Will this help you overcome your fear of travel?

EXCLUSIVE: Travel Leaders unveils "Book With Confidence" program to help America travel again. But will it?

How do you give people the confidence to travel again? One travel agency network, Travel Leaders, just released its proposed solution. It's a red Book With Confidence badge that will start appearing on the websites of affiliated travel advisors early next week. 

Travel Leaders' new program promises to give travelers information about COVID-19 with advice on how to stay safe before, during and after a trip. But will it work? I spoke with John Lovell, president of Travel Leaders Network and Leisure Group, to find out.

How do people feel about travel now?

They're worried. They don't know what to expect.

It's probably not the best time to go on vacation. The CDC has issued an advisory warning against travel during the holidays. I've also warned against travel in this newsletter.

People have been locked up for a long time. They had vacation plans that were canceled earlier this year. They're going to their travel advisor to find out what's open and how to travel safely.

That's the idea behind the program. We want to tell them what precautions to take and to ask about. We want to tell them who is open and the protocols that are in place.

Some of our customers want to travel now. They want to go to the beach. So giving them information about hotel occupancy — is the hotel 50 percent full or 40 percent full? — that's what they want to know now. And we want to make sure they have the right information. 

You're telling your clients it's OK to travel now?

Obviously, the pandemic is real. In some cases, we're saying, "This might not fit your needs." That's where the "Book With Confidence" program can help them.

How about long-term, once the vaccine is distributed?

The long-term — anything past June, July and August — is looking good. As word of the vaccine gets out there, I think people see that is that hope. In the last two weeks, we've seen bookings increase for that time period. People are asking where they can go. They've started doing research and planning. 

Why do we need a program like this? I mean, shouldn't travel advisors already be sharing this kind of information with their clients already?

Our travel advisors have told us that while most of their clients are eager to make travel plans, many still have concerns about COVID-19. Also, the information out there in the news media and online can be overwhelming and confusing. We’ve done extensive research to provide this information to our advisors and we are updating it regularly.

How is it confusing?

Well, just look at the cruise industry. Up until Nov. 28, cruises were going to start sailing in January. You wake up the next morning, and two cruise lines have extended their pauses. The next week, more cruises have delayed. Now everything is delayed through March. 

Unless you're keeping up with the news on a daily basis, it's confusing. We keep advisors updated on every policy. People can make their plans and, if things change, we can help them. 

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What is "Book With Confidence"?

It's an exclusive benefit that we offer to our Travel Leaders advisors to help them increase their clients' confidence in travel during COVID-19. We're giving them the information needed to make informed, comfortable vacation choices before, during and after their travels.

Don't travel advisors already do this?

"Book With Confidence" includes a vacation health and safety guide for travelers — a 57-page book with tips and resources about every step of a trip and how clients can minimize the risks.

We also have an advisor protocols checklist, a tool to guide advisor documentation of all the health and safety protocols being undertaken by suppliers.

See the internal "Book With Confidence" presentation (subscribers only).

Does "Book With Confidence" address hotel safety?

Yes. We've partnered with a digital health company Sharecare and Forbes Travel Guide as health security verification partners to validate the procedures and protocols at more than 50,000 hotels booked through our systems. It will help the travel industry align on a common approach, consistent protocols, and an established system of health security.

How does a travel advisor earn the right to participate in the "Book With Confidence" program?

Advisors who would like to participate in the program must take a pledge to study the materials, adhere to the guidelines and be ready to advise their clients on what they need to know and expect in this changing travel landscape. 

But how do you verify that an advisor is adhering to your guidelines?

We take them through the entire program from start to finish. When one of our agencies puts up a button and markets "Book With Confidence," we walk through the expectations of the program. We expect their clients will hold them to their promises. 

If a travel advisor tells you that COVID-19 doesn't exist and that you don't need to wear a mask, what then?

The pandemic is real. I believe that. I don't think any of our advisors saying "This isn't real." I don't think any of our agents would embrace the program if they didn't think it was real. If someone offers the "Book With Confidence" program and tells you COVID-19 doesn't exist, it would be self-defeating.

You won't be testing agents that have adopted the program to verify they are giving correct information. But what about those giving incorrect information? Can customers report them to Travel Leaders?

It's a self-policing program. Customers will hold them accountable. 

We know that our travel advisors always have their clients' best interests in mind. Once the advisors have taken the "Book With Confidence" pledge, it will be up to them to uphold the commitment behind the badge and continue to review the information and updates as they come in. 

But there is a red state-blue state divide when it comes to travel, right?

In this business, the most important thing you have is your client. In a majority of cases, people keep their political views to themselves. Otherwise, you lose clients.

What kind of guarantees do I have as a traveler when I use the "Book With Confidence" program? For example, what if someone follows your advice and still gets sick or has to cancel their trip?

This is where the value of a travel advisor comes into play. Booking with a travel advisor means placing your trust with someone who will look after you, not just during the coronavirus crisis, but at any time. Our advisors work closely with relevant industry associations and government agencies to ensure that correct information is always communicated to their clients. 

Our advisors review cancellation and deposit policies so clients understand their rights. They also recommend options for travel insurance companies to protect the clients' financial investment. They provide information to clients, but ultimately, it is the client's decision to travel.

When a traveler gets sick or has to cancel their trip, the travel advisor will continue to serve as a single point of contact for the customer and will handle all arrangements with airlines, tour operators, hotels and ground transportation companies. 

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But you already get that with a travel advisor. Confidence implies that there's a guarantee of some kind, right?

We've been able to look at the end-to-end experience and bring it together in one program. We've really curated a very strong program. We've been able to lay it out in a very orderly fashion. You can sit with the consumer and look at every element that applies to your trip.

Where can you find a "Book With Confidence" travel advisor?

We just launched the program last week and so far 632 agency owners signed up for the first "Book With Confidence" training session. You'll start seeing the first badges next week. You can find advisors on our website. Once the program takes off, the "Book With Confidence" badge will be included on their profile page.

OK, so if I see a "Book With Confidence" badge on my travel agency window, and I walk in and say, "I'd like to go to Cancun for Christmas," then how do you respond?

We're not telling people not to travel. We're asking our advisors to inform their clients to the best of their ability about the risks of travel. 

Ethically, though, it's up to the client. If a client is coming to a travel advisor and says they need a vacation, then that's what they're calling the advisor for. If the client so chooses to make the booking, we will get them the best information so that they can make an informed decision.

Does having a "Book With Confidence" program make you more confident or likelier to book a trip? The comments are open.

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