My wife’s aunt was in Thailand on Dec. 26, 2004, the day a
massive tsunami killed over 5,000 people throughout Asia. When we
first heard about the disaster there, we were only mildly concerned
about her. As time went on, however, and we hadn’t heard from her
or anyone else on her trip, we began to worry. We didn’t have a
copy of her itinerary, or any way to get in touch with her. Nobody
even knew the tour operator she was traveling with.
As it turned out, she was fine she had left the coast the day
before. The tour operator had indeed tried to contact her daughter
(the only contact number they had for her), but her daughter was
traveling too and didn’t get the messages.
Even though everything worked out for the best, it made us all
realize that any trip, to any place, can suddenly become more
complicated than one could ever imagine. Just taking a look at
today’s headlines confirms this: Sometimes things go very
This year alone saw terrorist bombings in London and Cairo,
devastating hurricanes in the Caribbean, Mexico and the southern
U.S. and a catastrophic tsunami in Asia. Along with these global
events, the health issues and situational circumstances of
individual clients routinely cancel or alter trips, leading to
potentially disappointed customers.
In light of the increasingly uncertain nature of travel, all
agents should be familiar with basic crisis management tools in
order to better serve their clients, as well as manage their
agencies. Understanding topics like travel insurance, medical
evacuation services and disaster planning are no longer a luxury to
agents, they are essential to operating a successful travel
Travel Insurance Boot Camp
It’s 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning in June, and over 30 agents
are gathered in a conference room in a Southern California hotel.
What sexy topic would get a classroom full of agents to show up
early on a weekend morning? Nothing less than an ASTA-sponsored
seminar titled “Understanding Travel Insurance.”
Perhaps it’s less surprising that the agents have given up a
weekend morning when you consider the growing popularity of travel
insurance. According to the U.S. Travel Insurance Association
(USTIA), Americans spent over $1 billion on travel insurance last
year. The USTIA estimates that 30 percent of leisure travelers
purchased insurance last year, up from about 10 percent before
The USTIA also estimates that travel agencies sell about 35
percent of all travel insurance policies, with tour operators and
cruise lines selling 40 percent. So it’s certainly in the
companies’ best interest to educate the travel industry about their
products, and at an average of 20 percent commission on the
policies, agents have plenty of reason to learn more too.
“When I first became an agent, I found talking about travel
insurance to be a little uncomfortable,” said Stu Rutkin, an agent
at Away to Travel in Marina del Rey, Calif., and the seminar’s
moderator. “Why is it uncomfortable? Well because you’re talking to
clients about things that can go wrong. And here you are planning a
great vacation, but first we have to talk about things that can go
wrong. Yet it’s real important to do that because there are certain
problems and liabilities that can come up if we don’t.”
Present at the ASTA seminar are representatives from four major
insurance companies, and from the outset, it is clear that they
have their work cut out for them.
“There are a lot of key terms, key concepts and a lot to know
about this product,” said Suzanne Lustig of Access America. “You
can’t know everything about it, nor should you. You are a travel
agent, not an insurance agent.”
Rutkin and the panelists offer four main reasons for agents to
sell insurance: for the client’s peace of mind; to help the client
protect their investment; because agents can potentially be found
liable if they don’t offer it; and finally, because it’s a way to
increase an agency’s profits.
“In terms of liability, it is almost essential that every travel
agent at least offer insurance to their clients,” said Mark Torpey
of M.H. Ross Travel Insurance. “Because if you don’t tell your
client that something could go wrong, and they don’t buy insurance
because you didn’t offer it to them, and they realize a loss
because of that, they can potentially come back and sue you.”
Torpey went on to say that every agent should at least make it
standard practice to have clients fill out a waiver form indicating
that they are denying insurance as a way to protect them from
Lustig then spoke about the difference between supplier waivers
sometimes called “bad hair day” policies (allowing clients to
cancel for any reason whatsoever) which generally offer credit back
to the client, and insurance policies that usually offer the client
“Credit back was acceptable for the first few years after 9/11,
but it’s not so good these days. Your clients want their money
back,” she said. “That’s something to keep in mind as you compare
Naturally, one of the most asked about features of travel
insurance was trip cancellation and trip interruption. The panel
agreed that most cancellations are due to medical conditions either
those of the traveler or someone in their family.
“It can be something as simple as having a child with a cold and
the doctor saying he or she can’t travel,” said Pam Ross of
TravelGuard. “And that is an acceptable reason to cancel. You
really have to look at the whole scope of factors.”
Not covered would be fear of flying, changed business plans and,
in some cases, an elevated terrorist threat, among other
Another important concept and perhaps not surprisingly one of
the most discussed at the seminar were the procedures surrounding
pre-existing conditions. While this is a complicated issue, and
something that each agent needs to research on his or her own, one
company, CSA Travel Protection, offers a slightly different
approach than the other companies in this regard.
