Agents urged to communicate when headlines spook clients

Agents urged to communicate when headlines spook clients
Photo Credit: Fizkes/

When a crisis, real or perceived, hits a popular destination, solid communication among advisors, suppliers and clients is key to maintaining bookings or switching a traveler's final destination.

A panel of experts discussed that topic during the ASTA Global Convention at the Diplomat Beach Resort in Fort Lauderdale in August. The panel, "Destination Perspectives: When Headlines Hit Popular Destinations," was particularly topical. 

Over the past several years, the consumer media has reported extensively about allegedly tainted alcohol in popular resort areas in Mexico. More recent reports have focused on a string of tourist deaths in the Dominican Republic that were dubbed suspicious, despite the fact that the tourist death rate there appears to be in line with previous years. 

As a result, some evidence shows travelers have, at least in the immediate aftermath of the news hitting, opted to postpone or cancel trips or change their destinations.

Kareem George, principal of Culture Traveler, a travel agency in Detroit, said that when travel advisors' clients see their destinations in the headlines, they usually get upset and quickly contact their agents. Many times, he said, it's with a knee-jerk reaction to cancel or rebook without knowing all the facts.

"Managing yourself to manage that, I find, is key," George said.

Ali Gerakaris, director of communications and public relations for Apple Leisure Group, said that part of the problem is the nature of today's 24-hour news cycle. A story hits and is quickly followed by even more coverage. That, she said, can blow the original story out of proportion.

The best way for advisors to manage similar situations is to call suppliers and get the facts from them, George advised. Suppliers typically have people on the ground and can answer questions to educate the advisor first.

"That really should be the first line of defense in getting the facts: Talk to the people who are there," George said.

Gerakaris agreed. Tour operators such as the brands under the Apple Leisure Group umbrella work with people who live in the destinations where they send travelers, and they often have close ties with government officials. She described it as a network of individuals who can get to the heart of what, exactly, is happening.

Insurers can also be helpful to both advisors and their clients. Every time something happens in vacation destinations, phones start to ring, according to Allianz Global Assistance vice president of sales Richard Aquino. He encouraged advisors to use insurers as a resource to help put headline-grabbing events into perspective.

Before getting back to a nervous client, George said, advisors should scan headlines and quickly acquire a base level of knowledge of the situation. Call clients back quickly and let them know you're looking into the situation. Be specific about when you'll contact them again. After that, gather more information.

And if a client is still too nervous to travel to a destination, change their plans.

"You never want to talk someone into doing something they’re not comfortable with," George said.

Aquino said that nervous clients are also a good group for advisors to upsell to cancel-for-any-reason insurance, enabling them to call off their trip for any reason and get up to 80% of its cost back.

The panelists urged advisors to rely on facts alone, not headlines, using the State Department and its website as a resource.

Panel member Michelle Bernier-Toth, managing director of Overseas Citizens Services at the State Department, said in an interview, "We can be one-stop shopping for how the U.S. government views the situation in a given country for the general public."

While headlines can influence the State Department and its assessment of other countries’ safety, she said the biggest factors are the facts.

"It all goes back to getting the facts," Bernier-Toth said. "What is really happening here? Is this something that is a true threat or risk to somebody's health and safety that they need to know about? … Headlines are perhaps one perspective on things, but what's behind them? That's what we need to get to."


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