Advisors blast USA Today ethics story

Internal ASTA memo takes aim at yours truly — and misses

With COVID-19 cases surging in the United States, it seems a little strange to be under fire for advising people to stay safe.

It's even stranger when the critics taking aim at you are the same people who named you their journalist of the year in 2016.

But these are strange times. Very strange times.

Remember when I predicted last week that simply saying something obvious — that you should stay home to avoid getting infected — would get me into trouble?

Well, it did.

And I'm not just referring to some of the indignant comments on that edition of Elliott Confidential. I'm talking about Friday's controversial USA Today column, which dared to ask if it was ethical to recommend leisure travel during the peak of a pandemic. (Answer: Of course not.)

Things are bad and getting worse

Here's where we are, according to the Centers for Disease Control:

That red zone is the projected trajectory of new infections.

Here's a chart with weekly deaths that also suggest things are about to get worse:

And this is what COVID-19 can do to you, according to health authorities.

By the way, if you need to cancel an upcoming trip and your travel advisor or travel company won't help, please contact my advocacy team. Here's how to reach us. Our services are free.

"All three of us now have COVID-19"

A vast majority of my readers said they were grateful for my common-sense advice to stay home and agreed that it would be inappropriate to promote leisure travel in the near future.

But Lloyd Keller's response was a standout.

He flew from Minneapolis to Key West, Fla, with his wife last week to attend a conference. When they returned to Minnesota, his wife started feeling ill. She tested positive for COVID-19 two days later. 

"My son was a couple of days behind her with his symptoms, but doesn't have results yet," he says. "And I was fine until yesterday. Now I have headaches and am very tired and awaiting my test results, but I think we all know what our results will be since we traveled and roomed and live together."

"All three of us now have COVID-19," he adds. "We should have never gone to Key West."

Here's the American Society of Travel Advisors' statement

My USA Today column also prompted the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) to issue the following internal memo (which later became a news release) about their journalist of the year:

Alexandria, VA, November 13, 2020 – The American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) issues the following statement in response to a recent USA Today article on the ethics of recommending and selling travel during the COVID-19 pandemic:

Since well before the pandemic, ASTA has counseled its members to use objective third-party sources of information to make their clients fully aware of the risks related to traveling but that in every case the decision to travel, or not to travel, is the client’s alone. To be sure, there is more risk associated with traveling now than before COVID-19, but we couldn’t disagree more with the author’s broad-brush conclusion that selling travel of any kind today is unethical.

Such an unqualified proclamation ignores not only the fact that each traveler has her own level of risk tolerance, but also fails to acknowledge the critical role travel advisors play serving their clients when travel is, under anyone’s definition, considered ‘essential.’ Moreover, the article completely discounts the unprecedented steps travel suppliers have already taken to mitigate risk, such that, in the words of the World Health Organization (WHO), ‘Your chance of being exposed [to COVID] during the travel process is actually relatively low because of all the measures that have been taken.’

Beyond hunkering down alone in your house, no activity is risk-free during this pandemic. The virus is highly infectious, invisible and spreads involuntarily; no one denies that. But people have responsibly resumed all manner of activities by observing recommended safety protocols, including wearing masks and practicing social distancing. Far better to identify the real culprit for the virus’ spread – the failure to take the appropriate precautions – than to accuse people making an honest living selling travel of acting unethically while dusting off the old ‘they’re only in it for the commissions’ trope.

While we all wait with great anticipation for a vaccine, we cannot realistically expect that one or more will be widely available until well into next year. Until then, people can and will travel while following the latest public health guidance, testing, health and safety protocols. Risk management does not mean risk elimination and each individual traveler, fully informed by their expert travel advisor, should be able to determine their own tolerance for travel. In our view, following this course is more ethical than completely shuttering an industry that supports 1 in 10 jobs in this country.

A predictable reaction

The response from travel advisors was mostly predictable. But it also serves as a helpful consumer guide for finding the right agent. More on that in a minute.

A few travel pros agreed with me. They said this shouldn't even be a debate. A responsible travel advisor would never recommend or sell a vacation during a pandemic.  

But many advisors didn't see things my way. Some of them had carefully read the article and thought my conclusion was incorrect. I respect that. I'll get to two of their best arguments in a second.

A disturbing number of missives came from people who sounded as if they hadn't even seen the article.

Here's one from Pam Seagle, a travel advisor from High Point, N.C.:

Obviously you are totally in the dark when it comes to the value of a Travel ADVISOR. It appears that before you go spouting off about something you know nothing about you would do a little research. Perhaps it might be an idea to interview a few travel advisors to become aware of how we always advocate for our clients.

You have grossly overstepped the boundaries of valuable journalism. I was not aware that USA Today was a sensational news paper. I hope you were well compensated for this sensational story you produced. What a shame USA Today does not fact check before they print. If they did they would never have agreed to run a story with such misconception of the actual facts.

Did Seagle just glance over the ASTA statement before firing off an email? I think if she'd actually read my story, she wouldn't be so upset.

I was a little surprised by the reaction from the travel trade press. My former employer, Travel Weekly, published a story about the press release without asking me for a comment.

