Don’t believe the CDC — it’s vacation time!

As pandemic peaks, travel agent pitches "relaxing and warm" Thanksgiving getaways 

The travel industry is still fuming after my recent USA Today story that questioned the ethics of promoting a vacation during a dangerous pandemic.

Looks like a fair number of Americans don't believe COVID-19 is a problem, either. I'm sure you've seen those images of crowded terminals in the news.

Here's the scene at my home airport on Friday, courtesy of KPHO, our CBS affiliate.

I just don't see how this is going to curb our record infection rates (172,839 new infections yesterday). Would someone care to enlighten me?

My advice is unchanged: Cancel your trip and stay home.

We’re in a weird place, aren’t we? Many of the travel advisors we trust with our vacation plans, if not our lives, seem to be in a collective state of denial about the plague. And they’re not alone. The emotional, often irrational criticism of my article has exposed a deep rift in the agency community. But it’s a division that can lead you to a source of sound travel advice.

Furious agents: Show us just one advisor promoting travel now

Back to the USA Today controversy. One of the most common responses I received from travel agents last week is: "But we're not promoting travel now."

Responsible advisors warn their clients about the risk of travel during an outbreak, they said. If customers insist on booking, who are we to turn them down?

But encourage travel during a dangerous pandemic? No way. Not us. Never.

"Show me just one advisor who is promoting a vacation now," they challenged me angrily.

OK.

“Thanksgiving cancelled? It’s not too late to trade turkey for travel”

Here's an email sent to one travel agency's clients on Thursday morning (please don't mind the typos):

Thanksgiving cancelled? It’s not too late to trade turkey for travel.

As Covid-19 cases climb to new heights here in the states, many families are calling off large thanksgiving gatherings to err on the side of safety and avoid indoor socializing. But while family functions may not be part of next week’s plans anymore, thanksgiving doesn’t have to be a waste of time off.

A vacation somewhere remote, relaxing and warm can be just as festive and fun. Thanks to new, smarter entry and flying requirements, better testing options, and new cleaning protocols for airlines and airports, hotel staff, and private drivers, even a far-flung destination is now a safe possibility for families looking to trade turkey for travel.

Hotels and resorts are ready to welcome travelers with some enticing Thanksgiving packages, including five creative celebrations happening beyond U.S. borders, listed below.

With holiday fares 11% lower than normal this year, taking an unconventional route to Thanksgiving celebrations this year means you can have your pie and eat it, too. 

Here are some of the deals the agent is offering:

Auberge Resorts Collection, Cabo, Mexico

World-renowned chef Mads Refslund will be celebrating the season of gratitude in Cabo with a limited series of exclusive dining experiences over Thanksgiving weekend. Chef Refslund will be bouncing between the Chileno Bay Resort & Residences and Esperanza, both of Auberge Resorts Collection, to offer a variety of dining options. We’re pretty sure the hardest part of this trip will be choosing between his open-fire, outdoor cooking exhibition at the beautiful Esperanza and a multi-course tasting menu prepared in your own personal villa, expertly paired with local wines by the hotel’s master sommelier. 

The Curtain Hotel, London, England

This Tuesday, United Airlines started testing the travel corridor between London and New York that is soon to open any day now. If all goes to plan, Americans will be able to feast on a traditional thanksgiving across the pond. ​​​​​

The Curtain Hotel’s Red Rooster Shoreditch is offering a prix fixe Thanksgiving menu ($73) that includes all the fixings: cornbread, roast turkey, sweet potatoes with marshmallows, mashed potatoes and green beans. The meal ends nicely with a seasonal pumpkin spice espresso martini.

ITC Maurya, New Dehli, India

Dine poolside for Thanksgiving at the ITC Maurya’s restaurant, The Pavilion. The restaurant offers a modern mix of Indian and global cuisine but this year’s Thanksgiving feast ($38) will still feature roast turkey, candied maple pumpkin, and other fall delicacies from around the world.

Regent Taipei, Taipei, Taiwan

Who needs stretchy pants when you can dine in a robe? Any family who books a stay at the Regent Taipei from November 18 through the 23 will be able to enjoy a complimentary turkey feast from the comfort of their rooms. Guests can choose between a dinner of roast turkey or roast chicken, both come with a bounty of seasonal sides.

"Save Thanksgiving by calling our agents today," the email concludes.

Leave a comment

Is this some kind of a joke?

I looked at the time stamp on the email. The recipient got it a few minutes after the CDC advised Americans to cancel their Thanksgiving trips.

I thought someone was trying to prank me. I'm not just referring to the content. (Lowercasing the "t" in Thanksgiving and misspelling Delhi, which drove my editors crazy.) 

The reader who tipped me off to the promotional email, Ellen Morse, is a travel advisor herself. 

"I am not in the habit of pitting one supplier against another," she said. "But this soooo makes me crazy! Knowing that you and I are on the same page with regard to doing everything to stay safe over the coming holidays, this email that I received today made my hair stand on end!"

She added, "I thought the idea of staying safe means remaining at home in our family bubble and sacrificing these holidays for our families, friends and strangers. Next year we can all make up for what we did not do in 2020. Am I taking this too seriously? Or am I justified in feeling that this company is simply looking to cash in on the situation?"

