First comes an incident. A terrorist attack in Nice or Paris, an earthquake in Nepal or an outbreak of Zika in Mexico.
Then headlines and news reports get transmitted into the
homes of would-be travelers whose city escape, hiking adventure or beach
holiday is suddenly cloaked in uncertainty.
Next come phone calls and inquiries to travel agents and
tour operators about the incident and its impact on travelers.
Finally comes the really tricky question: Should I still
Cancellations in the wake of disruptive international events
are a fact of the travel industry, but research by the USTOA suggests that some
cancellations can be avoided by providing reliable information.
The research was
undertaken by USTOA’s Innovation Lab, a multiyear collaboration with the S.C.
Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University to gain insight
into the tour consumer.
The survey queried 300 travelers and found that 69% were
“committed travelers,” determined to continue with bookings even in the wake of
a disruptive incident.
Another 31% were identified as likely to cancel, and the
survey asked these people a follow-up question: “If you received information
that it was safe to travel, would you travel?” Roughly a third answered yes.
Alyssa Scheppach, the call-center director for
CheapCaribbean.com (No. 28 on the Travel Weekly 2016 Power List), said those
stats struck her as being spot on.
In the wake of events like a hurricane or disease outbreak,
Scheppach said CheapCaribbean receives an influx of calls from people concerned
about upcoming reservations.
Most are seeking information about the situation on the
ground and want to understand cancellation policies or other options.
“A pretty small number of clients have made their decision
before they call us,” Scheppach said. “It’s quite often that clients call us
more than once before they decide what they’re going to do.”
At Intrepid, director of U.S. sales Mandy Morrissey said
cancellations vary with the type of incident.
“We had a lot of cancellations with the Nepal earthquake,
but a lot of rebookings, too, and a handful of cancellations during the
attempted coup in Turkey,” Morrissey said. “However, isolated attacks like the
ones we’ve seen in Nice, Paris and Thailand have not resulted in many cancellations.”
The USTOA study concluded that the availability of
clarifying information from reliable sources was the key to helping decide
whether to move forward with travel plans. The people polled cited the U.S.
State Department, travel agents, tour operators, broadcast news, Facebook and
travel review sites as the main sources for such information.
However, Morrissey said Intrepid was sometimes tasked with
addressing reports that clients have seen elsewhere.
“Often people see the news, it looks scary, and people
react,” she said. “Intrepid has the advantage of having local operators
in-country who can provide a realistic view of what is actually happening on
CheapCaribbean follows a basic procedure for all disruptive
events. Management gets cancellation policies from airline and resort partners,
gathers updates from destination management companies and operators on the
ground, then funnels that information to call center and sales agents so
clients receive consistent advice. The call center is open 22 hours a day, so
when the phone rings, there’s usually someone to answer it.
Scheppach said, “We don’t want to reassure clients when it’s
not appropriate. We also don’t want to alarm clients when there’s not any need.
I think it’s a balance of giving factual information but not trying to persuade
a client one way or the other.”
Both CheapCaribbean and Intrepid also have online pages
dedicated to safety, where clients with upcoming bookings can find information
on their destination and whether their trip will be affected.
Sometimes reassuring passengers is simply about putting an
incident in context. “We received a lot of calls about Ebola from people
traveling to South Africa or Kenya,” Morrissey said. “Once we explained that
the areas of the Ebola outbreak were closer to London, Paris and Madrid than to
Nairobi, it helped put the situation in perspective for our travelers.”
Both Scheppach and Morrissey have found that most of their
clients eventually make the decision to continue with their travel plans. Even
if they call, even if they have questions or concerns, Scheppach said the
bottom line is simple: “They want to go. They want to travel.”