In 2013, Bonnie McCown received news that no group travel planner wants to hear on a national parks tour: The United States government had shut down.
“We thought it was our worst nightmare,” said McCown, assistant vice president of the First National Bank of Pulaski. “Who would think in all the years that people have been going to the Grand Canyon that it would be shut down? You can either panic, or you can go with plan B. It turned out fabulous.”
What kept McCown cool when her itinerary revolving around tours, lodging and meals run by the National Park Service became obsolete? She prepared for the worst and kept smiling, two principles that should be part of any group travel planner’s mantra.
What Could Go Wrong?
The best way to avert a crisis is by doing a lot of prep work. McCown knew the potential for the government shutdown, so she had created a second itinerary just in case.
The more you know about the destination and the possible calamities that might befall the group, the better. Rely on travel experts, such as convention and visitors bureaus and tour operators, for insight into potential travel snags so you know what to prepare for.
Most travel mishaps result from health issues, canceled plans, and stolen or lost items. Brace for medical disasters by telling travelers to disclose any health problems and pack extra medication. Also, ensure that either you or the tour operator has a health emergency plan for every step of the trip.
To lessen the risk of stolen items during a tour, send out a list of pointers for your members who may not be as savvy as you about hiding their valuables. Especially stress that travelers make copies of their passports, one to bring with them and one to leave at home, since failing to do so can sometimes result in a major issue.
Though you can lessen your group’s risk of some crises through careful planning, every group travel planner knows it’s only a matter of time before fate inserts itself into your itinerary. That is where travel insurance comes in.
“A couple of years ago, we had a trip to the Rose Bowl Parade,” said Jill Becker, travel coordinator for First State Bank in Mendota, Illinois. “There were blizzard conditions in the Chicago area when our group was supposed to come back. They couldn’t get a flight home for five days. We had two of our coordinators that were with the group, so they added hotel accommodations and kept touring. It’s a great case of why you should always purchase travel insurance. It covered everything they were not planning on.”
Travel insurance can turn a flight disaster into a memorable adventure, with the insurance company footing the bill.
Phone a Friend
Despite Mary Beth Kurasek’s attempts to overprepare for every trip, travel mayhem is sometimes unavoidable. Kurasek, director of the Busey Bank travel program, confronted one of these moments when a motorcoach broke down during a tour.
“We worked quickly to get a boxed lunch at the museum instead,” said Kurasek. “Sometimes things happen, and you have to be flexible. You’ve got to find a solution right away.”
Kurasek knew whom to call to ensure that her group ate lunch, which is important for any group travel planner organizing a trip on his or her own. Whether it’s the attraction, the hotel or a CVB expert, know whom to call to help you change course at the last minute.
For overnight trips, especially international trips, many travel planners rely on tour operators for backup during an emergency.
Dealing with various passengers’ medical issues during a trip to China might intimidate inexperienced travel planners. But Daniel Stypa, associate director of alumni programs at Rice University, did not panic when this happened on his tour of more than 50 travelers.
“By having established such a great relationship with our tour director and local guides, we were able to assist each traveler and get them the care they needed immediately,” said Stypa. “If it wasn’t for the attentive service of our ground staff, these unexpected issues could have really disrupted the journey.”
When a freezing downpour fell upon a group of 50 travelers during a dune buggy tour, Rosie Mosteller, Dalton Whitfield Senior Center’s travel club director, knew the importance of attitude. Instead of immediately looking worried and apologizing, she helped members take the long view of the incident.
“I told them years from now, this is the part of the trip they’ll be talking about,” said Mosteller. “I said, ‘Right now, it might not be fun. But in a few years from now, you’re going to be laughing.’ And we still talk about that day.”
With the power of positivity, Mosteller turned a cold and wet afternoon into one of her group’s favorite stories. If you stay upbeat and flexible, your group will likely follow your lead.
This technique becomes more effective if you start fostering a relationship with travelers far before the departure date.
“You have to build that trust with the client from the first payment to when they get off the bus,” said Mosteller. “You’ve got to sell yourself. You’ve got to love it, and they will know if you love it.”
With trusted group leaders, members can see the adventure in all sorts of travel crises.