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
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
“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
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