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I wish I had a crystal ball to know when “this too shall pass,” but, in the absence of one, I find myself instead dispensing the best legal advice to travel professionals dealing with the current crisis rocking our industry: COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019).
It is easy to say that better times are ahead, and that our intrepid industry will bounce back from this — as it has after every prior crisis. However, most of my clients are interested in learning what to do and what to say in the meantime, as they are faced with the nonstop deluge of inquiries from clients.
Here are some concepts to keep in mind when battling through each day.
First, since we are not infectious disease experts, we do not have a heightened duty to stay up on every single article and headline about the new coronavirus that is published from all corners of the globe. We are travel advisors — not doctors — and need to focus on what we are best at. Our clients are as able as we are to study the map of newly diagnosed cases, so when customers call and inevitably ask, “Should I go?”, tell them, in the absence of a “Do Not Travel” advisory from the State Department, it is reasonable to go.
We are travel advisors — not doctors — and need to focus on what we are best at.
The second key piece of advice relates to travel protection plans. I do believe that it is our duty to advise clients to obtain the broadest form of coverage available. However, since we are not insurance experts, our job is to tell the customer that they must do the research and pick the best plan for their needs.
Agents who have partnered with a particular provider should consider telling clients to contact that preferred provider, or any insurer of their choice. This places the burden on the consumer to determine what plan is best, rather than on the advisor.
It’s also important to stress the importance of Cancel For Any Reason (CFAR) coverage. I recommend contacting clients with bookings within the next six to eight months and make sure that they are covered. Obtain written declinations for those who disregard your advice.
The third piece of advice is to stay abreast of the ever-changing cancellation and payment policies of your suppliers. These policies are changing rapidly, and they are becoming more consumer-friendly with each passing moment. Next, in the context of cancellations, it is obviously better for the customer if the supplier (whether it is a tour operator, an airline, a cruise line, etc.) cancels the trip rather than the client.
The legal fine print in the terms and conditions always favors the customer if a supplier cancels the trip. If the customer is worried, but the supplier hasn’t canceled, consider counseling the guest to change the reservation into the future; all suppliers these days would much rather have that than a cancellation.
I have had a number of calls with advisors (and operators) who tell me that clients are using a threatening tone and demanding to be reimbursed. Be calm and explain that, as an advisor, you pay the supplier and do not keep the money. Therefore, you are not required to give away that which you do not have.
Tell the traveler that you will work with the supplier to get back as much as you can for them, and try to coax the supplier into returning what was otherwise a nonrefundable payment.
Given the current state of affairs, I also think it’s prudent not accept credit cards for client payment — the opportunity for chargebacks is too dangerous, and the processing companies will side with the consumers more often than not.
To sum it up: This too shall pass. But in the meantime, encourage your customers to take advantage of what will certainly be some great deals ahead.
Jeffrey Ment currently works as a travel law attorney and previously worked as a travel advisor, airline sales manager and tour guide. For more than 27 years, he has represented individuals and companies in the travel industry.
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