What to Do When Disaster Strikes

Heather Christopher, Classic Travel: “Educating the client as to what to expect is essential. People handle most situations better when expectations are set.”
Heather Christopher, Classic Travel: “Educating the client as to what to expect is essential. People handle most situations better when expectations are set.”

The Ebola Outbreak and Africa Travel

The distance between Ebola-affected West Africa and Ebola-free South Africa is just about as far as between the United States and London. But during the height of the Ebola fears in October, agents and operators saw a “wait-and-see” approach to booking from clients who had second thoughts about traveling anywhere even remotely associated with the deadly virus, causing a downturn in bookings for the first quarter of 2015. In this case, it appears as though South Africa’s tourism industry will suffer simply for having “Africa” in its name.

The Solution: Know the risks, know the facts and communicate clearly

In October, Elizabeth Gordon, co-founder and CEO at tour operator-cum-agency Extraordinary Journeys (and one of Travel Agent Magazine’s top 30Under30 agents for 2010), told us that her team spent “a lot of time” talking with clients, “explaining why South Africa is safe and what is in place. Africa is a huge continent.” She even developed a bullet-point list of facts to help calm any concerns:

* The Ebola outbreak is only concentrated in certain countries in West Africa
* Johannesburg is further from the outbreak than London, Dubai, Rome and Rio de Janeiro
* Cape Town is as far away and is closer to Antarctica than West Africa.
* There have been no Ebola cases or arrivals in South Africa in this epidemic
* Since 2010 ALL arriving passengers into Johannesburg have been screened for raised body temperatures
* There are 11 medical facilities trained to isolate any Ebola case that arrives into the country
* South Africa has a sophisticated medical infrastructure to keep the country and sub-continent free of the virus

“[South Africa’s] health system works,” Gordon added. “Liberia doesn’t have one, or a functional government.” Even Nigeria, she added, was able to contain the one infected person right away. “They have been very quick to take action.”

South African Airways, meanwhile, sent out periodic correspondence to agents to show them measures the airlines are taking to ensure safety from identifying airports that are conducting screenings to training crew members to be able to identify potentially sick passengers. “Our role has been to help educate our travel partners and consumers on the situation by providing information on where they can go to get relevant facts,” Todd M. Neuman, executive vice president of SAA said at the time. “The biggest challenge is that most Americans don’t completely understand the geography of Africa. I don’t think a lot of Americans really know how big of a continent it really is, that the U.S. can fit into it two-and-a-half times over.”

Strikes That Disrupt Travel

Throughout the year, airlines throughout Europe saw walkouts by pilots and ground crews, causing severe delays and many canceled flights. The BBC, in fact, noted that this year’s aviation strikes have cost airlines an estimated $160 million. Add to that the many smaller strikes on the ground (think train, public transportation and even museum employees), and many vacations could be affected in major ways.

The Solution: Be proactive, reach out to all contacts and have a backup plan 

Fortunately, delays and cancellations are perfect opportunities for a travel agent to shine. Debra Prindle-Overing, owner of Classic Travel, had clients booked on an Air France flight that was affected by one of the airline’s strikes this year. She reached out and determined what routes codeshare partner Delta offered that her clients could use. “They re-protected and re-ticketed them,” Prindle-Overing says. “Because the clients had Premium Voyageur [status], I was able to submit via Air France’s website for a ‘strike payment,’ which was based on mileage. They got a cash payment of $800 per person.” That’s “all you can do,” she adds, as the airlines hold sole power in re-writing a ticket.

Prindle-Overing’s co-worker at Classic, Heather Christopher, agrees: “The best solution, otherwise, is to run a query of all your clients to be ahead of them.” There is only “wiggle room,” as Christopher put it, if the airline issues a waiver for the ticket cost and if the clients have flexibility in terms of travel plans. (“There typically isn’t any,” she says.) “We have had tickets refunded to re-purchase new tickets at much higher fares.”

A backup plan is “absolutely” necessary, Christopher continues. “You at least need a procedure to follow.” At Classic, agents will first call the airline directly and then check Sabre to see what options involve travel insurance, if possible or necessary.

Insurance, she adds, is a “major player” in situations like these. “They can help with getting re-ticketed if the advisor is unavailable or if there is a time-zone issue; they can also step up to pay trip-interruption costs or trip-delay costs.”

In terms of ground strikes, Christopher says that this is where “really good relationships with your suppliers” are essential. On-location suppliers can alert an agent in advance if they hear about an imminent strike and help arrange an alternative. “Educating the client as to what to expect is essential,” she says. “People handle most situations better when expectations are set.”

Client says, “No, I Don’t Need Insurance.” Now What?

The Solution: Make it personal

Many agents ask clients to sign a paper that says they declined to buy travel insurance. But why not take it a step further, saying, “okay, I respect your judgment, but you know I had thus and so happen to another client”? Make it personal. Real stories are impactful. Beth Padgett Edwards, franchise owner, Cruise Planners, Tampa, FL, had a honeymoon couple on a cruise, on the second night the groom got a flu-like virus, and the duo was quarantined to their room for 48 hours. Fortunately, the man had insurance, e-mailed the agent, she called the insurer (thus avoiding high ship phone fees) and the man was able to know what paperwork to secure onboard to file a claim. “He can’t get those two miserable days back, but he’s getting the money back for those days,” says Edwards.

Does the client have children, a sick sibling or elderly parents who aren’t traveling with them. Definitely ask “what if”? Jo-Ann Moss, franchise owner, Cruise Planners in Oregon, says: “Insurance will get you home if something life-threatening happens to a member of your immediate family back home. This has sealed the deal on the last bundle of cruises. It scares them straight.”