How to Protect Your Travel Agency During Turbulent Times
A travel agent career can be subject to a considerable amount of turbulence. In 2017, hurricane Irma and Maria ravaged parts of the Caribbean. In 2019 it was the publicity scare surrounding mysterious tourist deaths in Dominican Republic. At the time of writing this article, it’s the uncertainty surrounding Coronavirus.
The hopeful news is that, historically, the travel agent industry has been resilient during hard times. They rallied together after 9/11 and struggled through the financial crisis. During our current crisis, ASTA (the American Society of Travel Advisors) advocated on Hill for congress to consider small travel businesses as they unroll economic relief packages.
More recently, Steph Lee facilitated a critical conversation about how different types of travel advisors are supporting travelers and adapting their business strategies as COVID-19 continues to unfold. The panel was recorded live and is posted below
We're in your corner! We understand that your livelihood may depend on riding out turbulent times. Part of this response is to keep your clients informed in a way that isn't rooted in general panic. I chatted with a few bona fide lawyers, their insights about responsibly (and professionally) communicating with your concerned clients about travel risks.
The article will enable you to communicate with your clients in a way that empowers them to make decisions they feel comfortable with. (We'll also help cover your asse(t)s with waivers and other legal resources).
Best yet? You'll do it all with professionalism and poise.
You Are Not a Doctor/ Meteorologist/ Fortune Teller
Okay, so maybe very few of you are a doctor or a fortune teller (if that’s you, I’ve got some pressing questions). Or perhaps some of you have strong potential as a future burrito (?!) with a knack for reading weather patterns.
But for arguments sake, let’s just pretend that you didn’t get into the travel business to diagnose weird flu symptoms, predict a hurricane's path, or to make safety assessments of different destinations. You can breathe a sigh of relief. Why? Because you don’t have to give medical advice, or foretell a potential natural disaster. Nor should you.
The duty to disclose . . . is the advisor’s obligation to make known to his or her client all information that the advisor is aware of that is material to the client’s travel plans.
But you're not totally off the hook. Travel agents still have a (legal) duty to inform clients of information that might impact their travel decisions.
Here's a legal perspective from Peter Lobasso, Senior Vice President and General Counsel to American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA), "The [duty] most relevant to the coronavirus or other potential hazards associated with travel is the duty to disclose. Also known as the 'duty to inform' or the 'duty to warn,' it is the advisor’s obligation to make known to his or her client all information that the advisor is aware of that is material to the client’s travel plans."
What is material, you ask? Peter elaborated, "ASTA takes the view that 'material' means information that if known to the client would be reasonably likely to influence the traveler’s decision with respect to whether, where, when, or how to travel."
What this means is that you need to equip your clients with the information and resources to make decisions for themselves. In order to do this, advisors need to stay on top of destination-specific updates that are available. (Pssst! We've got you! Read on.)
Here's a few tips to help you put your most professional foot forward, with wording, links that will offer the facts to inform your clients, and the resources to protect your and your agency.
Tips on Communicating with Concerned Travelers
As a travel agent, you’re probably answering this question Should I travel? more than you care to.
If a client is uncertain, your role is to offer resources to help them assess their own risk-tolerance in order to formulate their own decision. Chun (Chunnie) Wright, attorney and owner of Law Office of Chun T. Wright weighed in on how travel agents can protect their agencies while addressing client concerns.
Here’s a few tips to help craft your messaging:
1. Provide Clients With (Factual & CREDIBLE) Resources & Information
The advisor’s role is to equip travelers with resources to help them make a decision they feel comfortable with. Stick with factual resources such as the U.S. State Dept. Travel Advisory site, the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and the World Health Organization (WHO). (Don’t worry, we have a full list of reliable resources below!)
Chances are, you have access to the same information that the general public does. But if, for some reason, you have a friend who works in public health in destination x, who informs you of COVID-19 cases before it hits the general public, you'll need to inform your client of such knowledge.
