How to separate fact from fiction and get the word out to your clients.
Mexico is a perennial favorite with vacationers and a reliable source of sales for many travel agents. But with recent headlines putting the issue of safety and security in the news, it’s more important than ever for travel agents to address concerns, quell fears and educate their clients about what’s real and what’s sensationalized.
The timeline has presented shifting and potentially confusing viewpoints about safety and security in Mexico. In July, after newspaper reports of tainted alcohol being served in some Mexico resorts, the U.S. State Department updated Mexico’s Country Information page on travel.state.gov with a section under Safety and Security. The statement, which still remains, reads: “There have been allegations that consumption of tainted or substandard alcohol has resulted in illness or blacking out. If you choose to drink alcohol, it is important to do so in moderation and to stop and seek medical attention if you begin to feel ill.”
In a separate move, in August, the State Department also updated a previous Mexico Travel Warning issued on December 8, 2016, advising, “The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens about the risk of traveling to certain parts of Mexico due to the activities of criminal organizations in those areas.” For the first time, the update added the states of some of the country's most popular resort areas, such as Baja California Sur, which includes Los Cabos, and Quintana Roo, which includes Cancun, Cozumel, Riviera Maya and Tulum.
The State Department’s warnings note that most of the violence appears to be criminal organization assassinations, and that tourists are not targets. But some travelers are still concerned—exacerbated, perhaps, since TripAdvisor recently began flagging some Mexico hotels where reviewers have claimed they were sexually assaulted.
In short, travel agents who sell Mexico have a lot to address.
First, the good news: Mexico continues to enjoy healthy growth in tourism, with international visitation up by more than 9 percent between January and July of this year, compared to 2016.
Second, more good news: According to several top-selling travel agents, experienced travelers aren’t deterred by recent U.S. State Department Travel warnings, most of which refer to isolated incidents in locations not frequented by most international tourists.
“It’s not even an issue right now,” says Sandy Anderson, owner of Riverdale Travel, a Signature agency in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. “We’re actually up in sales to Mexico. We’ve had some questions about the areas mentioned in the warnings, but generally our customers aren’t concerned. They understand you need to use common sense and travel smartly, wherever you travel.”
John Werner, president and COO of MAST Travel Network in Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois, is similarly positive, and reports that Mexico continues to be his company’s biggest-selling foreign destination. “The majority of clients are not concerned,” he says. “They have traveled to Mexico in the past. They have had fun. They enjoy the food and drink. They like the service. And they do the activities. Clients who may not have traveled to Mexico at all, or very few times, may be more concerned. Mexico is less familiar to them.”
Claudia Murphy, co-owner of Imagine Travel in Greensboro, North Carolina, agrees that less experienced travelers are those who are more likely to be hesitant. “The clients who have been to Mexico before realize that Mexico is safe,” she says. “It’s those that have never been who tend to worry more. I blame it on the news media. Maybe if the news outlets were more educated about how to report the news regarding incidents in Mexico, it would help.”
Until that happens, of course, it’s up to travel agents to educate clients about the realities of safety and travel to Mexico. Here are some of the ways that successful agents handle those issues.
Educate Your Team
A knowledgeable staff is better prepared to sell. “We have discussions concerning customer feedback and talk about how we are to respond to customers’ concerns,” Anderson says.
Werner encourages on-going agent education to address safety and security issues. “Training includes having knowledge of the geography of Mexico,” he says, noting that agents should also attend trade shows and seminars presented by travel organizations and companies that sell Mexico.
Putting things into perspective can also aid understanding. According to figures from New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, for example, the murder rate in Mexican destinations like Los Cabos and Cancun is far below that of many U.S. cities, including Washington D.C., Baltimore and Detroit.
Alex Zozaya, CEO of Apple Leisure Group, recommends adding context to any discussions about misperceptions in Mexico. “Travel agents have to combat misperceptions with data,” he says. “For example, I have some friends, who live in Chicago, who told me they were thinking of going to Cancun, but that they might change their trip to Jamaica because they think it’s safer. So I said, ‘Did you know that there’s a travel warning about Europe, and about Chicago, where you live?’ I asked them if they would go out for dinner or drinks in Chicago and they said, ‘Yes, of course.’ You’ve got to put things in context.”
Rely on Resources
Government reports, research studies, tourism organizations and suppliers can all serve as valuable partners for travel agents looking for the most accurate information about Mexico.
“We receive updates and talking points from our consortium, Signature,” says Anderson. “The airlines are involved as well. They send out updates about what they see in other countries.”
Werner’s company relies on a variety of sources as well. “We keep our 220 offices informed of any news or stories about Mexico that we receive in the dozens of newsletters and news bulletins we read daily,” he says. “These sources of information include the Mexico Tourism Board, hoteliers, tour operators and cruise lines serving Mexico, but also sources such as the U.S. State Department, USA Today, major city newspapers and other media outlets.”
Be Prepared for Questions
When it comes time to interact with clients, agents should be ready for questions and concerns. Werner says his agency follows the clients’ lead when it comes to introducing the topic of safety, but his team always provides travelers with information they need to make decisions and stay safe.
