There is a powerful travel lobby aided by talented marketing and PR types who strive to convince the less than one-third of Americans who have passports that it is still safe to travel abroad despite the perceived threats of terrorism and harm aimed at travelers from our country. (Read Part 1: "Fighting the fear of travel.")
Travel writers from the consumer and trade publications, given the financial constraints of print and digital publishing, find they must accept complimentary or heavily subsidized travel to write their destination pieces. Few publications can afford to send their writers overseas without financial assistance from tourist boards or suppliers. So we see subsidized trips sometimes described in ways that strive to entice the should-we-stays to become should-we-goes.
But the reality is that every survey since the Paris and Brussels terror attacks indicates an increasing travel fear factor aided and abetted by political rhetoric that describes a world filled with enemies of the U.S. out to behead us or worse.
So here we sit, the dream makers, challenged with trying to transform perceptions based on fear into positive feelings about the relative safety of travel. The advice we get from most quarters is to only discuss the positives, to avoid politics, to talk about the destinations in the best, glowing terms we can muster.
But that safe approach just doesn't work with most concerned travelers. They have been force-fed a steady diet of fearmongering over the airwaves. How can we convince them that a cruise in Europe is safe? How can we make them believe that Tel Aviv is a truly beautiful, exciting city, a city where you are statistically safer than you are in many American cities? How do we explain that the sunsets over Oia in Greece are as intense and as memorable as they ever were, or that Paris will still make you tear up with pleasant memories long after you have returned home?
We have one tool to use, and we can use it better than anyone else: facts.
It is time to start talking facts to our clients that they have not heard or read that might strongly influence their travel plans. Toss out the feel-good generalities. We're at war for the hearts and minds of those who would rather cave in to fear of the unknown than make an intelligent travel decision based on facts. So let's start this way:
A major study of the perils of terrorism as it affects American travelers was completed by the State Department in 2011, a year when terrorist threats and activities were actually higher than they are today. Let's look at some of these figures from our rather conservative State Department:
- In 2011, 17 U.S. citizens were killed as a result of terrorist acts. But that figure includes civilian deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq and other war-torn areas.
- You are six times more likely to die from hot weather than from terrorism.
- You are 22 times more likely to die from a brain-eating parasite than from an act of terrorism.
- As an American, you are eight times more likely to be killed by a police officer at home than by a terrorist abroad.
- You are 404 times more likely to die from a fall than from a terrorist attack.
- You are 1,048 times more likely to die in a car accident than in a terrorist attack.
- You are 12,571 times more likely to die from cancer than from a terrorist attack.
- Obesity is 23,528 times more likely to kill you than terrorism.
If you are not getting through to your clients and reassuring them with that approach, try a different way to present the facts of travel-terror risk. Let's tell them what their actual chances of dying are as they contemplate their options.
We need to make our clients understand that there is a baseline statistic they ought to be using. Their chance of dying when traveling overseas in a terrorism-related attack is estimated at 1 in 9.3 million, according to the Washington Post. Let's let that sink in for a moment. Now, let's compare:
- Walking is really dangerous in the U.S., according to a report in the Economist. Your chance of dying while simply walking in the U.S. is 1 in 54,538. So what you want to do, I suppose, is go everywhere on a bicycle, although that would give you a 1 in 349,845 chance of dying.
- A client's chance of dying in his or her bathtub is 1 in 685,000.
- Their chance of dying from a dog bite is 1 in 700,000.
- Their chance of dying in a car accident on U.S. roads is 1 in 18,585.
- Our client's chance of being killed by a gun while staying at home is 1 in 514,000.
So our mission as trusted travel advisers is clear: We need to advise our clients that unless they totally avoid driving, refuse to bathe or be around dogs, and unless they intend to walk everywhere wearing bulletproof armor from head to toe, they would do well to consider that trip out of the country they were thinking of canceling. Staying at home is considerably more dangerous than traveling abroad. We need to be aggressive about using a fact-based approach to let our clients know why.
I had a client a few years back who called me from a university think tank where he works as the head of statistics. He told me that his people had put together some figures that demonstrated that the average American's life expectancy increases when he or she travels abroad, and it appears to be directly related to the length of the trip. The longer you vacation outside the U.S., the more your life expectancy increases (these are by tiny degrees, it must be noted). When I asked him why, he got quite animated.
He explained that the two leading causes of death in America, heart disease and cancer, were "travel neutral." So you eliminate them and start working down the list of what is likely to kill you. That would be our absolutely dreadful driving skills combined with the fact that so many of us are armed. It is a heady statistical mix, and it helps explain why our clients are, statistically speaking, safer over there than they are over here.
This is not easy to discuss with clients. No one wants to be reassured by being informed of all the negatives about our health and safety at home. We might get some help by looking at what foreigners say about their relative safety in the U.S.
Since agents of late have been dealing with travelers who are worried about visiting Paris and Brussels, let's take a quick look at what the French government website says about travel to certain American cities:
New York City: Avoid areas around Times Square and the Statue of Liberty. Don't go to Harlem, the Bronx or Central Park at night.
Houston: Be vigilant if traveling through downtown, south and east Houston at night.
St. Louis: Avoid the northern area between the airport and the city center, but the airport shuttle is safe.
Or my personal favorite, Richmond, Va.: Do not visit the city on foot.
So it turns out that travel abroad is seriously safer than staying at home. You can look a client in the eye and tell them, "The ride to the airport will be, by a really wide margin, the most dangerous part of your journey."
You can even cite statistics to back that up.
It is a head-and-heart thing. We've been advising clients on issues of safety with our hearts. We need to start arming ourselves with the facts. But first, we need to believe that our valued clients are truly safer when they travel than they are when they just stay home.
I will be traveling to Europe three times this summer and likely again in the fall. On each of these trips my wife and my 10-year old daughter will be at my side. I believe in what I have written here.
We need to be as passionate about the relative safety of travel abroad as we are about the destinations themselves. A truly fact-based approach will be a seismic change in the traditional method of counseling clients. They need to get the real facts from someone they trust.
And so, once again, I ask: Who will give them the facts? If not us, who?