Another travel trade publication, Travel Pulse, also posted an article that covered the ASTA statement and, unsurprisingly, sided with the trade organization. It claimed I was wrong because traveling is "a personal decision" that must be made by the customer, not the advisor. That's a flawed argument, as you'll see in a moment. 

Travel Pulse also failed to ask me for a comment.

And although Travel Research Online remained silent on the controversy, one of its columnists — who ironically had inspired me to write the story — took to Facebook to defend agents who recommend and sell vacations at the peak of the pandemic.  

Why they're wrong

The travel advisors and their surrogates are so obviously wrong that I'm almost hesitant to engage in an argument. But when has that ever stopped me?

Let's recap my story before we do that. In the article, I asked if it was ethical to recommend travel at a time when officials were reporting more than 100,000 daily infections. I presented both sides of the argument and concluded by saying that it was fine to plan a vacation in the future. But promoting a nonessential trip now, at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, is ethically problematic. I also included a sidebar with telltale signs that your travel advisor is not looking out for your best interests.

Incidentally, I asked ASTA for a comment twice — last Monday and Thursday. It ignored my first request and sent a "no comment" for the second one. I also asked all of the major travel agencies to participate in the article. They didn't respond either.

Instead of helping shape the story, ASTA decided to twist my reasonable arguments after publication:

Claim: "... we couldn’t disagree more with the author’s broad-brush conclusion that selling travel of any kind today is unethical."

My response: The article doesn't say or even imply that. It says recommending a nonessential trip during the pandemic is ethically problematic. The broad-brush conclusion is ASTA's, not mine.

Claim: “Such an unqualified proclamation ignores not only the fact that each traveler has her own level of risk tolerance, but also fails to acknowledge the critical role travel advisors play serving their clients when travel is, under anyone’s definition, considered ‘essential.’"

My response: Actually, there's a travel advisor in the article talking about safe, essential travel. And she addresses the importance of trust. As to the assertion that my "proclamation" is unqualified, ASTA might want to ask its own members about their holiday travel plans. Go on. I'll wait here.

Claim: "Far better to identify the real culprit for the virus’ spread – the failure to take the appropriate precautions – than to accuse people making an honest living selling travel of acting unethically while dusting off the old ‘they’re only in it for the commissions’ trope."

My response: What a bizarre thing to say, even for a trade organization. We know how the virus spreads. We know that staying home and avoiding contact with others is the only proven way to keep COVID-19 in check. Why change the subject? And why misrepresent what I've said, which was that advisors who don't warn you about the dangers of travel "are probably just thinking about their commissions"? 

And that comment on commissions is no trope. Any advisor who doesn't think about commissions will be looking for a new job soon.

Claim: "In our view, following this course is more ethical than completely shuttering an industry that supports 1 in 10 jobs in this country.”

My response: Advising people to hold off on their leisure trips until the vaccine is available is not the same thing as advocating a total travel ban. And the column doesn't even come close to pushing anyone to "shutter" an entire industry.

Knowing what I know, I'd say ASTA didn't send this news release to set the record straight. Rather, it did so to placate an angry horde of unemployed members and to soothe the guilty conscience of those who continue to recommend and sell vacations during a dangerous pandemic. I get it.

These arguments fail — and here's why

There are two arguments that I find interesting even if they're incorrect. 

First, there's the business aspect of this issue. In private emails and on social media, many travel advisors have made the case that if they can't sell travel, they'll be out of business soon. None of them disagree that staying home would be safer, but they say that their lives depend on booking vacations. Shouldn't they be allowed to earn a living by selling a trip to someone who wants to travel?

My column doesn't address the business aspect of travel. (You'll have to wait next week for that one.) This story was about health and safety. And when it comes to health and safety, there's no question about it: The less you travel during the pandemic surge, the better.

I also care about the travel industry and want it to survive. But not if its survival could kill you.

The second argument is a little more seductive, but also wrong. It goes like this: If my client asks me to book a trip knowing the danger, can't I help? What's the harm in that?

But I think travel professionals lost the license to make that argument when they went from travel agents to travel advisors.

Quoting from that announcement

Travel agents are not just booking agents anymore. They have become trusted Advisors — akin to financial agents and CPAs — who make the overall travel experience better and provide leisure and business travelers maximum value for their travel dollar. 

When you visit a travel advisor and pay a booking fee, you are buying advice and expertise from a trusted professional. So if advisors are the true professionals they claim to be, then they have a higher duty of care. They should not send you into harm's way. Ever.

There's never been a better opportunity for ASTA to show some leadership on an issue that affects almost everyone. Instead of caving to the members who put profits over people, the association should take a morally correct stand that affirms the safety of its customers is the most important thing. ASTA members should only recommend and book travel if it is reasonably safe to do so. Their clients expect nothing less.

Take names, my friends

Like I said before, this is a teachable moment. Go to the Facebook thread and note the names of the travel advisors who agree with your point of view. Consider giving them your business the next time you need to go somewhere.

Depending on your opinion, they'll either try to protect you — or not.

I welcome your comments, as always. Please be civil. My email is [email protected].