Clients’ travel anxiety can catch agents between seller and counselor roles

A photo of a sightseeing cruise on the Seine, taken six days after the Paris attacks, showed that tourists had dwindled but not vanished.
A photo of a sightseeing cruise on the Seine, taken six days after the Paris attacks, showed that tourists had dwindled but not vanished. Photo Credit: Michelle Baran

In the aftermath of the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris and a subsequent global travel alert from the U.S. State Department, travel advisers are finding themselves having to play a delicate balancing act between their role as travel sellers and that of trusted counselors as clients come to them with concerns and anxiety about where, when and whether to travel.

“We always have a responsibility to be prudent in our consulting, to neither pressure clients into taking risks that they are not prepared to handle nor to unduly fan the flames of fear by offering opinions that are not based in fact,” said Ann Waters of Fort Wayne, Ind.-based Travel Leaders.

Daren Autry, manager of leisure division operations at Montrose, Calif.-based Montrose Travel, agreed that at times like these, travel advisers can play a crucial role in responding to their clients’ questions and requests, often ultimately salvaging their vacations.

“The moral responsibility,” Autry said, “is to be sensitive to the customers’ concerns, as opposed to forcing the customers to stay with their originally planned vacation in an effort to keep the sale.”

Montrose Travel has been working to re-accommodate clients who do not want to go to Paris now, which Autry says shows a high degree of dedication and sensitivity to clients’ needs.

“We’ve been able to get creative and work around the waivers granted by our supplier partners to offer a comparable vacation experience within our travelers’ budgets for those who wish to travel elsewhere,” Autry said. “Keeping our customers happy without applying pressure in one direction over another and working around the clock to get them re-accommodated has proven to work well for us.”

Ultimately, however, agents are in the business of selling and encouraging travel. And the challenge with terrorism and its impact on travelers’ psyches is that the threat is vast and vague, something ASTA took issue with last week when it released a statement condemning the State Department’s Nov. 23 global travel alert.

“While the issuance of the alert was no doubt well-intentioned, the lack of any detail particularizing the conditions in specific countries or regions of the world is concerning,” Zane Kerby, CEO of ASTA, said in a statement. “Vague, overly broad warnings offer travelers little in the way of helpful guidance. In fact, they have the unintended consequence of discouraging travel everywhere, negatively affecting the travel industry and the economy as a whole.”

The alert, which expires on Feb. 24, cautioned travelers that current information suggests that ISIS, al-Qaida, Boko Haram militants and other terrorist groups continue to plan attacks, increasing the likelihood that violence on civilian targets will continue.

ASTA said alerts and warnings related to specific countries are to be taken seriously. However, the association said the worldwide alert could do more harm than good.

“Although terrorism knows no boundaries, it still remains extremely rare,” said Dave Hershberger of Travel Leaders in Cincinnati. “If a destination is inherently dangerous, it is our job to let our customers know that. On the other hand, random acts of terror can’t be predicted, and it would be a shame not to experience the world, whenever possible.”

Indeed, many travel advisers are entrepreneurs who are often avid travelers themselves. For them, it can be difficult both from a business and personal point of view to see clients decline to travel. Up against what can be a trying challenge of finding ways to encourage without pushing, making sure their clients are aware of travel insurance options can serve as one way for agents to reassure them in times of uncertainty about security issues.

“Even in times of peace we offer travel insurance, but definitely [now] it is more important than ever,” Waters said. “While many travel insurance policies have limitations on claims related to terrorist activities, considering a policy that covers cancellation for any reason can give travelers more peace of mind that their travel investment will be protected during this time of turmoil and uncertainty.” 

Agent-sold travel insurance is a touchy topic in some states. As recently as five years ago, each state had a different system to regulate the sale of travel insurance, according to Eben Peck, ASTA’s senior vice president for government and industry affairs. Some had virtually no restrictions, while others required travel agents to hold licenses to sell insurance.

ASTA and the U.S. Travel Insurance Association teamed up to create a standard for states to adopt that allows agents to sell travel insurance under the umbrella of the travel insurance provider.

It was approved by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, but each state must also approve the standard. In some, that is as easy as a sign-off from the insurance commissioner. But in most states, the standard must be approved by the legislature.

To date, 42 states and the District of Columbia have approved the standard. Eight — Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, South Carolina and Hawaii — have not, and ASTA is advising agents selling travel insurance to residents of those states to consult with the insurance provider or a lawyer regarding regulations.

Once all 50 states have adopted the standard, Peck estimated it will save agents around the country $10 million a year, collectively, in licensing costs.

Whether or not their clients are still nervous about going to Paris or Europe, one thing travel advisers hope is that despite the anxiety surrounding terror threats, they can ultimately convince their clients that travel is part of the solution to the challenges facing the world today.

Said Hershberger, “I believe travel is more important now than ever.”

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