Unlike most insurance companies, CSA allows for pre-existing
conditions from the day final payment is made, meaning there is no
waiting period for the consumer. This also means that the agent can
complete the sale of the insurance at the same time as the sale of
the trip, instead of having to go back to the client later and
address their insurance needs.
Another innovation at CSA is the addition of identity theft
protection as an automatic part of their policies. This coverage
even extends beyond the client’s return home.
“My identity was stolen a year ago, on a trip to Scotland,” said
Les Maine, president of CSA. “While the banks may take care of all
the financial liability, in terms of inconvenience, let me tell you
it’s a mess.”
Finally, all agents should seriously look into taking a seminar
on insurance, whether it is sponsored by ASTA or another
organization. Also there is an independent Web site
(www.insuremytrip. com) that enables agents to do side-by-side
comparisons between policies.
Medical Evacuation Services
While travel insurance should be a standard part of all trip
planning, there is another type of service that offers additional
protection for clients. Clients who want the added security of
medical evacuation coverage have several companies to choose from
(see sidebar), and one of the biggest is AirMed International.
“One of the things that separates us from a traditional travel
insurance plan is that AirMed offers a membership program that
protects the traveler for an entire year. It’s not centered around
a particular trip,” said Captain Jeff Tolbert, founder and CEO of
AirMed. “Also, we don’t have any financial limitations on the
service we provide. It truly is ‘unlimited, worldwide.’ Whatever it
Tolbert explained that while many travel insurance policies will
get clients to the “nearest appropriate facility,” AirMed flies
clients to the medical facility of their choice, no matter where
“If a West Coast traveler gets hit by a bus in the Caribbean,
most insurance policies will only get that traveler to San Juan or
Miami,” he said. “Our program will get that patient home. Or to the
specialty hospital of their choosing.”
AirMed was started in 2003 by Tolbert, who was the founder of
rival MedJetAssist in 1987 before leaving that company. According
to Tolbert, he got into the business because he saw firsthand the
personal repercussions caused by a medical emergency. A family
friend had a son who was injured while working in Afghanistan, and
the family had to spend nearly $150,000 to get him back home.
“So I went from feeling great about the medical evac, to talking
to his dad who’ll now have to come out of retirement to pay for the
service,” Tolbert said. “At that point, we said we really need to
create something that can be available to people out there.”
AirMed’s services are used by major corporations, government
agencies, institutions and over 1 million individual travelers. The
company performs more than 400 evacuations a year, including many
in exotic parts of the world where medical services are not readily
available. (As of press time, AirMed was providing evacuations for
survivors of Hurricane Katrina.)
“In the last 60 days we’ve done evacuations to or from
Singapore, China, Saudi Arabia, Laos and more,” said Tolbert.
Because of the often complicated nature of medical transport,
one of the major selling points to this type of insurance is the
amount of savings it could potentially provide to clients.
“I had a client who went to South Africa and fell and broke his
leg. It cost him close to $80,000 to be repatriated home!” said
Kathy Sudeikis, ASTA president and a travel agent based in Mission,
Kan. “When I learned about AirMed, I jumped at the chance to offer
it to clients. Having that kind of protection for a year, with one
payment, and including family members, is a great safety net.”
A membership in AirMed’s service is $250 for an individual and
$350 to cover a family (two adults and up to five children under
the age of 23).
“It’s just a tremendous value and peace of mind when you could
be looking at putting down $50,000 or more out of pocket,” Tolbert
Another selling point is that AirMed owns its own fleet of
specially equipped, custom-designed planes and, unlike some
companies, they are used solely for medical evacuations and are at
the ready 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“The typical air ambulance in the U.S. is small. It doesn’t have
a standup cabin and it is totally reliant on ground support while
refueling. We use the Hawker, which provides a much better
patient-care atmosphere,” Tolbert, a pilot himself, explained.
For agents, AirMed offers 20 percent commission. In addition,
they will enable agents to link directly to their Web site and get
credit for any sales that come as a result.
“We market to travel agents and even to tour operators. We also
have a preferred supplier relationship with Travelsavers,” said
Fred Filippi, senior vice president of marketing and a former
president of Grand Expeditions’ luxury division.
“Agents can make substantial money on this and also provide
their clients with the coverage they need,” Filippi said. “It’s
unfortunate that the clients’ focus is often on ‘Hey, can I get my
money back if necessary?’ They don’t even think about being half
way around the world and asking, ‘Will I be able to get myself back
Crisis Management Basics
Okay, so you’ve done your research and provided your clients
with travel insurance and/or a medical evacuation service. But what
do you do when you wake up one morning to find your clients stuck
in a hot zone? Do you have a disaster contingency plan in
Across the industry, agents, wholesalers, CVBs and others have
realized by hard experience that the time to plan for a tragedy is
before it happens.