2. Stick to the facts:
Remember to stick to the facts. As a travel agent, it’s tempting to offer your opinion. (After all, that’s your job!) But it’s a slippery slope if a client construes your personal opinion as advice.
Using our current situation, let’s say you have a traveler who's concerned about traveling to a place where there has been no outbreak/reported cases of Coronavirus, destination x. Chunnie offers this response that sticks to the facts and helps clients make a reasoned decision that isn’t based on general panic:
“The agent should be on top of the facts, reviewing official advisories and warnings, looking at the warnings and advisories that you’re sending clients to, and then say — stick to the facts— “[I] they don’t see any instances in [destination]. You want to stay away from words such as safe, but [could say], I would be less concerned about traveling [destination x].”
3. be AWare of your Social Media Messaging:
One of the dangers of social media is that your opinions could be construed as advice. Just as you don't want to advise clients whether or not it's safe to travel, you want to be wary of any social media posts that may be construed as advice. This is especially true if your posts are public and/or you're posting as a public figure/travel advisor.
Instead of posting, "It's fine to travel to [destination x] so long as you wash your hands constantly," you might consider posting something like, "I’ve loved my past travels to [destination x]. Let me help you decide if it’s the right place for you!"
Watch your messaging and keep it professional!
4. Let the Clients Make the final Decision:
With your amazing service, your client will have all the information they need to make the best decision for themselves. Don’t make it for them! Enough said.
“Should I Still Travel?” Here’s What to Say (and What Not to Say)
Okay, so you've gotten a few tips on communicating with your concerned clients, now let’s put them into action!
Let’s start with what you should not say when a client asks, “Should I travel?"
- Do not say, “Yes”
- Do not say, “No”
- Do not say anything that could be inferred as advice.
Gosh darnit. It’s a trick question. Only your client can answer this question. So what do you say if you can’t advise your client whether or not to travel. After all, doesn’t that seem a little counterintuitive?
Here’s an example of what you could say:
I understand this is a hard decision. While I can’t advise you on whether or not to take your vacation or cancel your plans, I’m happy to connect you with resources to help you make the best decision for you. Take all the time you need to decide. In the meantime, I will be tracking travel advisories in [destination] and will stay in close communication with suppliers to ensure you’re updated on any changes.
It’s been a joy to plan your trip. If you decide to cancel, I’m happy to support you in re-booking your trip at a later time. If you decide to travel, I will do everything I can to make your trip seamless.
What are you telling your concerned clients? We’re want to know! Comment below!
Resources to Offer Clients to Help Make Them Make their Travel Decisions.
The rule of offering resources to your clients is to ensure they are from an official source. This means no links to Travel Magazine articles on “Top Ten Reasons to Take Your Vacation” or first-hand anecdotal accounts on why things are great/horrible in __________________________ destination.
Here's a list of resources to assist your clients in making confident travel decisions they feel good about:
1. State Department Travel Advisories:
This is a biggie. The State Dept. frequently updates travel advisory information to every destination you can possibly imagine. They assign an advisory level to every destination with an explanation. From there, your client can take the wheel and make an informed choice that works for them. The State Dept. website is also a staple for your travel agency disclaimer or waiver.
2. SHERPA Travel: Updated Travel Restrictions by destination
The State Dept. site will help your clients make decisions they're comfortable with in terms of travel recommendations and Sherpa will help them navigate the latest travel requirements. Sherpa Travel updates its site daily with the most current travel restrictions including the latest information on vaccine/quarantine/ and COVID testing requirements. This is a great resource to share with your clients so they feel empowered with the information they need.
3. STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program):
Your clients can enroll in the STEP program to receive travel advisory updates from the embassy of their travel location. Better yet, you can enroll on behalf of your clients and forward them relevant links and information pertinent to their trip.
4.WHO (World Health Organization) International Travel & Health Updates:
WHO offers destination-specific health resources and updates.
5. CDC (Centers for Disease Control) Travel Webpage:
The CDC offers information and updates for destinations for destination-specific health issues)Yes! Even more info. The CDC resource is also a good link to plug into your travel agency’s disclaimer for all trips.
