The quick spread of the deadly coronavirus has now reached 18 countries. In China, where it was first identified in Wuhan, there have been more than 9,800 confirmed cases of the virus in China, with 213 deaths. Travel companies, from airlines to hotels and cruise lines, are adjusting service as officials work to contain the virus.
With the news, travel advisors have had to adapt and respond to the new wave of anxiety from their clients who are hesitant to travel for fear of getting sick abroad.
“We have a few clients with upcoming China/Asia trips this spring and summer, and I’ve personally reached out to them to see how they feel about the plans in light of the coronavirus situation,” said Stacy Small, founder and CEO of Elite Travel International. “They’ve said they’d like to wait and see how things look closer to travel dates, and aren’t canceling this far out.”
Tourism in China took a hit last year as a result of the protests in Hong Kong, and the trade war with the U.S., and this outbreak only makes things worse, especially during the Lunar New Year, traditionally one of the biggest travel seasons in the region.
“As soon as the Chinese government shut down the major tourist sites, it effectively became impossible for leisure travelers to visit China,” said Guy Rubin, co-founder of Imperial Tours. “Therefore, we have had cancellations and postponements for January, February and March. We just had a cancellation for April and we’ve had some people traveling in October looking to cancel. Other passengers are holding firm on a wait-and-see strategy.”
Yesterday, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global emergency, serving to further stoke fears of potential travelers in and around China. “My belief is that the public will not settle for less than the containment of the disease. The fact that the case fatality rate seems to have fallen to 0.85% will not be enough to counter the alarm that this incident has generated,” said Rubin. “For this reason, I hope that the containment strategy is successful.”
This crisis has caused a wave of uncertainty throughout the travel industry, as airlines, cruises and tour operators have had to change or cancel services in China in the wake of the deadly outbreak. As a result, advisors will have to be proactive in their preparations and communications with clients and destinations.
“Since many airlines are now not traveling to China, it’s important for advisors to be proactive with their clients who do have scheduled trips to Asia,” said Tiffany Dowd, founder and president of Luxe Social Media. “Advisors should stay well-informed of the latest airline updates and World Health Organization advisories. While it’s always a good idea to have trip insurance, it’s important to know that any of fear of illness is not something that is covered by travel insurance companies.
“Travel advisors should also be more proactive in booking their clients’ summer travel early, as other destinations will have higher demand if things don’t get back to normal.”
Staying up-to-date with resources with the CDC is vital for advisors dealing with coronavirus concerns. Photo: Shutterstock.com
Advisors need to be able to appropriately respond to their clients’ travel anxiety, but how can they prepare for and adapt to clients’ fears, both for the current health crisis, and other potential travel emergencies in the future?
“My recommendation to advisors is always to stay educated on the facts and current travel advisories, share anything factual and relevant to clients with trips planned to affected regions, but to be careful not to tell clients they ‘should’ or ‘should not’ travel somewhere,” said Small. “When clients ask me if I would travel to China, or wherever the current issue is, I tell them the truth. Personally, I have some concerns about traveling to a region under health warnings, but I would look to reschedule to a later date rather than cancel outright if it’s somewhere I really want to go.”
“The key is to stay educated, speak to trusted suppliers based in the region who will be honest. Oftentimes, I’ll arrange conference calls between my local suppliers and my clients so their questions can be answered by a local based in the affected region. Ultimately, it’s best to remain calm, and ensure that clients know you are there to help them with whatever decision feels best to them.”
Guidance from consortia and host agencies
Being well-informed during these situations, where the public can get easily overwhelmed and confused by the news, is key for advisors providing the best value to their clients. Having a consortium on your side can help you navigate all the updates and misinformation by providing additional resources and a trustworthy network.
At Travel Leaders Group, Peter Vlitas, senior vice president for airline relations, said his team is providing advisors with multiple communications a day, including supplier updates, as well as talking points to share with their clients complete with the latest official reports. Additionally, Vlitas said they are assisting advisors with making alternate arrangements for those who may have had travel planned to affected regions.
“Advisors should provide their clients with all the official sources of information including the Centers for Disease Control, World Health Organization and the State Department web sites,” he said. “However, the decision to travel to a particular destination is a personal one that can only be made by the individual traveler and individual corporations.”
Brian R. Chapin, senior director supplier relations for air, at Ensemble, echoed a similar sentiment: “Ultimately, the client has to make the decision as to whether or not to travel to impacted regions. Our members are working directly with their clients who want to heed those warnings and reschedule planned trips or to avoid flying through the region to other parts of Asia as well.”
Chapin also said working with preferred suppliers that “have been proactive and helpful in providing both information and waivers for clients that need to rebook travel” and government agencies, like the CDC, allows members to stay up to date on the latest guidance for their clients.
“Our team does an amazing job taking all the facts and utilizing our external resources such as CLIA and any governmental regulatory body to make sure our agents are information,” said Drew Daly, senior vice president and general manager for Dream Vacations, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc..
This allows them to provide agents with updates daily – sometimes twice a day – to get them the most up-to-date info, Daly said.
While he hasn’t seen any impact just yet, his team provides agents with talking points to help consumer and public stay informed and “help diminish or alleviate any concerns that may or may not come from consumers.”
“A prepared travel advisor, knowledgeable about the facts – including notices and recommendations from global health officials such as the CDC and WHO and the status of suppliers operating in the affected areas, is the best way for agents to calm fears,” said Nicole Mazza, chief marketing officer for Travelsavers. “An informed advisor can help travelers make decisions with confidence.”
Virtuoso is doing the same with its members, sending out daily updates with the most up-to-date information.
“We’ve faced health-related issues in the past – SARS, Zika, Ebola – and realize this outbreak is having a major impact on our industry. It’s very personal to us as we have staff, Members and Partners in China. Our first priority is the health and welfare of the network’s clients, members, advisors, partners and staff,” Virtuoso's Matthew Upchurch said in a letter to its members.
Virtuoso's updates includes working with its preferred partners to get real-time updates to its members and advisors getting support material to its members that they can share with clients.
“From a macro, long-term perspective, travel is one of the most resilient industries in the world,” Upchurch wrote.
“The situation is rapidly evolving as are traveler concerns, but as we have seen during prior crises, it is impressive to see an entire industry pull together to ensure traveler and staff safety and comfort,” said Jean Newman Glock, managing director of Communications & Public Affairs for Signature Travel Network.
With an eye to the longer term, we all hope for the rapid containment and resolution of the health threat and a return to the 'normal' day to day of inspiring and planning travel for our members.”
American Airlines became one of the latest carriers to suspend China flights earlier on Friday. Photo: Shutterstock.com
In a statement to TMR, a spokesperson for the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) said that it has issued a travel advisor guidance document to its members to help them “to stay informed; refer clients with questions to objective third-party sources of information like the CDC and State Department; and raise the issue proactively if a client is traveling to an affected area.”
ASTA also made it clear that while an advisor is there to present accurate information to clients, they should not be the final voice for the decision.
“As with other recent issues impacting the travel industry like the Zika virus and reports of tourist deaths in the Dominican Republic, travel advisors are not in a position to make a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ recommendation as to whether a client should travel to any particular place at any given time, and statements that could be construed as definitive advice should be avoided.
"Ultimately, it is the traveler who must make that decision, in an informed manner and in light of his or her own individual risk tolerance.”
With additional reporting from Daniel McCarthy.