Travel Agents Plan for War

Agent survivors of Gulf war dust off strategies for slowdown

By: Lisa Jennings

If war breaks out in Iraq this year, Brad Anderson knows he will get a familiar pit in his stomach, the same feeling he had in 1991 when the Gulf War began.

“I remember exactly where I was,” said the president of Anderson Travel and Cruises. “The phone stopped ringing for a while.

“But we came through that,” said Anderson, whose parents started the company in 1964. “Just like 9/11.”

In fact, despite the looming conflict, Anderson said he is enthusiastically optimistic about his company’s performance in 2003.

Though last year was tough on many mid-sized travel agencies, Anderson had his best year ever with more than $40 million in gross revenues. “We passed out more bonus money in December than ever in our company’s history,” he said. And Anderson is not alone in his optimism. Other travel agents who kept their doors open through the Gulf War and 9/11 say the potential war with Iraq will not stop clients from traveling. Destination trends may change, but people still need vacation getaways, they say.

Today, life for most travel agents is very different than it was before the Gulf War. Then, airlines were paying commissions and travelers’ were far less fearful than they have been since 9/11. Many agencies are already running bare-bones operations so there is no cushion to soften the blow of future losses.

Last week at the Second Global Summit on Peace Through Tourism in Geneva, John Marks of the Travel Industry Association said any action in Iraq would have a chilling effect on the travel industry, which already has suffered “significant economic difficulties.”

The association chairman, quoted in Travel Weekly, said that looking back to experiences after the Gulf War may not necessarily help the industry weather what’s ahead.

“The difference between then and now is the ingredient of terrorism,” said Marks, who also is president and CEO of the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau. “There’s no model, no template for what may await.”

Bob Kern, owner of PNR Travel in Los Angeles, said his staff is preparing for the possibility of war: “We’re trying to work on different situations to make up for losses that might occur.”

In the Gulf War years, Kern’s company did more domestic corporate travel, which was not as affected by the war, so his company did not suffer too badly.

Now about 50 percent of PNR’s business is leisure travel. “It will affect us more this time than last, but I’m not going to let it scare me,” said Kern. After the Gulf War, Kern remembers, people avoided long-distance trips. So Kern’s agents already are promoting and advertising closer destinations. “Rather than a safari trip in Africa, we might look at a spa locally and spending the same money.”

Clients who liked to travel far before 9/11 now are choosing vacations in Hawaii, Mexico or the Caribbean. “We do a lot of cruises, and that won’t be affected” by war, said Kern.

Barbara Boatman, owner and president of Boulevards of Travel in Newport Beach, Calif., said she has no specific plan but she is listening to her clients, who now are going to places they feel are safe and often taking their families along.

Hawaii is the agency’s biggest destination - and one that is family friendly and war will not slow travel there, she said.

“And we’re getting a lot of bookings to Europe that we truly did not expect right now.”

Boatman, whose company is in its 20th year, said her business wasn’t greatly affected by the Gulf War, aside from some cancellations and changed itineraries. “People just changed where they traveled,” she said.

“I think after 9/11, people stayed home and got fed up with terrorism dictating their lives,” added Boatman.

Carol Georges, chief executive officer and president of The Happy Traveler in San Diego, said she launched her agency during the first Gulf War.

Typically it takes a few years to make money, she said, “but I made money from the first month.”

Georges does not expect war to affect her business, in part because she serves upscale clients who are “fearless,” especially when there’s a bargain to be found.

“People who have money are great shoppers,” said Georges, recalling a time just after the Gulf War started when a cruise ship scheduled to stop in Israel was forced to change its itinerary to other Mediterranean ports.

The price dropped to $599 for a 14-day cruise, and Georges immediately made a killing on bookings, despite the ship’s relative proximity to the conflict zone.

To Anderson, travel agents, like all professionals, must persevere.

“Our country has been conditioned to the fact that stuff is going to happen, and it isn’t always going to be pleasant,” he said.

“But we have got to move forward.” Polls Say Agents Hearing More Client Fears

Don’t let anyone take away your freedom to travel.

That’s what Carlson Wagonlit Travel Associate agents are telling their clients as the threat of war looms closer.

“We’re trying to drive home the point that nobody should deny you the freedom of traveling,” said Steve Loucks, spokesman for Carlson Wagonlit. “You either live in fear or you live your life. And travel is part of living your life.”

In anticipation of the potential war, however, Carlson Wagonlit is subtly emphasizing destinations closer to home, though not at the expense of those overseas, said Loucks.

For example, promotions of Holland America cruises have focused less on the European components and more on the Caribbean and Alaskan itineraries. Over the past two months, Carlson Wagonlit has surveyed agents on whether travelers are expressing fear about travel.

They found:

" At the beginning of February, 20 percent of the 143 agents responding said bookings were “greatly affected” by the threat of war, and another 40 percent said bookings for only international travel were affected. That’s up from 14 percent and 31 percent, respectively ,when the same question was asked in January.

" Seventeen percent said travelers were expressing fear, up from 15 percent the previous month.

" Those who said travelers were not affected by the war dropped to 13 percent from 27 percent in January.

Also, last week Carlson Wagonlit agents were asked whether customers cared that the government had increased the terrorism threat level to code orange. Of the 158 responding, 74 percent said yes and 8 percent said no. Half said that their customers want to be informed about threat levels, and 24 percent said the move to code orange has already affected bookings.