Business As Usual

Tour operators reported few cancellations last week

By: Lisa Jennings

Even on the brink of war last week, travelers were not canceling their vacation plans, say tour operators.

New bookings were down, as they have been for some time with travelers delaying plans for this summer. But cancellation rates were no higher than usual.

“It’s a very different scenario from the last Gulf War crisis,” said George Morgan-Grenville, president of Abercrombie & Kent Inc. “Clients have become much more inured to conflict breaking out.”

The threat of war and global terrorism is “becoming much more a part of people’s daily lives, unfortunately,” he added.

And people have known the war was coming for some time. “All of the people who have booked over the last six months have booked knowing there would be some sort of conflict in March,” he said.

Morgan-Grenville said his company has seen some cancellations for political reasons: Some are refusing to travel to France because of the country’s opposition to U.S. war efforts.

One traveler had cancelled his barge trip in France for that reason. “But when we told him the barge was operated by an American, I think he rebooked,” said Morgan-Grenville.

Like travelers, many tour operators said they just monitoring events. “A lot of what we’re doing is wait and see,” said Dave Nydam, vice president of marketing for Go Ahead Vacations, based in Cambridge, Mass. “I don’t know what will happen when the bombs start falling.”

Some tour operators were fine-tuning contingency plans for possible cancellations, although many already have announced that they will waive fees in the event of military action. (Page 63.)

Lynne Bobak, spokeswoman for Destination Europe Resources, based in Rosemont, Ill., said the company was prepared to work with travel agents in the event that clients need to change air travel plans in a hurry, or find accommodations if they get stuck overseas.

“We’re waiting for agents to call us to see what they’re expecting,” said Bobak. “So far no one has called to say they’d like to bring their traveler home early.”

At Maupintour, a crisis team has been formed to respond in the event of a terrorist attack. “We have an air person in touch with our air partners, if people need to get home fast,” said Sherry Bailey, Maupintour’s director of public relations. Operations staff members, reservation and booking agents are also part of the team.

But, as of last week, “People are not flying to the phone in a panic,” Bailey said.

Some companies were seeing a jump in bookings this spring, despite the long preparation for war.

John Sugnet, director of marketing for Geographic Expeditions, based in San Francisco, said his company has seen a flurry of interest in unusual destinations, such as Vietnam, Burma, China and Tibet.

“I think people see communist countries as places where terrorism isn’t tolerated,” Sugnet said.

And keying in on the fact that travelers are looking for safe destinations, Geographic Expeditions is promoting Bhutan, saying it is one of the safest places on Earth.

The company has a long history of offering tours there, and the staff has a close relationship with the royal family, he said.

“Not only is there never any violent crime, you won’t even see any pilferage,” said Sugnet. “You really are given the royal treatment.”

Sugnet said his company is planning a new cancellation policy that will allow more flexibility if travelers want to change plans. Details were being worked out last week.

But the company mostly serves FITs who are fairly seasoned, and, by nature, less adverse to risk.

“We’re expecting once war breaks out there will be a lot more concern,” he said.

Linda Kundell, spokeswoman for the U.S. Tour Operator Association, said many companies developed business plans based on worst-case scenerios after Sept. 11. “A lot of them are tightening their belts right now,” she said. Said Morgan-Grenville of Abercrombie & Kent, “If this is like 1991, we’re hoping for a rush of bookings after the conflict is over, which will depend on how it goes and how quickly it’s over.”