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Just as travel advisors are navigating the ever-evolving landscape due to the coronavirus pandemic, so, too, are consortia and host agencies adjusting to a difficult travel climate.
Because TravelAge West is committed to providing travel advisors with content focused on charting a course during the outbreak, we’ve created multiple series for our readers. (Check out part one through part five of our travel advisor series.) This series highlights how consortia and host agencies are supporting members during this time. (See part one.)
In this second installment, we hear from Cheryl Bunker, vice president of global member partnerships for the U.S. and Canada for Virtuoso.
How is Virtuoso supporting members during the coronavirus pandemic? Virtuoso has implemented a crisis management plan to arm our members with the tools they need to navigate this rapidly changing travel landscape. We created a coronavirus section in our Crisis Response Toolkit; this is an always available resource that we update continuously for our members every time we face a situation that could potentially disrupt travel and tourism, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, terrorism and even previous health events. The toolkit serves as a one-stop source of truth for the network and includes real-time updates from our preferred partners, as well as links to resources such as U.S. State Department warnings, updates from the Centers for Disease Control and help with small-business assistance.
We’ve also produced helpful videos that cover situations that advisors may be encountering, such as how to communicate in a crisis, how to speak to the media and how to work with clients. Virtuoso is recommending role-play within agencies between advisors or with managers to help rehearse answers to common client questions and gain comfort in handling what may feel like uncomfortable circumstances. We’re also sharing advisor best practices in a series of webinars on topics such as managing the disruption and stress-proofing.
How do you communicate updates to members?We’re communicating the latest information with our network through weekly video updates from Matthew Upchurch, our chairman and CEO; network-wide calls with advisors on key topics to help them address client concerns and navigate the outbreak; and weekly e-newsletters tailored for our various constituents. During this time, we feel it’s crucial to have an open dialogue with our members and partners, so there is a great deal of emphasis on making sure they have the latest information as quickly as possible.
We are in constant communication with our Member Advisory Board, which helps guide our decisions to ensure we’re aware of the obstacles our travel agencies are facing. We’ve also been speaking with our advisory groups from around the world, and with the owners and managers of our member agencies. They’ve let us know that easing booking and cancellation policies is central to preserving business, so we’ve worked with our partners to put policies in place that ultimately benefit both sides and make it easier for the client to wait before needing to take action. Our partners are updating their policies and posting news articles through Virtuoso.com, which get linked to the Crisis Toolkit so that advisors can easily find them.
How is the organization finding its members’ states of mind and states of business?It’s really a mix of all the emotions mentioned, and for good reason. We cannot state it enough: this is an unprecedented situation, and even those who have weathered previous storms are finding that this crisis doesn’t compare to previous travel disruptions.
Virtuoso is recommending role-play within agencies between advisors or with managers to help rehearse answers to common client questions and gain comfort in handling what may feel like uncomfortable circumstances.
The silver lining is that travel and tourism, and the advisor community in particular, has a long-standing history of coming together during times of crisis for the common goal of supporting the traveling public as well as industry colleagues. The spirit of human connection is alive and well within Virtuoso, and we are providing members with various platforms to share best practices so that the entire network can benefit. They are supporting and inspiring one another with ideas through network calls, webinars and articles on Virtuoso.com.
“We’re all in this together” has become our mantra. The only way to get through it will be solidarity with agency owners and managers, advisors and preferred partners all over the world. We are all interdependent, and we will emerge from this with deeper appreciation and trust thanks to our resilience.Those of us who have been in the industry for any length of time know that this, too, shall pass. And when it does, and we are in full recovery mode, the client-advisor relationships that are rooted in trust will be stronger because of the guidance and assistance advisors are providing during this difficult and rapidly evolving situation.
What’s the best way for agents to manage their business fears right now?We’re recommending that advisors stay positive and share stories of assisting clients or of new bookings. We have a section for advisor success stories in the Crisis Toolkit, where we also post uplifting photos from past Virtuoso events — or, as we call them, “family reunions.”
Virtuoso is encouraging advisors to make the most of the tools we’re providing to stay updated with the latest information from respected sources, and inspired by the best practices of peers: the Crisis Toolkit, network calls, webinars, videos, articles and social media posts.
Many levels of government have new programs to financially assist businesses. Travel agency associations are specifically outlining government programs available to help travel agencies work through current issues they are facing. I suggest staying up-to-date on the latest summaries from American Society of Travel Advisors as to how these programs may be of assistance.
Now is an excellent time to connect with clients. We recommend that advisors set a goal of “four by 12”: reaching out to four clients each day by noon to check on them during this time. Be in service mode for your customers by offering to review their upcoming trips and make changes as needed. Use video wherever possible for interacting with them, as well as with other advisors and partners.
We are all interdependent, and we will emerge from this with deeper appreciation and trust thanks to our resilience.
When a client calls asking to cancel a trip, encourage them to postpone instead. Reiterate that now is the time to use a trusted advisor to continue long-term planning for when things get back to normal. Agents should provide inspiration for when clients are ready to travel, as well as reassurance that the advisor will be here to assist when that time comes. Our advisors are encouraging clients to think about future opportunities and looking ahead to the recovery that will come based on pent-up demand and desire to roam the world. The anticipation of a trip is part of the value that travel provides.
Why are advisors crucial during this pandemic?It’s in times of crisis that the value of travel advisors comes to the fore, and the advisor’s role as client advocate is front and center. Virtuoso advisors are staying positive and laser-focused on what’s important right now: being there for their clients. They know that part of their service means listening as clients voice concerns. They are ensuring that clients are making decisions based on fact and paying attention to the timeline, not the headlines.
An advisor is a traveler’s No. 1 advocate. Our advisors are working to provide clients with accurate, real-time information — much of it cultivated through years of relationship-building with partners across the globe. They are educating clients on ever-evolving partner policies to protect their travel investment. And they are helping clients make the best decision possible for them as individuals, whether that means canceling, postponing or pivoting to a different destination. Cancellation policies are so lenient right now that clients can take a wait-and-see approach and avoid having to make immediate decisions, in many cases, since there is little or no financial risk to do so. This also helps inspire clients to think longer-term about the next window of travel opportunity beyond the present circumstances.
And when this crisis passes, we anticipate that travel advisors will emerge as the unsung heroes who worked tirelessly to serve the needs of their clients, quell fears and protect future business that will allow the industry to rebound faster.