Preparing clients for a dangerous world," Nov. 30, 2015). It is worth sharing the highlights of some of those topics.

  • Becoming familiar with passport and/or proof-of-citizenship requirements and the need for visas.
  • Becoming familiar with immunization requirements and directing clients to full information before accepting money.
  • Knowing and understanding entry requirements for clients convicted of crimes and where a misdemeanor in the U.S. is a felony in the destination country.
  • Knowing and advising clients on travel restrictions that apply to parents in arrears on child-support payments.

The list went on, with many more examples of information travelers need to know.

This general topic still comes up regularly on the Facebook group, Travel Agency Best Practices, which Sherrie and I moderate. Many members assert that they can't, and shouldn't, be expected to know minute details about security issues, legal problems, child support and more in the conduct of their business. Many of those who feel that way tend to be new to the profession and still see their only responsibility as making the booking and passing along the money from the client to the supplier.

Many of those same people believe that because the "big guys" don't mention these things, they shouldn't have to. Trust me, the OTAs cover every possible pitfall and issue that could arise in the terms and conditions to which an online client must agree.

There were a number of other areas I urged readers to become familiar with, and the column closed with, "None of the above is intended to provide legal advice, and I direct anyone reading this who is in need of assistance to contact a knowledgeable, competent travel industry lawyer."

Apparently at least one person reached out to Travel Weekly legal columnist Mark Pestronk, seeking dispensation from the list of things detailed in my column. Pestronk, in his Dec. 14, 2015 column, wrote, "It's an agent's duty to keep clients informed on travel rules." Pestronk spoke to the topics covered in my column.

He observed, "A professional travel counselor must not only advise about these rules but must also keep up-to-date and convey the relevant information to the client. If the professional travel counselor fails to do so, a client suffering a loss could sue for negligence." Pestronk continued, "You could also be liable in cases where you were negligent in selecting suppliers or cases where you negligently failed to warn of a danger known to you as a professional that you should have disclosed to the client," citing the book "Travel Law," in which Judge Thomas Dickerson asserted, "The most exciting area of travel agent liability has been the ever-increasing number of affirmative duties imposed upon travel agents by the courts. ... The duty to affirmatively seek out relevant and available information that the consumer needs ... is an appropriate standard of care."

Pestronk closed with, "There are two huge exceptions to the general rule articulated by Judge Dickerson: First, there has to be a limit on how deeply the counselor must research the issues, a limit on what he or she can be expected to remember and a limit on the amount of information that the counselor must convey to the client. For example, it is totally unrealistic to expect a U.S. counselor to advise a citizen of another country about entry requirements to a third country.

"The legal standard for these kinds of limits would be expressed as follows: The professional travel counselor would be expected to know and advise about what a typical professional in the community or specialized niche would be expected to advise about. This 'community standard' is the same for malpractice claims against doctors.

"The second exception is that not all travel agents are travel counselors. Many or even most agents who arrange high-volume corporate travel are not really counselors and should not be held to the standards articulated by Charlie and me."

Which brings me to a quandary. Maybe I've had it wrong all this time.

A recent post on Travel Agency Best Practices discussed the services that agent members provided and the subject turned to airfares. Since airfares, particularly domestic, in the main are a hassle for those who aren't "real" travel agents and don't pay a commission, a number of members said they helped with latest arrival times, earliest departure times, etc., and maybe even sometimes looked up schedules on Expedia. Some even made reservations on an OTA and charged a fee.

But the one that struck me the hardest was an agent who commented that all she did was take money for the cruise. All this other stuff (air, hotel, insurance, etc.) was up to the buyer.

And now, I'm wondering if that's where the profitability is in this business.

That it might be is exemplified in an example that Bob Dickinson tells about a time when he was the vice president of sales at Carnival Cruise Lines (which likely puts it in the 1987 or 1988 time frame) and was making sales calls in central Florida.

On entering the headquarters office of a major national travel agency, Dickinson observed an agent attempting to help a couple plan a cruise. She was in the process of answering the myriad questions that first-time cruisers have when the office manager happened by, interrupted the conversation, directed the couple to rack after rack filled with brochures and instructed them to take as many as they wanted, go home and when they had picked out something, come back and they would book it for them.

That would never happen today, right?

Except a similar situation recently occurred involving a couple at the same national agency (one that does billions in travel annually) with this office located in California. The agent gave them a Hawaii brochure, told them to look through it to find what they wanted and book it online or come back and book it with a representative.

It looks like we've made progress, in that now it is possible to maximize profit by pushing a client directly to the internet or being an order taker. And at some level that seems like the best way to do business with minimal exposure to legal issues, right?

Wrong. An "agent" treating a client in this way adds nothing to the travel process. Indeed, there is no reason for many consumers to even consider using this kind of agent rather than booking on their own.

But it still begs the question of how much a travel counselor should be involved with clients. On one hand, some would say. "none." Others would say, "some" or "a lot."

And just when you thought you'd heard it all, here's a new one. We have clients who are generally physically fit who responded to information I sent them about a 32-night cruise beginning next August. For them, it would be the trip of a lifetime, and the excitement was palpable as we discussed it. The price for the penthouse suite they wanted was $142,000. It's a preferred supplier who pays a commission check with a comma and five digits before the decimal point.

Except one of the clients is coming off major surgery and the other has midstage Alzheimer's disease. The supplier insurance won't cover any pre-existing condition for the one. Third-party insurance won't cover mental-illness-related claims for the other. There is no possible way to know what tomorrow brings, let alone what will happen nine months from now.

Some might take the position, "If the credit card clears it's not my problem."

I explained carefully the options that would present themselves should they have to cancel with penalty and urged that they consult with their doctors and family before we moved forward. Basically, at some relatively close-in date a cancellation would risk losing at least $25,000 and at a not much later date the full $142,000.

It's like this: I choose to be a travel counselor. I choose to put the well-being of my clients ahead of my own. And that is why I walked away from what would have been the largest single booking for a party of two in the history of our agency.

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