6. Destination-Specific Government Website Updates:
Another resource is government websites of your client’s destination (NOT tourism board websites). Here they will have travel restriction updates.
7. Supplier-Specific Updates & Information:
If you or your client has reason for concern regarding a certain destination (or type of travel), you’ll want to be acutely attuned to supplier-specific travel updates.
Tips and Resources to Protect Your Travel Agency
Okay, so you’ve got your client covered. But what about you? We have a lot of ideas about that.
1. get E&O Insurance:
Sure E&O insurance is not mandatory, but it will help cover costs of litigation if a suit is filed against you. Want to hear more about E&O? We have more details.
2. Protect your agency with waivers and disclaimers:
We have loads of info on disclaimers here. But don’t take my word for it.
In a past Travel Weekly article, Travel Attorney Mark Pestonk advised that a travel agency’s disclaimer cover specific points in relation to “events beyond your control.”
Here’s a few of Pestonk’s recommendations, verbatim, that address unforeseeable events:
- You are not responsible for events beyond your control such as strikes, disasters or terrorism. Although you may be liable if some of these events were foreseeable and you failed to warn about them, there is no harm in implying the opposite if it will stave off a lawsuit.
- You have no knowledge of destination dangers, as such a statement will help you defend against a claim that you knew or should have known about a climate or local issue and failed to warn the client.
- The client should check the State Department's travel advisories webpage.
- The client should check the Centers for Disease Control's travel webpage for destination health issues.
- An exhortation [ed. note: this is a fancy word for a line item or sentence compelling someone to take action] to buy insurance covering trip cancellation, interruption and medical expenses, including evacuation. Although insurance is not mandatory and can be a waste of money in some cases, merely offering it deters claims against your agency even if the client did not buy it.
3. Offer Travel Insurance:
Turbulent times are an unfortunate reminder of the importance of offering your clients travel insurance. You’ll want to document that you offered your client insurance, and have them sign a waiver if they refuse it.
But here’s a word of caution: You can add Insurance Broker to the long list of roles you do not serve for your client. While it’s best practice to offer your clients travel insurance, you don’t want to pass yourself off as an insurance policy expert.
Here’s what Peter Lobasso said on the matter, “Most advisors are not insurance experts and should refrain from making any representations as to what situations are — or are not — covered under any particular policy. Those questions should be referred to the insurance provider. Advisors may also wish to consider having their clients sign a waiver where appropriate to the circumstances, for example, where the client chooses to not purchase travel insurance or directs the advisor to make a booking contrary to his/her professional advice and a negative outcome is foreseeable.”
Also, Peter added, "while waivers when properly used can provide an added measure of legal protection, they are by no means a guarantee that the advisor won’t be sued should something go wrong. "
At the end of the day, if a client cancels a trip expecting a 100% refund but only receives 75%, you don’t want their wrath (or the legal responsibility) to fall on you.
More on this topic another day!
4. Document Your Communications:
This advice is from Chunnie. Aside of creating waivers and disclaimers for your agency, Chunnie recommends creating some kind of paper trail when you're imparting all this fantastic and factual info that's material to your traveler's trip! So don’t delete those emails!
The travel industry—unfortunately—has weathered some really tough times. We’re going to take our own advice by not telling you it’s just business as usual. Nor will we tell you to panic and shutter up shop.
Why? Because we’re not the CDC, or WHO, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), or the State Dept. We’re not fortune tellers either.
Here’s the good news: Historically, the industry has rallied together to overcome gigantic obstacles, and we’re confident this time (and the next time) will be no different.
Do you have strategies that have helped your agency through turbulent times? We want to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
P.S. Did I Mention I’m Not a Lawyer?
Major disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer! Heck, I’ve never even watched a single episode of Law & Order (don’t judge)! This is all to say that this article is not to be construed as legal advice! That would be a sad situation for everyone.
If you want actual legit legal advice, you should click on the links of any of these fine lawyers mentioned in the article!
You can check out more legal resources we have on the site! Phew. Crisis averted.