Agents keeping calm through coronavirus panic, providing common sense advice

This story originally ran in the February 13, 2020 issue of Travelweek magazine. To get Travelweek delivered to your agency for free, subscribe here.

TORONTO — Any expectations for smooth sailing in the first weeks of 2020 were dashed as soon as reports of the coronavirus outbreak surfaced.

But the travel industry, well aware of the damage that knee-jerk reactions and the 24-hour consumer news cycle can inflict, has kept a cool head.

As Gloria Guevara, President & CEO of the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), said: “Containing the spread of unnecessary panic is as important as stopping the virus itself.”

From SARS in 2003, to the H1N1 outbreak in Mexico in 2009 (with a US$5 billion loss to Mexico’s tourism industry, according to WTTC stats), to Zika, to the recent allegations surrounding the D.R. and many of its most popular resorts, the travel industry has been front and centre through it all.

The coronavirus is just the latest, and it won’t be the last.

Never mind that the coronavirus has a mortality rate of 2%, much lower than SARS’ 10%.

In fact, if coronavirus is as under-reported as some believe, its mortality rate could be closer to 0.2%, the same as the flu.

Clients may have heard these stats, but for many, it’s the headline-grabbing stories about cruise ships quarantined for two weeks or more, or a plane turned back from its Caribbean sun destination because of one passenger’s fake coronavirus claim, that get attention.

So what’s a travel agent to do? Keep calm and carry on, and provide all the smart service and common sense advice that clients rely on.

Uniglobe Travel agent Michelle Whelan, based in London, ON, has clients scheduled to depart this week for Bali, with a connecting flight through Hong Kong.

Uneasy about going through China with the coronavirus outbreak, they asked Whelan about re-routing their connection.

“I did explore this with the consolidator, who advised that most coming that direction go through Asia,” says Whelan, adding that she gave her clients some options to re-book, but ultimately, they decided, on her counsel, to stick with their Hong Kong connection.

“I’ve assured them our agency is receiving constant updates from the cruise lines, the airlines, insurance, government advisories and that we are required to update clients immediately,” says Whelan. “I encouraged them to take their cues from the airline and the airport. Wait until they cancel. They are also required to advise immediately if the situation is serious enough.”

Whelan adds: “These clients are seniors and so the idea of a virus is a serious concern to them, and rightly so. I did say that I would respect their comfort level with the connection in Hong Kong either way. These clients are also savvy enough to understand the nervousness a news channel can create for the sake of a story.”

Whelan says she encouraged her clients to talk to their doctor as well. “We talked about health precautions they can do to minimize risk, such as wear a mask on the plane, immunity boosting supplements.”

Whelan also made plans to meet with the couple this past weekend, to see “how they’re still feeling about the situation.” Now that’s service.

While the coronavirus outbreak is deeply impacting inbound and outbound travel to China, thanks to containment measures the impact to other travel destinations has so far been minimal to non-existent.

Especially in winter, Mexico and the Caribbean are still the bread-and-butter for most Canadian travel agents, and sun bookings “are still coming in strong definitely,” says Whelan. “I have so many clients going away and booking last-minute I’m up till late hours every day. As one agent put it ‘January was a good year’. Most of these clients are going to the Caribbean and Central America, both for resorts and cruises.”

Flight Centre Travel Group spokesperson Allison Wallace says “the travel industry has proven time and again it is resilient and people will continue travelling.” FCTG hasn’t seen a slowdown to other destinations outside of China and in fact is seeing an upswing to South America and Europe.

“Not sure if that’s a direct correlation but people are definitely still travelling,” says Wallace. “We’ve seen similar things like this with SARS and MERS which is why I think the airlines and WHO are taking such a rigid stance to try and contain it. By all accounts it seems to be working. While I still think there’s a ways to go in terms of when this will be fully under control, I think it will short/medium term [rather than] long term.”

The corporate travel sector will take a hit, with an increase in clients temporarily suspending all non-essential business travel to mainland China. Martin Ferguson, Vice President of External Communications and Public Affairs, American Express Global Business Travel, says companies “are understandably concerned and keen to protect the wellbeing of their traveling workforce and we are seeing clients ask employees who have recently visited mainland China to work from home for two weeks as a precaution.”

No matter where travellers are headed, agents would do well to make sure clients are aware of the virus outbreak. TICO recently put out a special Registrar Bulletin with the latest advice.

“For new bookings, it would be a good customer service measure for travel agencies to flag the coronavirus to their clients, regardless of destination,” says Dorian Werda, TICO’s VP Operations.

“Because the situation is evolving quickly, it’s hard to predict whether a destination will be impacted at a later date. There is also the potential for a domino effect, such as the cruise ships in Italy and Japan that were recently impacted. If clients are looking to travel to areas that are currently affected by the coronavirus, travel agencies must disclose that information prior to the booking taking place.”

Werda says that for past bookings, agencies are required to notify their clients with upcoming departures if there are changes vis-a-vis ‘representations’ (i.e. any information that was shared in an ad, brochure, website, etc.).

All TICO-registered travel agencies are also required to inform clients about the availability of travel insurance, “which can be especially important in a rapidly-changing environment like we have with the coronavirus. Consumers should understand what their insurance policies cover and what conditions need to be met if they choose to cancel future travel, as not every reason for cancelling may be covered.”

Many tour operators selling China, including G Adventures, Intrepid and On The Go Tours, have cancelled departures through the end of March. Given the option to cancel with a refund, or to rebook either to an alternate destinations or for alternate dates or get a refund, most are rebooking.

“We have been lucky enough to be able to move most clients to alternate destinations and therefore had very few full cancellations and refunds,” says Dennis Basham with On The Go Tours.

Royal Scenic President Adeline Piekham-Hsieh says airline partners have been very supportive. “Traffic to China may slow down for now but as soon as the health issue is under control, we believe that travel to China will resume in the same way our clients resumed with their travel in 2003 post-SARS,” she said.

Pam Chung with Silkway Travel in Vancouver, adds: “Most of the suppliers are willing to compromise with the current situation. Let’s hope the issue will be resolved soon.”

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