It's difficult to imagine these days that in 2008, rising airfares and an ailing economy were the issues that kept travel agents up at night the most, while terrorism and disease barely registered. When Travel Weekly's Travel Industry Survey asked agents in 2008 what issues would most negatively impact their business over the next two years, terrorism was cited by just 14% of agents, while rising airfares and fees topped the list.
In an almost complete reversal, airfare and fees dropped to 23% this year while security/terrorism fears overtook all concerns at 68%.
Although the overall shift has been gradual, the 2016 survey shows a dramatic change even from 2015, when rising airfares and fees were still the single most-cited issue, with 43% of agents saying they believed the cost of air travel would have the most impact on their bottom line over the next two years. Reflecting the recent Zika and Ebola outbreaks, foreign health issues jumped from a mere 4% in 2008 to 32% this year.
Travel Weekly contributing editor Jeri Clausing talked to Phil Otterson, president of Abercrombie & Kent USA, about how traveler concerns about global tensions, terrorism and security are affecting the industry, and what A&K is doing to address the issue.
Q: Do these survey results surprise you at all?
A: No. I've been in the business for, I hate to tell you how long. I can think back to 1985 when for me, personally, the first terrorism incidents occurred. That would have been the hijacking of the TWA flight [in Athens], with the famous picture of a gun being held to the pilot's head. And the Achille Lauro was the same year, where [hijackers] threw Leon Klinghoffer's body overboard. That was the first time I had really experienced that, and I remember traveling to Europe soon after and seeing soldiers with machine guns in the Vienna airport. So this has been with us my entire career.
I think we go through difficult times throughout history when we are all more aware, and it is up to tour operators and travel companies to mitigate these issues as much as they possibly can.
One of the secrets to A&K's success when it comes to this issue is that we have local contacts through our own employees. We have hundreds of employees in Egypt, for instance, which gives us a higher level of safety [through information about potential concerns before they are more broadly recognized.]
Q: Even with this knowledge, how do you help assuage client concerns after there is an incident, to reassure them without promising them that they will be safe, which we know no one can guarantee?
A: It really comes down to relaying honest information, that there is an issue that happened somewhere, a natural disaster or an event. The important thing is to be honest and accurate in your description. When an incident occurs, we will immediately be in contact with our [local agents]. We create a holding statement that we will be able to communicate. Then we take every precaution to provide the safest atmosphere that is possible. We have a lot of experience and local connections. It's not like Joe Blow Tours.
Q: What impact did you see following the recent terrorist attacks in Europe? Did you have a lot of cancellations?
A: We didn't see a lot of cancellations from France or other parts of Europe. I think it's fair to say that bookings in Europe are soft this year, but they are stronger for next year, so we are gaining momentum.
I think that the desire to travel and the desire to be free to travel is an American attribute, that "I don't think about it" attitude. If I am going to London tomorrow, it never occurs to me that the plane may crash or there may be an attack. It's not going to happen. I'm going to be safe. I'm going to do my work and come home. That's the feeling that overrides the fear of travel. I think that there is a lot of resilience that comes from the current acts around the world that have been happening.
Q: What kinds of changes do you make in response to, say, the terrorist attacks in Nice, France? Do you recommend that travelers going to Africa book flights that avoid European connections or change your marketing strategies?
A: There is always going to be a certain segment of the population that stays home. But I don't think that's our demographic. We have not made any changes like that. We are always very cognizant of safety, depending again on our local connections.
I think the patterns that we have seen related to events are usually short term. I don't think anyone in their right mind thinks there's never going to be another hurricane, another earthquake or another terrorist attack. So what we have to do is adjust our mindset and choose a company to travel with that is reliable and is in touch locally.
Q: What impacts are you seeing in different markets right now from things like Zika and terrorism? What markets are strong and what markets are soft? I assume Turkey is not very popular.
A: No doubt, our bookings to Turkey are down, and bookings to Iceland are up. South America has been soft. But now it is coming back. There has been fear of Zika. I think the Olympics [and the absence of Zika cases there] were really a positive sign for that. People watched, and the "Z word" didn't come up. They were more worried about Ryan Lochte.
Europe and South America are two areas where it has been softer in the past year, but both are showing resilience and coming back.
Q: What about Africa?
A: Africa is strong. We've had a rocky road in the past but that resilience of short memories has kicked in and is very positive. The [modern luxury] safari, the ultimate adventure trip that we invented in 1962, is still viewed as one of the most adventurous, exciting things to do.