As the coronavirus widens its reach and its impact on travel, agency consortia and host groups are acting swiftly to provide their advisor members with critical resources, timely updates, helpful advice, and even words of comfort.
One of their key messages for their members is reassurance that the travel industry has a history of resilience in times of crisis, whether it be a natural disaster, terrorism, economic recession, or an epidemic.
“We appreciate that the situation is fluid and changing daily and that nobody really knows or can predict when this virus will subside. But we also know that we have faced these types of challenges in the recent past and that our industry is a resilient one that will recover,” said David Harris, CEO of Ensemble Travel Group.
That message is especially important for newcomers to the industry, said TRAVELSAVERS’ Chief Sales Officer Kathryn Mazza-Burney. “While many of our advisors have weathered difficult times, including the last recession and 9/11, for some, this may be the first major crisis of their professional lives. They need reassurance that the industry has been through difficult times before and that, together, we will make it through this situation.”
Agency groups play a critical role for their members during crises, Mazza-Burney said. “Demonstrating confidence in our industry, in the protocols that are in place, and in the desire of travelers to want to continue to travel is incredibly important at this time. It’s about resiliency and the certainty that this moment will pass.”
Resource and information hubs
On the practical front, agency groups have created centralized online hubs where their members can access reliable, up-to-date information about the virus and travel, starting with links to government agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. State Department.
The groups are also providing timely online updates for advisors about changes to suppliers’ cancellation policies, payment deadlines and itineraries, and agency group executives said they are in close contact with their partners on those policies.
At Virtuoso, David Kolner, senior vice president, global member partnerships, said that because easing booking and cancellation policies is key to preserving advisors’ business, “we’re working with our partners to put policies in place that ultimately benefit both sides and make it easier for the client to decide to wait before taking immediate action.”
Tools advisors can use
Practical tools and guidance around issues like client communications are also central to agency groups’ coronavirus initiatives.
Signature Travel Network’s “crisis communications checklist” for its advisors emphasizes best practices for communicating with clients and includes email templates for dealing with client concerns, said Jean Newman Glock, the group’s managing director of communications & public affairs.
Virtuoso’s Crisis Toolkit includes links to videos on topics like, “4 Principles of Crisis Communication,” how to talk to the media, and advisor-client roleplays. “We’re trying to arm our advisors with the tools they need to navigate this rapidly changing travel landscape,” Kolner said.
Starting in late February, Virtuoso Chairman and CEO Matthew Upchurch also began holding weekly video updates for advisor members to keep them apprised of the latest news and information.
Travel Leaders is hosting a series of webinars, including one on crisis management that addresses proactive client communications and how to preserve bookings and encourage future bookings. Its most recent webinar focuses on insurance issues related to the coronavirus and features discussions with key players, including a risk management company executive.
Travel Leaders is also giving its members talking points for conversations with clients and with the media, and said it will update the talking points daily. It is also encouraging its advisors to share its tips on traveling during the coronavirus outbreak with clients and on social media.
In addition, Travel Leaders said it plans to hold information sessions on how advisors can reduce expenses during a business slowdown.
Keeping the lines open
Several agency group executives emphasized the importance of maintaining a free flow of information and communication.
“Open lines of communications with members, suppliers, and the Signature team during this rapidly evolving situation have enabled our members to share the latest information and options with their clients, working work with them to ensure they are 100% comfortable with their present and future travel plans,” Glock said.
Virtuoso’s Kolner called maintaining an open dialogue with members and supplier partners “crucial.” He noted that Virtuoso’s response to the crisis is guided by ongoing communications with its member advisory boards in North America, Asia, Australia/New Zealand, Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
TRAVELSAVERS is sending its business analysts into the field to meet with travel advisors “in greater numbers and more frequently,” Mazza-Burney said.
And Ensemble this week kicks off a planned series of in-person meetings for North American owners and managers. “This will ensure we have added touchpoints with our membership,” Harris said.
Agency groups also provide an important platform for advisor networking, allowing them to support one another and share best practices. “Our travel advisor network is always connecting with one another. Whether it’s with our home office or through our private Facebook groups, we foster an environment of open communication,” said Vicky Garcia, COO and co-owner of Cruise Planners.
Leading by example
Agency groups can also model confidence in the safety of travel through their own travel choices, said TRAVELSAVERS’ Mazza-Burney.
“It is imperative that our members understand that we are not panicking, and neither should they. This is the thinking behind our decision to carry on with our planned travel schedules. We will be following the practical protocols for travel, but when we can and where we can, we will be traveling,” Mazza-Burney said.
As it happened, TRAVELSAVERS’ Chief Marketing Officer Nicole Mazza traveled to Vancouver, British Columbia, this past weekend to speak at this week’s Travel MarketPlace, an event produced by Travel Market Report.