A pandemic-era ethics question: Should travel sellers sell travel?

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A pandemic-era ethics question: Should travel sellers sell travel?
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Luxury travel advisor Irving Betesh says that although many of his clients are eager to travel, he has convinced some not to because he just can't offer the pre-Covid-19 experience they'd be anticipating.

Another advisor, responding anonymously to a recent Travel Weekly survey, said their agency wasn't selling any travel at all, feeling it wasn't right to "encourage anyone to risk their lives for commission in our pockets."

Yet another said they hadn't received "any new 2020 trip requests that I feel comfortable selling due to the weekly restrictions occurring."

As the Covid-19 pandemic rages on, the growing uncertainties about how long it will last, what aspects of travel are safe and what the travel experience will be like put focus on the fine line that advisors and travel suppliers are walking between keeping their businesses afloat and risking long-term damage to their reputation and customer relationships by selling the wrong trip, or selling too soon.

"Our agency is having this conversation," said Kerry Dyer, vice president of talent development for Brownell Travel. "Yes, we are all suffering, but no amount of revenue is ever worth losing credibility with your clients."

Perhaps nowhere is the struggle more evident than in the cruise industry, which made headlines anew last week as passengers on several of the first ships to set sail since the pandemic began testing positive for Covid-19, despite recording negative tests just before their departure.

Some have criticized the lines for restarting sailing too soon.

"While I understand the economics, it is unfortunate that a few cruise lines appear to have ignored science in an attempt to resume service too quickly," John Delaney, the former president of Windstar Cruises, wrote on LinkedIn. "These are the first revenue cruises to resume, and already Covid and cruise ships are back in the news in the first week. Everyone wants cruises to come back, but rushing things to chase revenue and ignoring the science will continue to hurt our industry and make the road to recovery more difficult."

Indeed, while many travel companies in the early stages of the pandemic were focused on getting clients back on the road as soon as possible, many are taking an increasingly cautious approach as the crisis has dragged on and uncertainties have mounted.

"We have to sit it out and not panic," Carol Dimopoulos, president of Perillo's Learning Journeys, said during an online town hall with USTOA members last week.

She also called on destination marketing organizations and their partners to be vocal, and honest, about "whether it is safe, or not" for travelers to come to their destinations.

While many guided tour and group travel companies and cruise lines have officially pushed back start dates only through the fall, conversations about restarting increasingly focus on 2021.

And when in 2021 is still a question mark.

Rudi Schreiner, co-founder and president of AmaWaterways said that while summer 2021 sailings are strong, sales for the early-season March and April cruises are a bit soft. And he prefers to keep it that way.

"I'm telling everybody, don't push it," Schreiner said. "Because we don't even know if we can go with full capacity. Let's not fill up the ships and then have to push back."

Betesh, who is president of travel and membership services for IBC Private in New York, said "people are itching [to travel]. We're still fielding a lot of calls, [but] we're also sometimes encouraging them not to book because we know our clients.

"The thing is, it's not about something being open. If people are going spend all this money, they don't want to spend it for a different experience. They don't want to walk around the hotel in a mask. They want to use the spa. They don't want to sit in the restaurant or at breakfast at the hotel and it be like a mortuary."

Undoubtedly, the "new normal" has made guests unusually tense, according to one luxury hotelier who responded to a recent Forbes Travel Guide survey about how the virus has changed the hotel experience.

"Guests have less patience, and we have seen more instances of angry outbursts (mostly about masks) than I have seen in my 30-year career" the hotelier wrote.

Likewise, Dyer said that one of Brownell's agents booked a five-star hotel for a client traveling domestically this summer. "They had a good time," she said, "but it wasn't the experience they wanted for the money they spent."

After returning, she said, they also canceled a Costa Rica trip for next year after they and their advisor agreed that "right now, it won't be the experience they want it to be."

Dyer said that unless clients have milestone occasions, such as an anniversary or honeymoon, her agents are guiding clients toward 2021 travel. And her agency backed off on cruise sales at the outset of the pandemic.

Both Dyer and Amanda Klimak, president and co-owner of Largay Travel, said their advisors are also spending a lot more time getting to know their clients and their comfort levels. And they said they are taking the time to inform them about health and safety restrictions, CDC guidelines, insurance and cancellation and refund terms and conditions.

"We are encouraging them to travel, but where we are encouraging them to travel is based on how they feel," Klimak said.

To help gauge client comfort levels, Klimak said she and her agents are asking, for instance, whether clients have yet ventured out to dinner where they live, and how their families feel about them traveling.

They are also talking about back-up plans, Klimak said. "What happens if the cruise doesn't sail in January? What's going to be our second choice?"

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Jamie Biesiada contributed to this report. 

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