Travel agents and suppliers attending the Cruise Planners annual convention in Cancun last week were upbeat about selling travel to Mexico, despite the spate of bad news that has bedeviled the nation’s tourism industry and triggered client fears.
While the earthquakes that struck Mexico in September were devastating to the country, in the travel industry concerns have focused on reports of tourist blackouts and deaths linked to tainted alcohol, together with a U.S. State Department warning that gang-related violence has spread to popular beach resorts.
In August, the State Department expanded its travel warning about the dangers of criminal violence in Mexico to include Cancun, the Riviera Maya and Los Cabos.
A month earlier, the State Department’s information page on Mexico added cautionary words about alcohol served there, stating in part: “There have been allegations that consumption of tainted or substandard alcohol has resulted in illness or blacking out.”
At the Cruise Planners convention, agents who sell Mexico reported moderate client concern about the safety of traveling there, along with some cancellations. Agents also said they anticipated that fast-moving news cycles and the public’s short memory will make any negative impacts short-lived.
Trisha Slocum, an independent contractor with a Cruise Planners agency in Franklin, Neb., said she had received “tons of questions” about the safety of traveling to Mexico after reports surfaced of tainted alcohol being served. Among those inquiring were several clients who were considering a Mexico vacation but were afraid to book. “It’s been a job to convince them that it’s still okay,” said Slocum, who added that she had allayed their fears successfully.
Slocum, who has been traveling to Mexico for over a decade and mostly sells all-inclusive resort vacations there, said she will continue to recommend the destination. “I’m still gung-ho about Mexico. I love the people and this culture.”
Personal risk management
Travel advisor Debra Hines Brown, owner of a Cruise Planners agency in Decatur, Ga., heard enough client concern about bad alcohol being served at Mexico resorts that she broadcast a Facebook Live post on the topic when she was at the Hardrock Hotel Cancun a few weeks ago.
“My message was it’s all about personal risk management when you’re in a bar anywhere. It’s about being conscious of your whereabouts, whether you’re in the U.S. or Mexico. Stick to name brands and watch the bartender pour. If you go to an all-inclusive that has cheap liquor, you’re going to get cheap liquor. Also, don’t overindulge,” said Brown, who had two Mexico clients rebook to other destinations after they heard reports of alcohol poisoning.
Brown also counseled her Facebook audience not to be afraid of visiting Mexico. She urged them to be aware when reading State Department warnings “that Mexico is an entire continent. The warnings are very specific. You can’t just paint it with a broad brush.”
Social media hype
Bill Christman, a Cruise Planners agent in Colorado Springs, Colo., said he heard from seven or eight clients about reported alcohol-related problems at Mexico resorts. “They’ll come and ask what it’s all about, in a non-panicked way,” said Christman. “They hear things and they want us to validate or invalidate it. Most of them trust the travel agent.”
Christman said he counseled clients to weigh the facts. “You need to look at the resort where it happened and wait for the details to come out. Then we’ll know if it’s a major issue or an isolated incident.”
One challenge cited by Christman and other agents is that old news often gets recirculated on social media in a way that distorts the facts and heightens emotions. Still, he said, he sees “people getting desensitized. They know the media highlights rare instances, that the story is bigger than the event.”
As for the outlook, Christman said he didn’t expect his Mexico bookings to decrease. If anything, he said, “they’ll increase because I’ve been here and I’m more educated.”
Suppliers see uptick
Several supplier reps at the Cruise Planners convention said that while their Mexico bookings had suffered this year, things are picking up and the outlook for 2018 is brighter.
Jeffrey Verlotta, a strategic account manager for Classic Vacations, said the supplier had experienced “a little pushback” after the State Department expanded its travel warning. “We did have a few groups cancel after the travel warning; some moved to other destinations.”
But Verlotta said he wasn’t worried about Mexico’s outlook because of the country’s great value together with the public’s short attention span. He noted that “when things happened in the Caribbean, people came here.”
At La Coleccion — whose 12 Mexican resorts include Fiesta Americana, Grand Fiesta Americana, Live Aqua and Explorean brands — sales began to sag in the beginning of the year, according to Catherine Pawelek, account executive, retail engagement. She attributed the early dip to politics, including talk of a U.S.-Mexico border wall.
Now, heading into the fall-winter season, bookings are “back full force,” Pawelek said. “I think they [consumers and agents] learn to balance what is real and what has been overstated. Mexico has so much variety. People are realizing that once again.”
No qualms about Cancun
Cruise Planner agents in Cancun told Travel Market Report they personally had no qualms about visiting the area. “Absolutely zero,” said Shahid Habib, a travel advisor from Danville, Calif.. “I know that the resorts are well-protected. They’re going out of their way to keep things secure.”
Still, he added, reports of bad liquor being served in Mexico had lodged in his mind. “If I was going downtown, I might be careful of what I would drink.”
Another agent, who asked not to be quoted by name, said any fears she had had been alleviated by visiting Cancun herself. “It’s such an amazing and beautiful country. I’m so glad to feel like we can still come and have amazing experiences here.”