Photo: Kate Ter Haar
This article was updated 3/29/16
Across the nation, travel professionals are talking customers through their fears, suggesting alternatives, pushing travel insurance policies that allow you to cancel for any reason, and even arming travelers with WiFi apps to keep in touch.
Where the Paris bombings in November came at the end of the Europe vacation season, last week’s terror attack in Brussels coincides with the beginning of the busy summer months. And while only Brussels was hit, “it trickles down across all Europe,” said Jack Ezon, president of Ovation Vacations in New York.
Ezon last week had a family of six switch its vacation from London to Arizona, plus a family headed to Madrid and a “couple” of river cruise customers cancel as well.
“Europe is 85% of our business in the summer; our core season is the end of April to the end of October, maybe into November,” he said. “So we didn’t really feel the effects of Paris that much. But now is the time people are starting to travel to Europe and some customers are concerned. If there is more terrorism between now and June it’s going to be a huge issue.”
Ezon sent his agents an email with talking points to use with customers who call and express concerns about Europe.
“There is really nothing you can say or do to convince people where to go, nor should you ever tell anyone that any place is safe. What you can do is talk them through it and address their fears. Remind them that while heightened security in Europe may not feel comforting there is probably no safer time to go with so much extra security measures in place. You should put things into perspective and remind them that this is the world we unfortunately live in today, whether in Brussels or New York or even random town San Bernardino, California,” it says.
The email goes on to suggest the following “close to home” destinations to suggest:
- Buenos Aires
- Los Angeles
- Napa Valley/ San Francisco
- New Orleans
- San Miguel Allande
Ezon said he is also is finding customers headed in surprising numbers to the national parks, despite what he feels is a lack of consumer advertising about the Park Service centennial this year. In Western Europe, Italy alone remains a strong destination. “It still feels good to people; people feel safe and welcome there, perhaps because there is no flash factor there, and no strong Arab presence,” he said.
At VIP Vacations in Bethlehem, PA, president Jennifer Doncsecz agreed that while Europe has been “booming” in the past few weeks, Italy has been—and now likely will remains—the strongest draw.
Selling safety: Insurance and Wifi apps
When customers are headed to Europe, travel professionals are arming them to meet the unexpected with travel insurance and WiFi apps to stay in touch.
Much like what happened after the Paris bombing in November, those in the planning stage might be having second thoughts, but ticketed passengers tended to go ahead with their plans. With a group of 300 high school students departing for Spain, one agency armed them all with a pocket WiFi app from Wireless Traveler that lets them stay in touch even when the cellphone network is overwhelmed, as happened in Brussels.
Collette Tours offers its clients a branded version of the app called “Collette Talk” that “provides an opportunity for our guests to stay connected while traveling abroad, when cell signals are unavailable or inundated,” said EVP Paula Twidale.
Ezon said he has found that offering travel insurance—especially policies that allow cancellations for any reason—also helps allay customer concerns, allowing them to book with the understanding that they can change their minds. Travel insurance is up 25% or 26% since December, when Zika set off consumer alarms. But this week, “we suggest it to everyone, and more and more clients are taking it. And it is helping us close sales.”
Other agents respond
Home-based travel professional Connie Lemmon, of the eponymous Connie Lemmon Travel in San Diego, said that while her host agency, Avoya Travel, “seemed a little bit worried” in a webinar it held last week, she has seen no falloff in Europe bookings. While acknowledging that she is considering switching the routing of her own flight next month to France via Brussels, she said not one customer has called with concerns about Europe.
“I have a bunch of clients on river cruises this summer on the Danube, on the Rhine, to Normandy,” she said. “Perhaps it’s because I’m in San Diego, and San Bernadino [site of its own terror attack] is not very far away; I think people understand terror attacks can happen at the mall.”
And in Ontario, Canada, Kristine Debacker-Carr at Travel by Design Ruse Travel also has had no cancellations. Britain and Ireland bookings are the same as ever for the summer, and "Asia is strong," she said, though "bookings are not quite as heavy as they have been in the past for mainland Europe; customers seem to be choosing other destinations, like Portugal, which has a lilttle more rural atmosphere.
"We have to hope people will see that terrorism is not the norm, that we shouldn't be afraid to travel or they will have won," she said.
Indeed, said Lemmon, “I have one customer who has traveled five or six times to destinations that have had recent terror attacks. He thinks security is best right after an incident. And there are no crowds.”