Morse already knows my answer. Promoting a vacation during a dangerous phase of a pandemic, when the CDC is telling people to stay home, is ethically problematic.

So who sent the email? And was it real?

“Maybe it was insensitive”

The promotion appeared to come from Cook Travel, a New York travel agency. I know Blake Fleetwood, the agency's CEO, and couldn't imagine him sending such a message after a CDC travel warning.

In addition to running Cook Travel, Fleetwood is a prolific travel journalist. I admire his work. He's almost always on the side of the consumer. So I didn't think this promotion was real, and to be honest, I hoped it wasn't.

I sent Fleetwood a note, asking if his agency had sent the email. And also, was he aware of the CDC warning?

"My office did send this out before the CDC announcement came out," he admitted. "Maybe it was insensitive."

Fleetwood said he wasn't traveling anywhere for Thanksgiving. But he pushed back at my suggestion that no one should be taking a vacation now.

"Are we not suggesting that you not attend large dangerous family gatherings in favor of sneaking off on a quiet vacation by yourself?" he asked. "Are you suggesting that everybody not travel anytime soon?"

He added, "Not a bad idea, but people are traveling, little by little, and I would hope that they buy their tickets from me."

I think Fleetwood kind of answered his own questions. Yes, staying at home is a good idea. Yes, taking a vacation now is not terribly smart. And yes, sending that pitch before Thanksgiving was a little insensitive. 

I emailed Fleetwood a follow-up question on Friday. I wanted to know if he would have sent that pitch if he'd known about the CDC warning. He has not responded yet.

Cook Travel shouldn't feel singled out. Here's an email I received from Vacasa, the vacation rental site, this morning. 

Come on. What part about "do not travel" didn’t they understand?

Share

Travel agents can't win this argument

As I review the latest trade press reaction to my USA Today story, I'm struck by the fact that travel agents couldn't come up with one persuasive counterargument.

Before I get to the clumsy responses, a quick shout-out to Cheryl Rosen of Travel Research Online. She's the only journalist who asked me for a comment before publishing a story about this little contretemps. And I think her column was pretty fair.

The other trade reporters decided to cover the story without bothering to check with me.

One reader forwarded a link to a podcast hosted by Eric Bowman and Dan Callahan on TravelPulse in which they tried to dissect my story. Rather than answering the question I had asked — and tried to answer — they just decided to attack me for most of the show. They claimed it's hypocritical to talk about ethics when you run a nonproft consumer advocacy organization that often helps travelers. 

Here's my synopsis of their rebuttal:

Me: "Is it ethical to promote travel during the pandemic?"

Bowman and Callahan: "We're not unethical — you're unethical!"

How compelling. 

In the Insider Travel Report, another travel trade publication, James Shillinglaw took a different approach. Again, instead of answering the question, he criticized my sources, calling them "obscure business consultants, random ethics experts and law professors." He must have missed the sources from Yale or the fact that my ethics expert had a Ph.D. from Georgetown. 

He ended his column by saying, "We doubt whether he could find a single instance where a travel advisor sold travel knowing he or she was putting a client in jeopardy of catching COVID-19."

If he's reading this, he might want to scroll up, just in case he missed the first part of this article.

So to summarize his argument:

Me: "Is it ethical to promote travel during the pandemic?"

Shillinglaw: "Your sources suck!"

Besides Rosen's story, the only one I kind of liked was Michael Baginski's article in Travel Industry Today. Baginski stuck to the facts for the most part. But the illustrations of angry birds and crushing fists seemed to suggest a slight bias toward travel advisors. No, the American Society of Travel Advisors didn't "crush" my USA Today column. They only hurt their own credibility with their absurd response.

Overall, these rebuttals were not much different than the first round of coverage from the trade press. Instead of engaging in a polite discussion, they just fired back with invective and ad hominem attacks.

How does that persuade the consumers following this debate that their travel advisor will offer sound advice for their next vacation? I have no idea. 

Incidentally, I wasn't surprised to read Alex Rosenberg's story in RIA Citywire yesterday. RIA is a trade publication for financial professionals. Perhaps in light of the USA Today episode, Rosenberg wondered if travel agents would ever live up to the high standards of a travel advisor.

"After all, there is no fiduciary duty for travel advisors," he notes. "Many continue to rely on commissions, and if you know that Disney is paying your advisor 10 percent to 16 percent for booking that cruise, you might rightfully wonder whether it’s actually true that the seven-day voyage is 10 times more fun than the three-day jaunt."

Travelers take note

The takeaway from this minor dustup is obvious: Be very careful about where you buy your next trip.

A competent and responsible travel advisor will be your ally and advocate when you plan a vacation. And I can't recommend such a professional highly enough.

But a travel agent who ignores details, tells you that travel is "your choice" without warning you of the dangers, and tries to resolve a problem by making you feel like you're the problem — avoid such a travel agent at all costs.

Where do you find a list of the best and worst travel advisors? You can start by reading the comments under the stories I've cited. The agents have already identified themselves. Thanks for that, by the way. You've done your industry a great service by coming forward and sharing your opinion. 

Should travel advisors just give you information and let you make up your mind about travel? Or should they advise you about where to travel and when? The comments are open. Please be kind. You can also email me at elliottc@gmail.com with your confidential memos and story tips.

Leave a comment