Charlie Funk
Charlie Funk

As an only child, it took some time for me to understand a family dynamic that kids with siblings learned early on: I gradually developed a theory over the years about how one could know the guilty party when a youngster in the household misbehaved or something was broken or went missing.

I concluded that as long as there was a single junior member, the parents would always know the perpetrator with certainty. When there were two, the parents would never know for sure unless they witnessed the incident. With three, absent a first-hand witness, the guilty party would be the one ganged up on by the other two.

Another subtlety lost on me as an only child (with a mother who instilled a strong sense of morality) was never learning how to lie. If you've been paying attention, lying was futile because I was the only suspect.

But there was a downside. If one has siblings, one learns that indiscreet chitchat about what another sibling did has consequences. If one doesn't, one does not learn that there are consequences for being indiscreet.

Like the time I was in ninth grade and a teacher asked me to go into the boy's rest-room and camp out to watch for those smoking cigarettes (it was an innocent time when a 10-year-old could go to the store and buy cigarettes, ostensibly for a parent).

So I did what I was asked, and sure enough, a student lit up. In a few seconds, the teacher barged into the boys' restroom demanding to know who was smoking. Of course, everyone denied they were.

"Charles [no one called me Charlie until 15 years later], was Richard smoking?" I replied, "Yes, he was."

Over the years, I have seen any number of movies and TV programs with unequivocal, clear examples of "bad ideas." I don't have room to detail these two, but one involves Ted Knight on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," the other John Cleese hanging upside down in "A Fish Called Wanda."

Snitching on Richard was a genuinely bad idea. He was suspended for three days. When he returned to school, all was good until lunch when I went out to the playground. Richard was there. He pointed out to me that his parents had been most disappointed at his suspension. It did not turn out well.

There are also those situations I learned about the hard way that included not validating a question put to me by someone just because it was asked. Just because someone asks a question does not mean one has to answer it. Indeed, another question is a perfectly valid response. Or sometimes the answer may not be relevant to the question asked at all.

It comes down to balancing what is known and not known with the compulsion or necessity to communicate truthfully or fully to someone in that regard. Sometimes one has to tell the truth, just not about the question asked.

Unless you're a sometimes hobbyist or have been doing this for real for only a few months, you know the abject terror of receiving an air schedule change notice that has your clients arriving some few minutes after the connecting flight departs or with a legal connection time at some major airport that you know they absolutely will not make -- and even if they do, they won't see their luggage for three or four days.

We're not even talking about simple things like a shortened port call time or a missed port call.

What do you tell your client? Much is to be said about the benefit of appearing to be a duck swimming calmly on a pond, while below the surface only frantic paddling is maintaining that serenity. How much do they need to know of what you know? How do you solve the problem but appear to be calm?

Somewhere, the line has to be drawn between not exposing a client to things that would create needless anxiety or anger for them and keeping them from stressing out or coming unhinged.

A honeymoon couple on their way home from the Dominican Republic has their originating flight cancelled. The new originating flight and connector are to totally different cities. The new flight is delayed two hours, and the revised connection time is barely legal. The client calls from the D.R. desperate for assistance.

A cruise ship loses all propulsion and electrical generation capability in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, and there is no food service, no support services. People are sleeping on deck, walking through human waste and eating onion sandwiches. You've heard nothing from the cruise line, but somehow your clients have been able to post on Cruise Critic what is transpiring and CNN has a 20-minute news cycle on the whole situation, and then a message arrives from your client.

Clients who booked a cruise and took advantage of "free" air wind up with a heart-stopping connection time. They make the flight to Berlin, but their luggage is nowhere to be found for six days of a nine-day cruise. Unless you reach out to the cruise line, eventually having to demand answers, you hear nothing. Meanwhile, your clients have that unlimited WiFi onboard amenity and light up your inbox every two hours or so.

The Eastern Caribbean was ravaged by hurricanes Irma and Maria. Some islands have recovered to a degree, but damage is evident. Others are barely 50% recovered, and even a short venture away from the port reveals evidence of substantial unrepaired destruction.

Cruise line partners are doing all they can to put a best foot forward when describing the condition of the ports of call. Your clients ask probing questions about what the real situation is. Your personal experience is at odds with reports from others, but Caribbean cruises represent 30% of your total sales volume.

European rainfall is at historic lows for several weeks, and river levels on a number of rivers, specifically the Danube and the Rhine, are so low that the $10,000 river cruise your clients signed up for has become a series of bus rides and ship changes. The cruise line staff admit the issue has persisted all summer, and your client unhappily points out that the cruise line continues to market these itineraries aggressively, knowing there likely will be problems. The problem will resolve itself with a few days' rainfall. The cruise line decides to go on with business as usual.

Many of the events described here have one thing in common: There was no blame to lay on the supplier because they can't control weather or airlines losing bags. In other cases, there might have been supplier-controllable events.

The common solution in all these situations (and far more others than I have space to describe) is transparency. It is sometimes a tough call to know which is better: telling everything that is known or sharing small bits. The worst choice is misinforming the client, closely followed by not informing him or her at all.

I am persuaded that travel suppliers cannot over-inform a client. I also believe a well-informed client will be more amenable to suggestions on how to compensate them for their less-than-optimal experience. A well-informed client is less likely to feel he or she needs to resort to social media for redress of a grievance.

The clients look to their travel adviser when supplier information is not forthcoming. Retailers are sometimes put in the awkward position of having to be forceful with supplier inquiries or having to reach out to their consortia to assist in getting answers. In some cases, that can be a genuinely bad idea that produces a veiled threat from the supplier of retribution for doing so.

It's like this: Suppliers who get in front of problems and use all the tools at their disposal to do so will benefit in the long run. One of those tools is the retail travel professional. Not informing that resource serves no one well.

Suppliers should avoid shooting the messenger when that professional is put in a position of having to use whatever resources are at his/her disposal to satisfy the client. When all the players are on the same team, everyone wins.


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