“If a customer comes in and says ‘We’re ready to do our Mexico vacation again this year and we know where and when,’ then the safety conversation doesn’t take place,” he says. “But if someone comes in and says ‘We want to go somewhere warm, but we’ve heard about stories about Mexico,’ then we’ll have that discussion.”
“I think among the big misperceptions is that Mexico has lots of poverty, making poor areas high crime areas,” Warner adds. “Mexico has its share of poverty, but it’s ranked in the top 20 economies in the world in terms of GDP. It is the number-one country in Latin America for meetings and conventions. Mexico has an advanced infrastructure of roads and bridges. And Mexico City is on the list of the top 20 metropolitan regions in the world that will have the most important economic impact by the year 2025.”
Anderson says her clients’ most common safety-related questions about Mexico have to do with recent reports about tainted alcohol. “There is a misperception that in Mexico the alcohol is bad,” she says. “Well, if you drink too much, it is bad. Anywhere. There have been some very sad situations from Mexico that were alcohol related. Not to make a tragic situation not tragic, but misuse of alcohol is a problem everywhere. You always have to use common sense.”
Have the Right Responses
Well-informed travel agents know how to educate customers about Mexico’s overall safety and security. “Travel advisors keep maps of Mexico handy, to show clients where resort areas and popular vacation spots are located in relation to areas known to have more gang activity,” says Werner. “In some cases, several thousand miles separate the two areas. And travel advisors who are very familiar themselves with the resorts and surrounding neighborhoods advise their clients where to go and have fun, without fear of being in a bad area.”
Werner notes that commonsense guidelines apply in Mexico as much as anywhere else. “Just like in the U.S., most neighborhoods are considered relatively safe, but even in low crime areas, things happen,” he explains. “Just watch what you are doing and don't take chances. Eat and drink in moderation. Don't overdo it. And don't put yourself at risk by doing things you would never do at home.”
Anderson says that, in addition to sharing positive travel stories, her agency also emphasizes the value of good partnerships. “We have relationships with our tour operators, such as Apple Vacations, to make sure that clients have back-up in destination, if they have any issues or questions,” she explains.
Murphy’s agency also aims to help consumers make informed choices about travel south of the border. “We try to educate them on the different areas of Mexico, and let them know that the problems in Mexico typically lie along the border with the United States—and that not wanting to go to Cancun because of violence and trouble in Mexico is like not going to Chicago because there is trouble in L.A.,” she says.
Equip Your Clients with Confidence
An educated traveler is a confident traveler. So the more information that a travel agent can provide, the more confident customers will likely feel about planning a vacation.
“A lot of agents pass out travel tips in the documents, but that goes to every client going everywhere,” not just Mexico, says Werner. “If there’s a State Department Warning or alert out, it’s common to pass that on to the customers.”
Anderson also gives clients a link to the U.S. Department of State’s Traveler’s Checklist. “We also recommend customers traveling internationally register with the STEP Program,” she says, referencing the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which is operated by the Bureau of Consular Affairs.
Visit Mexico Yourself
Agents are generally better able to represent and sell a destination when they’ve been there themselves. And that’s especially true for Mexico, since agents may be better prepared to allay client concerns by recounting their own personal—and positive—experiences.
Werner says that agents’ trips benefit the business in a number of ways. “They go to Mexico, they take pictures, they share their stories, they come back home and show clients, family and friends,” he explains. “It gives that first-hand experience and proof that it’s not unsafe to go here; that there’s no reason to be overly fearful. Fam trips or personal vacations give agents the opportunity to meet the people in the resorts or at the attractions. They get names, they get contacts, they get assurances and they gain a comfort level that their customers won’t be disappointed.”
Anderson says that supplier partners can be especially helpful in this regard. “Apple Vacations has been so good in helping us to get our team down to Mexico to show them first-hand how they have backup there and how wonderful the Mexican people are, and how important tourism is,” she says. “They’d do anything in their power not to have issues at their resorts, and the tourism offices are the same.”
Consider the Legal Aspects
Very few visitors to Mexico encounter problems, of course. But travel agencies should still fully comprehend the legal aspect of errors and omissions insurance and how it might apply to your client interactions and sales.
“Your policy generally provides coverage for your alleged negligence in the failure to warn, or in the negligent selection or recommendation of a vendor, resort or accommodations, subject to the policy conditions and exclusions,” says Murphy.
“From a risk management standpoint, we would encourage some degree of written disclosure or warning, pre-booking and pre-departure, regarding these recent revelations,” she adds. “Your failure to disclose a commonly known risk to a particular area could potentially result in a legitimate basis for a court to find you partially responsible for any terrible mishap. The most effective way to warn your clientele would be to inform them in writing, or in your terms and conditions of this danger, and direct them to the U.S. State Department’s website.”
To that end, Murphy’s agency recently sent emails to clients regarding travel to Mexico, and updated its terms and conditions that appear on all invoices. She reports there was almost no negative response. “I, personally, only had one couple cancel going to Mexico after I disclosed the information.”
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