“We consider formalized crisis management to be a critical part
of our operational planning, and we spend a significant amount of
time and money supporting this effort,” said Keith Baron, vice
president of worldwide operations for Tauck World Discovery.
Tauck spends about $100,000 a year on crisis preparation and
training for its tour directors and staff.
“I think the agent community ... can take comfort in recognizing
that so much of our planning is focused on crisis contingency,”
Baron said. “It is something that is hard to put a price tag on,
but it that pays off in multiples if it’s ever needed.”
When Hurricane Emily hit the Cancun area in July, it had the
potential to throw the city into chaos. Instead, all reports
praised the calm professionalism of the tourism industry during the
crisis. Jorge Vignet, of the Cancun Convention and Visitors Bureau,
credits the organization’s hurricane readiness plan for their
success during the disaster.
“We worked for a long time getting everyone in the area to
understand their part in the plan so we would be prepared,” Vignet
said. “It was very gratifying to see it work when it had to.”
While you might think disaster plans are more appropriate for
wholesalers and CVBs, Suraj Zutshi, a travel agent from Reno, Nev.,
might disagree. He was planning to lead a group of 23 clients to
Sri Lanka and India just as the tsunami hit those countries. Zutshi
was facing a huge financial loss for his business.
“One of the things I’ve learned in 32 years of experience is to
never make rash decisions and judgments,” Zutshi said.
He started contacting people in the area to assess the
situation, as well as calling his group and sending out a
“I assured them that I was in constant touch with Sri Lanka and
South India and that I would postpone the trip if need be,” he
said. “I was up in the middle of the night constantly talking to
Sri Lanka and South India and not just to people in the tourism
Ultimately, only four clients decided to cancel, and all four
have since signed up for his 2006 trip.
“I refunded all of them in full even though I could have charged
them a penalty,” he said. “The PR gained is worth a whole lot more
than the $500-per-person penalty.”
Now Zutshi finds himself in a familiar situation he has a group
of 18 clients that were planning on visiting New Orleans in April.
Fortunately, Zutshi has his earlier experience to fall back on.
“I took out the same letter and sent out a revised version,” he
said. “Again we are looking at alternatives and not saying that we
will cancel the trip ... Besides, I think going back to New Orleans
with a group will probably be the best thing we can do for the Big
In dealing with disasters, agents can also find a variety of
helpful tools through organizations like ASTA. That group has
disaster management materials, sample forms that promote travel
insurance, updates from the Centers for Disease Control and
up-to-date State Department warnings.
“If regional ‘trouble’ occurs, as with Hurricane Katrina, we
will often consolidate information to help members communicate with
affected customers,” said Kristina Rundquist, director of
communications for ASTA.
Finally, agents should encourage clients themselves to take a
few precautions before a trip. Some ideas for clients to
-Leave a detailed itinerary with several family and friends back
-At the beginning of a trip, designate an emergency meeting
-Travelers should always have multiple copies of their passport,
plane tickets and other important documents, including
-Keep important medications with you whenever possible.
-Rent or take a cell phone. (Although keep in mind, it might not
Every agent wants their clients to have a successful trip, but
the time to help that happen is before something goes wrong. As
always, a bit of planning and education go a long way in preventing
your clients’ dream trip from becoming a nightmare and helps you to
provide the level of service that makes for return customers.
|Planning for the Worst: Lessons Learned|
After the terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States
Tour Operators Association (USTOA) undertook a case study of 13
member companies in order to asses how the tour operators respond
to emergencies, as well as what they had learned from the
experience of 9/11. Each company had anywhere from 70 to 10,000
passengers traveling at the time of the attack.
Here are some of the lessons suppliers said they learned. They
are valuable points to consider in formulating a response plan for
your own business.
-Having a crisis management plan set in place is a major
-Having offices abroad is a huge help.
-It’s important to keep communication flowing in an emergency,
not only between companies and customers, but also within a
-One must be creative in making arrangements during an
emergency, such as having customers take a train to another city
when flights out of the city they’re stranded in are
-A network of contacts is essential. Long-term, established
relationships with airlines, hotels, etc., pay off in a crisis.
-In an emergency, the company plays a valuable advocacy role for
passengers with airlines, insurance companies and other
-It’s important for companies to get family contact information
for every traveler.
-All unescorted travelers should be given an emergency number
and other instructions on how to contact the company.
-Immediate reaction is important to customers.
-It can be wise to broaden your product offerings and not rely
on a single country or destination.
Contact the USTOA for more information on the full study