Agents pitch rebounding Turkey as an exciting destination

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Tourists on line for the ticket booth at Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul.
Tourists on line for the ticket booth at Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. Photo Credit: Eric Moya

ISTANBUL -- Agents and suppliers discussed how to support destinations in crisis and got a firsthand look at how some of Turkey's popular attractions are faring, during the eighth annual meeting of the Travel Advisor Leadership Council last week.

According to Jena Gardner, president and CEO of meeting host JG Worldwide, the decision to hold this year's event in Turkey's largest city was largely inspired by member Valerie Wilson, founder of Valerie Wilson Travel.

Wilson said that it was important for council members to take a leadership role in returning to Turkey, where a 2015 suicide bombing in Istanbul and subsequent attacks fueled a massive decline in tourism. 

With cruise lines and tour operators opting to pull out of Turkey in the wake of those attacks, visits from the U.S. plummeted nearly 43% in 2016, according to Ministry of Tourism data. But visitor arrivals increased nearly 23% last year, a trend that likely will continue as cruise lines reinstate calls in Kusadasi for next year.

Members of the Travel Advisor Leadership Council in Istanbul.
Members of the Travel Advisor Leadership Council in Istanbul. Photo Credit: Eric Moya

"When you sit on an advisory board, you should be leaders in an industry, which means you think outside of the box," Wilson said. "Part of it is just being able to reassure [clients] that this is such an exciting destination and no matter where you are in the world, there's a risk."

The council's two-day meeting, held at the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus and the Ciragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul, opened with a session on the media and how agents and suppliers can contribute to the discussion of a destination in crisis.

Martin Rapp, Altour's senior vice president of leisure sales, said that the travel media should be as vigilant about reporting good news as they are about chronicling turmoil.

News about hotel renovations and openings of museums and other attractions "are the kinds of things that make it easier for us" to reassure clients to visit a destination, he said.

That approach should extend to travel sellers speaking with their clients, as well, said Beth Jenkins of McCabe World Travel in McLean, Va. "It's about spinning the conversation so it's about something exciting, instead of a defensive thing," she said, adding that such an approach is more compelling to a client than "if the conversation is always about safety, or 'You should go now to support them.'" 

Jim Bendt of Pique Travel Design returned to that theme during the council's meeting the next day, while discussing how his company creates travel portfolios for clients similar to the retirement portfolios created by financial advisers.

"When we get stuck in this reactive mode, it's a challenge," he said, adding that by creating a travel portfolio, his company is able to allay clients' fears simply by steering them toward another destination on their wish list.

"With some of the safety issues, we ran into this last year. If people weren't comfortable, let's say, going to Paris after the attacks there, we also know they wanted to go to Old Quebec, so we didn't lose that booking," he said.

Between meetings, council members experienced some of Istanbul's famous sights. Rapp, Wilson and others noted heightened security efforts at the Topkapi Palace Museum, where armed guards and additional bag scanners were positioned at several entrance points.

Still, Wilson said, "I was not intimidated by it, I was not concerned by it."

Optional post-meeting extensions to Bodrum and Cappadocia continued through this week.

Prior to last week's meeting, Rapp had visited Turkey about eight times, most recently about three years ago, not long after the 2015 bombing. Compared with then, he said, "Now it's much more vital. There were a lot more people, hotels were bustling. I think Americans are finally starting to come back."

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