Agents: Clients not ready to commit to tours

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NEW YORK -- "What Europe business?" and "Do you have Valium?" were two initial reactions by agents when asked about their Europe business. As for a rebound, agents are generally dubious about the value of low prices and booking incentives, agreeing that it will take time more than anything else.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, said Helene Singer, president of the Delaware Valley ASTA chapter and owner of Singer Travel in Wyomissing, Pa., most of her leisure business to Europe canceled, although she has booked vacations to Italy and Paris for two couples.

The difference between Europe and other leisure destinations, Singer said, "is that you'll find fewer people committing funds far out. You'll see people booking at the last minute, particularly FITs." FIT clients "can book a refundable ticket and guarantee a hotel with a two- to three-day cancellation policy. So if they decide not to go, they just don't go," Singer said.

"There's a fair amount of reluctance by tour customers to lay out money ahead of time with the uncertainty of what is going on," she added. "I think the major tour companies are going to have to re-think how far they want the money in, because that's what's stopping a lot of sales."

In the present climate, Singer said she expects escorted operators to follow the lead of Trafalgar Tours, which introduced a booking guarantee that allows for vacations booked through the end of the year to be rescheduled through 2002. Under the policy, the rescheduling can take place up to 24 hours before the day of departure without penalty.

Asked if lower prices and booking incentives can make a difference in European leisure travel, Singer said, "I think people have to want to go. It's not something you can sell. If they don't want to go, it doesn't matter if [the trip is] free."

"There's a lot of incentives out there because businesses are hurting," said Ann Litt, president of Undiscovered Britain & Ireland in Philadelphia. "But how many people want to leave their house?"

Litt described the 20% commission incentives offered by some London hotels as "depressing, knowing that I could be making more." In addition to small group tours she's planning to Ireland and possibly Scotland for next year, Litt said she's considering organizing a coach tour to Montreal and Quebec City. "It's not what I normally do," Litt said, "but I think it's a good alternative right now for people who want to stay closer to home."

Cecil Wilson, owner of Charleston, S.C.-based Travel and Cruise Center and president-elect of Travel Agents of the Carolinas, said one European supplier, a river-barge cruise operator, offered to do co-op advertising with his agency in the local newspaper, "but I didn't want to even spend my percentage."

"I can't see anybody moving on something like a barge trip until next spring," Wilson said. In the month following the attacks, Wilson said the as many as eight new tickets his agency issued to Europe were all for business travelers.

Of Wilson's three groups booked for Europe, a missionary group to Budapest, Hungary, for this November postponed to next year. There is talk of canceling a Charleston School of the Arts fund-raiser trip to Spain in June, but another to France in May is going ahead.

"I'm not trying to talk anybody into going anywhere at this point in my life," Wilson said. "If they want to go, I'm here to help. "I think it's easily going to be six to eight months," he said, before European business comes back. With rates as they are, it's certainly not price that's the issue.

"[People] don't want to get there and not be able to get back," Wilson said. "They don't want the low prices right now, but I think it's going to take the low prices in the spring to get people back. "People are waiting to see what happens next before they commit. If the conflict remains on the front, then I think European travel will pick up. But I think people are expecting the worst, and they don't want to be there to witness it."

Robert Greenlee, a European travel specialist with Jim's Travel Link, a Carlson Wagonlit agency in Dallas, said he'd received many cancellations and only a half-dozen new bookings to Europe for February and March, all FITs to Switzerland and Italy.

"Most want to wait and see [with Europe]," Greenlee said, adding that he himself has become busy with Australia, Hawaii and Canada bookings as a result of three recent layoffs in his leisure department. "It will take a massive blitz by the tourist offices [for travelers] to know Europe is safe."

In preparation for a regional trade show, Stan Morse, president of the Hudson Valley ASTA chapter and co-owner of Marstan Travel in Millbrook, N.Y., said he had recently been in touch with every agency in his area.

"There are a few doing moderately well," Morse said, "but [those agencies] have either a corporate or an ethnic base. "We're still dealing with that huge fear factor due to ongoing reporting [of the war on terrorism].

"The answer to fear is going to have to come from within," he added. "It's not going to come from a travel agent. I'm not going to waste my time telling a client, 'It's perfectly safe to travel, go and follow President Bush's advice.' That's foolishness."

Neal Kraemer, president of Carrousel Travel in Minneapolis and past president of the ASTA Upper Midwest chapter, said he believes travel to Europe will rebound slower than domestic travel and closer international destinations such as the Caribbean, Canada and Mexico.

"I think there's going to be a lag effect such as what we saw during the [Persian] Gulf War," Kraemer said. "People will put off their Europe trips for six months or a year and stay closer to home." There also are factors that make the revival of European travel unpredictable, Kraemer added. "What happens with U.S. military action, and if terrorist acts happen again in the U.S.?

"Eventually, we may have a shift," Kraemer said, "much like the Europeans who've lived with terrorism longer than we have. Life will go on, people will want to live their lives and to travel. I don't know how long that adjustment will take to happen."

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