Travel advisors are feeling the impact of growing fears over the coronavirus outbreak, and for some, it’s causing some unexpected side effects.
In some cases, agents may even end up taking a financial hit to preserve client relationships and customer service levels for the longer term.
That was the scenario faced recently by Diana Hechler, president of D. Tours Travel, in Larchmont, New York, when a client who had paid tens of thousands of dollars for a customized tour to Asia for their family backed out ten days before a late February departure. The itinerary did not include China or any other quarantined area.
Ultimately, Hechler pulled some strings and was able to claw back much of what the client had put down, but at a cost to her – not just in lost commissions, but in credit card fees she had to eat.
It’s not just the prospect of getting sick, but of being quarantined that’s raising alarms, agents note. Cruises, even voyages that don’t call at ports anywhere near affected locations, are also posing difficult questions for retailers.
Terry Regan, president of Berkeley’s Northside Travel, in Berkeley, California, said that a family member booked a cruise for four couples from Los Angeles to Hawaii recently, but as the departure date approached, half of the group backed out. Cruise lines, he said, will only allow full refunds in unusual cases, such as if a passenger is able to show they were in China in the last 30 days.
What’s essential is a candid and open exchange with clients, he said, even if the result is that the client decides not to travel. “I had a gentleman come in who was ready to book a cherry blossom tour to Japan. But he was concerned about allergies and other health issues,” said Regan, who did not take a deposit, and, the client ultimately decided not to go after consulting a doctor.
While some airlines are waiving change fees and other suppliers are being more flexible, agents need to be clear that most suppliers’ insurance won’t cover clients if they cancel simply because they are afraid, said Rick Ardis, president of Ardis Travel, in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Ardis said that he’s hearing from “some jittery people” who “can’t decide whether to go.” Agents are in a tough bind, he notes, because they don’t want to brush off concerns, given how little is known about how the disease might spread. “I have some people putting off travel to next year,” he said. “You can be reassuring, but you can’t tell people to go or not.”
While the travel industry has weathered crises like this before, he said, the current situation is different from other outbreaks such as SARS, which devastated international travel in 2003. “The difference between SARS and this situation is social media; 20 years ago, you didn’t have this fear mongering on a 24/7 basis.”
While the disease has been detected in 53 countries, the outbreak has, thus far, been mainly confined to China, which has reported the vast majority of cases – 78,800 out of 83,700 worldwide, according to updates issued on Friday.
Other agents expressed similar concerns that the panic fed by constant news coverage is overblown, and that they could be facing a serious drop in business.
“We had some sales reps come in, and they referred to it as ‘media terrorism,’” said Sally Watkins, CTC, of Century Travel and Cruises, in Austin, Texas. She added that her agency has experienced a rise in calls from concerned clients, “and we just suggest a ‘wait-and-see’ approach.”