Terror in Brussels: Travel Agents React
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American travel agents joined the rest of the travel industry and the nation in grappling with yet another horrific terrorist attack today following a pair of incidents in Belgium.
Agents again faced the same questions that arose with the Paris terror incidents last fall: do they have clients traveling now in Europe and, if so, how can they help them; have they, early as it is, had any trip postponements or cancellations, and what effect will this new tragedy have on future travel to Europe?
This time the attacks, the work of ISIS, targeted the Brussels airport and a rush-hour metro train, killing 31 and injuring nearly 200.
“I’ve had two families who had booked Disney cruises in Europe for this summer change their plans; one decided after the Paris attacks to cancel, and the other family decided this morning to change their vacation to a Caribbean cruise instead,” said Lainey Melnick, a CruiseOne/Dream Vacations franchise owner based in Austin, Texas.
“These clients just felt that it’s not the best time to visit Europe and would rather change to another location,” she said. “If people have concerns, there are so many other destinations in the world to visit.
Melnick and her family just returned from a trip to Great Britain and France. “We were in Paris on Sunday when we noticed upgraded security around the major tourist attractions,” she said. “There was an armed guard outside the Eiffel Tower in the evening . . . locals that we spoke with said that they were on alert due to the capture of the Paris shooting terrorist in Belgium, and that he had indicated that there were other attacks planned.”
Judy Nidetz, of Travel Experts in Chicago, doesn’t have clients currently in Brussels but does have some traveling in other parts of Europe in the next few week and hasn’t had any cancellations.
“I am actually going to Italy in May with a small group and we haven't altered our plans,” she added. “As always, I inform clients to be mindful any place they travel. It's important to stay informed regarding travel alerts and any possible areas to stay away from during travel to certain cities.
“I had several clients debating as to whether or not to travel to Paris after the last attack, and all went,” Nidetz said. “I can't tell you how many positive comments I received from them after they returned. They applauded the extra safety measures put in place and had wonderful experiences they will never forget.”
Trish Gastineau, owner of Simply Europe Travel in Montgomery, Alabama, said that, surprisingly, she doesn’t have any clients currently in Europe but does have several groups scheduled to depart in the next two months.
“It's too early at this point [to tell if there will be cancellations],” Gastineau said. “I have several final payments coming due, as well as deposits for trips that we are finalizing. As of 11 a.m. Central Time, none of my clients have reached out to me.”
Condolences and statements on the attacks poured in today from agent organizations and consortia.
"ASTA offers its sympathy and support to all those impacted by these terrorist attacks against innocent family, friends and neighbors,” ASTA President and CEO Zane Kerby said in a statement. “ASTA is reaching out to our ten member agencies in Belgium to offer any assistance we can. Our hearts go out to you, and we pray for everyone's safety and for peace in Brussels."
Travel Leaders Group CEO Ninan Chacko said, “All of us are deeply saddened but resolute, in the face of today’s despicable acts of terror in Brussels, ‘the European Village’ that is at the very center of culture within Europe.
“As travel agent professionals, our paramount focus this morning is to account for the safety of those clients who are currently in Belgium and attend to their needs,” Chacko added. “We are also working to communicate with all of our clients in Europe, as well as with those whose travels are imminent.”
And Matthew Upchurch, Virtuoso’s chairman and CEO, said, “Once again our hearts are filled with sadness for the victims of these attacks, and our thoughts and prayers are with them, the people of Brussels and our Virtuoso family there. We have confirmed the staff at our member agencies and partners in Belgium are all safe, and for that we are grateful.”
Upchurch added that in the wake of 9/11, Virtuoso first published its Freedom Statement. “Those words ring true again today: While our hearts are heavy, our entire network of member travel agencies, advisors and preferred travel providers remains steadfast in our commitment to preserving the freedom to travel. Boundaries Divide; Travel Unites.”
Despite terrorist attacks and the heightened security they bring throughout Europe, several agents reported doing strong business to Europe this year.
“I became anxious for my travelers last year during the terrorist attacks in Paris – specifically toward those of the newspaper satire writers,” said Brian Chima of Chima Travel in Akron, Ohio. “I was nervous during the terrorist attacks in Tunisia late last year at the hotel/resort on the beach. And I was not in the travel business during 9/11, but I understand the huge impact that had on my father and the family business at that time.
“Through it all I have been extremely encouraged with the positive drive my clients have had to push through the fear and anxiety of international travel (specifically to Europe),” Chima added. “This year’s first quarter I have had record-breaking sales to Europe (specifically the U.K., France, and Italy) and I find myself once again anxious about what happened this morning.”
Gastineau also reported significant growth in her Europe business in the last few years along with demand for customized FITs to other parts of the world. “As a result, I'm in the process of changing my company name from Simply Europe Travel, to Simply Customized Travel,” she said. “This change has been in the works for the last 18 months, and is not a reaction to the terrorist attacks in Europe, but seems to have been a good decision in hindsight.
“I think that in the near future, inexperienced travelers will be put off and either choose a different destination, or maybe cancel their trips,” Gastineau said of Europe’s tourism future. “Going forward, I think a lot of what happens will depend on the response from Europe's governments and their effectiveness in tracking down these [terrorist] cells.”
But Rudi Steele, president of Dallas, Texas-based Rudi Steele Travel, offered a philosophical take on today’s terrorist threats. “The worst we can do is be cowards,” he said. “Be careful, keep watch and don’t stand out, blend in.”
But, he added, “Enjoy life as it is very fragile.”
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