Clients wanting to cancel bookings and concerned callers were ringing up travel agencies as worries about coronavirus grew this week, likely influenced by prolific -- and at times hyperbolic -- mainstream media coverage.
As advisors fulfilled those requests and fielded questions, some became concerned that if transmission of the virus, officially known as Covid-19, continues to increase with attendant blanket consumer media coverage, it could, in a worst-case scenario, have a chilling effect on the industry akin to the period post-9/11.
In a recent Travel Leaders Group webinar, Geoff Tothill, chief medical officer of the International Medical Group, said the media's coverage of Covid-19 has made the situation seem worse than it is. Travelers headed to areas where there aren't current outbreaks should be safe, he said.
"The media have blown this up hugely to be a plague-like scenario, and it clearly isn't," Tothill said.
At Cruise Center in Houston, requests for new bookings have all but dried up, said president Tom Baker. Cancellation requests span not just trips to Asia, but land tours to India, trips to the U.K. and cruises to Scandinavia as travelers grow more wary of any form of travel.
"I don't want to sound like I'm a 'Debbie downer' about it, but as long as it permeates the news stories, we're going to be in this mode until this virus is either eradicated or we see it going into a heavy decline mode," Baker said.
Corporate travel to Asia has essentially stopped, said Jerry Saxe, vice president of sales for Carlisle Travel Management in Los Angeles.
Like Baker, Saxe said some travelers are growing wary of any travel, not just to Asia. Carlisle's sales are still up, but if Covid-19 continues to spread, he predicted overall travel could be adversely affected.
While the short- and long-term impacts of the virus largely depend on how quickly its spread is contained, advisors say it could have effects similar to 9/11 if it continues to spread unchecked.
"It could destroy" travel sales, Saxe said. "People could stop traveling. It is very concerning. I hate to say it, but long-term effects, it could really halt leisure and corporate travel."
Baker said 9/11 differs a bit from coronavirus because it immediately halted all travel, but it's the closest thing in recent memory to cite as a comparison.
"I'm just hoping for the best," he said. "I'm hoping that we will start to see a decrease in the number of fatalities and cases of coronavirus. ... I'm hopeful, but I will tell you, I think Asia for the foreseeable future is pretty much done, and that's pragmatic."
Agency networks are encouraging travel advisors to share with their clients verified information from sources such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Consortia are sharing resources with members in a variety of ways.
While verified information is appropriate to share, Signature Travel Network CEO Alex Sharpe said advisors should not advise clients on whether or not they should travel.
Meanwhile, at Cruise Center, Baker is encouraging his agents to ask clients to hold off on canceling plans when possible but to cancel without question when the clients are adamant.
"Be empathetic, be kind," he said. "We say, 'We understand entirely. We hope you'll reconsider in the future when this thing goes by the wayside, and please come back to us.' What you don't want to do is upset people [because you're afraid of] losing a sale, and that's not even important at this point. What's important is people feel safe about travel, because if they lose confidence in that, we're sunk."