Richard Turen
Richard Turen

It seems to be getting worse, doesn't it? Our clients are generally concerned, and in the cases of Paris, Brussels and Istanbul, some are afraid to travel to specific destinations. There is a new urban myth that since 9/11 one out of every five potential international travelers still refuses to get on a plane.

I think that's nonsense. But a growing number of our clients are starting to question if it is really safe to travel abroad these days. And as bad as it is now, most of us seem to believe that it won't be getting better any time soon. Many of our clients do associate their concerns about travel with air safety. All of the scans and the pat downs, the plastic trays and the shoe removals, the dogs sniffing about and the TSA yelling out orders serve to scare off potential travelers. It is a stressful situation, and some of our clients are starting to conclude; why bother?

So how do we answer the big question: "Should I go, or should I stay?" There is, of course, the quick quip ("We're gonna continue to travel because no one is gonna tell me where I can go."). But the trusted adviser, the family friend and counselor, can't respond to serious questions about safety with sharp retorts like a politician might. We really have to answer the question thoughtfully.

So let's spend a few minutes brain-storming approaches on how to counsel clients undecided about either booking or canceling their planned travel abroad.

The first thing we have to do is avoid the expected answer. One should never respond to a concern about travel with a quick dismissal and some comment like, "You have nothing to worry about."

A better approach is to probe a bit about fears and concerns and then ask about the degree of worrying they've been doing about their trip. It might be appropriate to say something like, "If you can't spend the majority of your time really looking forward to this trip, if you're going to worry about it and can't imagine actually looking forward to it, then I think we ought to cancel immediately."

The client needs to hear those words. They need to know that we are far more than marketing parrots spouting that the world is safe and any fear is unjustified. The client needs to know that we understand, even accept, their concerns. But I also think the seller needs to reflect a bit on why our clients often exaggerate the dangers of travel.

For those of you who are my age, you might recall a gentleman named Walter Cronkite. They said he was America's most trusted man. Each night, he delivered the "CBS Evening News" in a manner that made us believe that the adults were in charge and that there would, indeed, be a new tomorrow. Even as he reported the John F. Kennedy assassination in black and white in 1963, we were somehow hopeful, if only for a fleeting moment, that those of us who could afford it would still be able to travel.

Cronkite's show lasted a half-hour. With commercial time taken out, there was about 21 minutes of actual news about the world. We could handle that. Our clients could handle that.

We have to make it our business to inform the traveler about the facts in the most important travel question of our time: 'Should we stay, or should we go?'

Then, in 1980 CNN was born, and it begat MSNBC, which in turn begat Fox News Channel, both in 1996, and soon TV brought a barrage of 48 times as much news in one 24-hour cycle as Cronkite had reported. Each cable news network now has 48 half-hours to fill each day.

That has led to the spread of fear and nonstop coverage for an entire week of unfortunate guests booked on a cruise ship that happened to lose power but was never in any practical danger.

It is the same with war. The world is, statistically, a safer place than it was in the days when Cronkite's voice alerted us to dangers around the globe.

So how is the travel consultant to take on these rather weighty subjects and address the fear of travel with otherwise well-informed clients?

The answer, it seems to me, begins with the separation of the head and heart arguments. We have had our hearts manipulated by the politicians and the 24-hour news outlets. We are inspired by the people of Paris holding huge banners proclaiming, "We are not afraid." We listen to reports that the small, ethnic restaurants that surround the Maelbeek train station in Belgium, where terrorist bombers struck, reopened in 24 hours and the streets were filled with residents walking in the evening air.

But amid all of the coverage of the recent attacks in Europe, how many voices have we heard speak to the facts about the perceived dangers of traveling overseas? Everyone is about scaring our clients, but where are the voices that speak of the facts? Where are the voices that appeal to those of our clients who would wish to make thoughtful, informed decisions about whether or not they should travel?

Once again, it falls to us. What if we make it our business to inform the traveler about the facts in the most important travel question of our time: "Should we stay, or should we go?"

Now I know that facts can be disputed, and the traveler's risk of death isn't always a clean, mathematical statistic. But an examination of the available data has led me to the inescapable conclusion that you are safer traveling overseas than you are staying at home. It isn't enough to know this. We must become advocates for the facts because, sadly, I don't know who else will.

Let's begin by just looking at flying overseas.

With all the increased security lines and personnel at the airports designed to make us feel better, what are the facts? Well, MIT has been a leader in analyzing flight safety, and what researchers there found over a 15-year period was that your chances of being killed aboard a flight are just about one in 7 million. Let's put it another way. If your clients get on an aircraft every single day for the remainder of their lives, they would, on average, have to take 365 flights a year for 19,000 years before experiencing a fatality in the air.

Compare that with staying at home and taking a driving vacation. The National Transportation Safety Board tells us that more than 33,000 Americans were killed in automobile accidents last year. So what does that all mean about our fear of flying and leaving the Earth in the company of strangers, one or more of whom could potentially be a terrorist?  

A sold-out Boeing 727 would have to crash every day of the week with no survivors for a year just to match the number of Americans who are killed on our highways in a year.

It is quite literally true that the most dangerous part of your client's travels, no matter where in the world they may be headed, is the drive to the airport. And not by anything like a narrow margin.

When it comes to talking to our clients about travel abroad, our mantra should be, "Stay calm and state the facts."

If only our news sources would do the same.

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