Agents Play Key Role During Crises

by Robin Amster

Travel agents want to be the first to be informed when clients traveling on tours are threatened by political unrest or natural disasters, and for the most part tour operators are meeting that challenge.

Travel agents told Travel Market Report that they are happy with tour operators’ responsiveness and communications with them in times of crisis. (Many tour firms have crisis management plans in place that make retail travel professionals their first line of communication.)

Travel agents also pointed out the importance of engaging actively with clients when crises arise – both because agents have a personal stake in clients’ well-being and because there’s no better way of demonstrating an agent’s value than by showing their concern.

Personal involvement
“A professional advisor cares deeply about their clients and wants to participate,” said Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, co-president of New York-based Valerie Wilson Travel.

Wilson-Buttigieg’s agency does more than react to events.

It keeps a close watch as events develop, while also keeping track of where all its clients are at all times. The agency runs daily and weekly reports for traveling clients on current conditions around the world.

A part of doing business
Travel agency executive Susan Weissberg is an Israel and Mideast specialist who’s no stranger to political unrest.

Weissberg, who is CEO of Coral Gables, Fla.-based Wylly’s Professional Travel, said she’s “absolutely satisfied” with tour operators’ response to crises.

But Weissberg also jumps in personally during emergencies. “I immediately reach out to my [supplier] contacts and they all have my numbers 24/7.

“I’m also available to my clients, and they know how to reach me 24/7.”

That type of contact and agent involvement may be more critical for the types of FIT trips that Weissberg plans, as they rely heavily on local tour firms and local guides.

An opposite view
Still some agents believe tour operators should make reaching out to clients their first priority.

Dan Ilves, vice president of leisure sales and marketing for the Travel Store in Los Angeles said tour operators “need to connect directly with the consumer as opposed to just relying on the agent.”

“The supplier understands it has a legal liability, that communication [with the client] is totally appropriate,” he said.

“At the same time they always need to copy in the agent. It’s even better when the language is, ‘We’ve advised your agent.’”

Ilves noted that not all travel agents are available after business hours “so the onus is on the supplier.”

Benefits of a tour
Tour operators pointed out that one of the benefits of the guided vacations they offer is that clients travel with experienced tour directors and guides who take charge in tricky situations.

Steve Born, vice president of marketing for the Globus Family of Brands, said “part of the beauty” for agents of working with a tour operator is that agents can book the trip and then step back from further involvement.

In crises, however, agents should be involved, Born added. Globus maintains a hotline for agents’ use during incidents.

“Most often agents are leaving 100% of the communication to the tour operator,” Born said.

But, he added, “we need that extra set of eyes. And nothing validates the value of an agent as much as that support of his client.”

Demonstrating value
Both tour operators and agents said that crises are crucial opportunities for each to demonstrate their value to clients.

“It can be a missed opportunity for agents if they don’t get involved because [these incidents] are an opportunity to reinforce the value of having an agent, even if it’s just for them to say they are aware of a situation,” said Born.

Robert Drumm, president of General Tours World Traveler, said, “Agents and tour operators working in tandem to service clients going to far-flung destinations is an opportunity for both.”

A fundamental need
Unfortunately there will most certainly be more opportunities for agents and tour operators to service clients whose travel is disrupted by both natural and manmade forces.

“If the world was perfect and every booking was flawless, every flight went on time, and there were no political issues or weather events, there would be less fundamental need for the huge value we [tour operators and agents] provide,” said Paul Wiseman, president of Trafalgar.

“The reality is the world is going in the other direction.”

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