We are travel counselors, and that means people turn to us for advice. So what’s a counselor to say when a customer asks, “Is It Safe to Go to Paris?”
“I’d say it’s perfectly fine, go,” says Joan Eisenstodt of Eisenstodt and Associates, a leading meeting- planning consultancy in Washington DC. “You might as well ask if you should go to San Bernardino. If you are questioning safety, you should question it any place, just any place. I had a client this morning asking about a meeting in Philadelphia, and I thought, ‘Why not question the safety in Philadelphia?’
“So my answer is yes, go.”
Meanwhile, at Strong Travel Services in Dallas, Nancy Strong has come up with “kind of a standard answer.”
“When clients call, they first discuss what they want to do—and then inevitably comes, ‘What do you think, Nancy is it safe?’ We as the agent cannot tell the client what to do. So I reassure them. I say the State Department has put an alert on Paris along with many, many other cities. Then they ask, ‘Nancy, would you go?’ And I say yes, yes I would. ”
At Frontiers International in Wexford, PA, France specialist Jill Jergel said that while no customer has actually asked her that question yet, the staff has “met and talked about what to say. Essentially it comes down to, ‘This is the world we live in today. There are shootings and massacres; the list goes on and on. But the shootings in Paris were nowhere near the tourist spots, and they were targeting the Parisians, not the Americans.”
If the client were an “80-year-old grandmother funding a multi-generational, once-in-a-lifetime trip and she was afraid, I would tell her to book somewhere else. I wouldn’t want her to feel that I pushed her into something she was not comfortable with,” Jergel said. “But really, where in this world is it completely safe? Statistically the best chance of your dying is within three miles of your house. So I am telling customers, ‘Don’t stop your life. Just go.’ ”
Nancy Strong agreed that the right answer depends on the client, of course. “I’m a traveler, plus I think Paris is one of the safer cities right now because of all the security. And of course if you stop traveling, the terrorists have won. We want to show our unity with France, and it’s a God-given right in our lives to travel,” she said. “But you find yourself betwixt and between when you are trying to advise people. I’m older, my children are grown; a young couple with small children might feel differently. Every situation is different.”
At Protravel International’s Beverly Hills office, meanwhile, Senior Travel Counselor and Paris specialist Howard Lewis agreed that a travel professional should never push clients, but rather let them make their own decision.
“Armed with talking points on this and other events impacting the travel industry,” he shares the facts with clients and then leaves it up to them.
“Since I handle France, I can sense if clients wish to travel there next year, and if they are just waiting to see how things pan out and then book again,” he said. “So far, I have had only one couple (very well-traveled clients) who at first wanted to postpone their 10-day stay in Paris for two weeks. But once I sensed some trepidation in their voice, we just cancelled the trip and will see what happens.”
Considering today’s world, he said, “I have not only received questions about France, but about places all over the globe,” including Istanbul, for example, which “had become a great client favorite over the past few years. The world we live in has changed and with new challenges for the entire travel industry it’s up to us to find solutions that keep clients safe, informed, and happy. Overall, I feel that clients will wait until the last minute to book rather than plan ahead.”
So what does he say if clients express some trepidation about traveling?
“I would recommend my clients explore destinations close to home — the western and southern hemispheres — the USA, Canada, and the Caribbean,” he said. “But I’m also advising them on destinations in the South Pacific. I’ve also suggested cruising and Asia, including China and Japan, and Southeast Asia, as they are certainly still strong.”
The nitty-gritty of staying safe
Any time there is a random act of violence people question every move outside their homes, Eisenstodt said; over Thanksgiving there was noticeably more concern with safety in the malls, for example. So while Paris is not a particular concern, that is not to say that the safety of our travelers is not a concern whenever we send them out into the dangerous world.
“As an industry, we do have to be concerned about safety, but in a smart way,” Eisenstodt said, recalling one hotel visit right after 9/11 where she noted increased security at the front door, but not at the back. The point is to get beyond the appearance of safety to the nitty-gritty of the actual planning.
When planning for a group, for example, she suggested asking how the hotels you are considering handle “shelter in place” situations when there is an active gunman: What procedures do they have in place? How are they vigilant? How do they communicate? What training do they give their staff?
Group planners should consider attaching a Safety Tips for Travelers information sheet to itineraries, she said, recalling a speech Peter Yesawich, vice chairman of MGY Global, once gave at a Meeting Professionals International conference noting that when people stay in a hotel, they seem to just forget that they are not at home. Even seasoned and normally careful travelers “do all kinds of stupid things, like propping their doors open when they go for ice,” she said. (For some examples, see the sidebar.)
At Valerie Wilson Travel in New York, “as part of an initiative to continue to be best in class and service all of our clients, we are implementing a link to the Smart Traveler Enrollment program on every international itinerary,” said co-president Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg.
But Nancy Strong said that tips sheets and links for travelers are not always the right answer, either. Her high-end leisure customers, frequent world travelers, are accustomed to always being aware of their circumstances and on the alert. “They know what to do,” she said.
She cited the example of Geraldo Rivera, the high-profile journalist whose daughter was in Paris at the time of the shootings. He chartered a plane, flew across the Atlantic, and picked her up. “It helps in situations like that to have a lot of money; you can just hire a plane and get out,” she said.
Still, there’s “no doubt” that when she travels she “will be looking carefully over my shoulder and be cognizant of what’s happening around me in a crowd, and keep my bearings as far as how to get back to my hotel. “
For now, she said, her biggest issue is dealing with travel insurance, she said. “Every policy is different, they are wording things very carefully and they’re very unclear. You have to read the fine print. We all study the policies carefully, offer insurance and try to explain how it works.”