Agents at Wow List event discuss crisis management

NEW YORK — In a session that took on increasing relevance as
news of the spread of coronavirus proliferated Monday, travel suppliers
discussed the proper way to respond when a crisis hits a destination and scares
travelers away.

The panel took place during the Wow List Summit, an event
held by Wendy Perrin, who created and maintains the list of top travel
specialists. The summit brought many of those specialists together at the Dream
Hotel Downtown in New York.

The panelists — Miguel Cunat, cofounder of Sri Lanka in Style;
Karen Fedorko Sefer, founder and president of Sea Song, based in Turkey; and
Zach Rabinor, CEO of Journey Mexico — began by tackling the question of what smart
strategies travel companies should have in place should a crisis trike.

A relationship with the local American consulate is important,
Sefer said. The consulates issue helpful information ranging from the level of
concern to advice about avoiding things like local protests. Sefer also
recommended trying to figure out how serious the issue is; write down talking
points, including the most important information; and communicate that
information to relevant parties.

“Obviously, you need reports very quickly,” Cunat said. “You
need to know what the situation is on the ground when something happens.”

Cunat said when the 2019 Easter bombings happened, Sri Lanka
in Style immediately got in touch with its team using messaging application
WhatsApp to develop a plan.

Different crises require different responses, Rabinor said,
but stressed that travel companies should have a plan in place.

He’s found that getting in touch with those on the ground,
where the crisis is happening, is key. Then, Rabinor stressed the importance of
getting accurate information and clearly communicating it.

“The degree of transparency and honesty that you communicate
with in the very worst moment will be very defining about how trustworthy you
will be considered and perceived to be as the situation proves,” he said. “I
think that’s the hardest part — hitting it on the front end with restraint and
honesty.”

The suppliers had different takes on refund policies.
Following a “triple-whammy” crisis in Mexico in 2008-2009 (economic implosion,
swine flu and narcoviolence), Rabinor said his company issued refunds, then
found itself cash-poor. Now, cancellation policies only enable credits for
travelers.

Cunat and Sefer, though, said things like terrorism are
covered reasons to cancel and get refunds.

The panelists also tackled what worked to get destinations
back on travelers’ radar. 

In Turkey, 2016 and 2017 were bleak years for tourism, Sefer
recalled. In 2017, she decided to reach out to the press and encourage as many
articles as possible. Press trips generated articles and increased business
60%. Then, in 2019, Sea Song ran a number of agent fam trips with Turkish
Airlines.

“We got the sellers on the ground,” Sefer said, and forward
bookings for 2020 are looking good.

Press helps, Cunat agreed. Fam trips are worth the
investment, especially to help combat the gap between the reality on the ground
and the perceived reality.

Rabinor also pointed to the aggressive offers and promotions
Mexico has been known to employ historically. It’s a risky tactic, as it’s
difficult to bring pricing back to normal levels, but it has worked in Mexico.

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