Ghosted by a Tour Operator

One more good reason to book with a Travel Advisor – because I’ve got your back in a crisis…

Ghosted by a Tour Operator

Lisa Taub, True Direction Travel

Lisa Taub – True Direction Travel

This past June, I was confronted with a situation I had never imagined – my client was GHOSTED by a tour operator – no documents and no trace of my client’s paid-in-full vacation. No training or experience could have prepared me for this possibility – the first few days were a panic. Was I at fault? Financially responsible? What do I do first?

Did you see the movie The Martian? At the end of the film, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) says to the astronaut recruits “I guarantee you that at some point everything’s gonna go south on you. You’re gonna say, ‘This is it. This is how I end.’ Now you can either accept that or you can get to work.”

And that’s what I did – I got to work with only two goals in mind – protecting my client’s financial investment and protecting my client’s vacation dream. There was no playbook – I had to figure it out step by step. Here’s what got me through:

  • It’s not IF it’s WHEN we will need to support our clients in un-imaginable situations. Weather, client illness, pilot strike or in this case – a tour operator vanishing. When, not if.
  • Keep calm and call your travel agent – this meme appears in our Facebook groups and on our web pages. It’s one of the reasons our clients choose to work with a Travel Advisor. Because we can be calm in a difficult situation. I had to become calm – it took a few days to get a grip and make a plan. Only once I had a plan, then I called my client.
  • Reaching up and out within my agency and the TA community for help and advice. Within my agency, I had support and guidance. Within my Facebooks groups, there were other TAs managing a similar issue. I wasn’t alone in this situation.
  • Documenting every phone call and email. I contacted every name and number with the tour operator repeatedly. Only crickets in response. I created a journal – date, time, name, number, email address. Tour operator, travel insurance, hotel, tour guides and client contacts. Started with hand-written notes and turned that into a PDF. Saved every email. Transcribed every phone call. Created a paper trail that helped me to keep track of where I was in the process of recreating the trip.
  • Once I concluded that the tour operator was really a ghost, I got to work solving the problems. With the preliminary itinerary in hand, I made more phone calls and sent more emails. Find where the services were booked – what can be saved and what is missing. Call the hotels, find my client’s reservation and have it transferred to my control – no small task. Work with the sales staff and the concierge desk – who do they recommend for tours and then call those companies. Every tour operator was eager to help – if they didn’t have the reservation, they would suggest other tour companies who might. Google was my friend – key words like lake cruise, rafting and horseback riding. Within just a few hours, I had ‘found’ every day tour for the 7-day vacation – but the work still to be done was in gathering the details and creating custom documents to guide my clients on their vacation. It was like the old days when I would book my own trips from scratch.
  • Communicating with my client when I had progress to report – finding their reservations, knowing what’s paid and unpaid. Keeping conversations focused on finding the solutions. Being honest about what I knew and what I did not know. No mention of the time, the effort, the challenge, the stress. Remember – KEEP CALM AND CALL YOUR TRAVEL AGENT. Every phone call and email with my client was an opportunity to reinforce their trust in me.
  • Did I mention Documentation? It’s so important, I’m saying it twice. Writing my notes using language that was clear on what I knew, what I assumed and what I concluded, as well as my information sources. These documents – my notes – might be used for credit card disputes, travel insurance claims or potentially even legal action. Following good writing practices – with the expectation that my documents would be reviewed by individuals outside my team and agency. I provided my client with over 20 pages of documentation in support of their current credit card dispute – chronicling my research, actions and findings.
  • Believing that everything would work out – especially when I was really in the weeds – and even then, double checking my work. Is there another phone call I can make? Is there a clearer way to write that? What other questions might the client – or the travel insurance company – ask? There is still no guarantee that my client will get her money back for the services not provided by the tour operator. I believe she will, and I’ve done everything possible to make that happen.
  • Putting my own interests aside. I knew this would take a lot of time. I knew my commission was gone. By putting my client first – their vacation – their investment – I believed that I would protect something even more valuable – my client’s trust.
  • I did not assume blame – not in the conversations in my own head, nor in the conversations with my client or with my colleagues. Weather, illness, pilot strikes, a disappearing tour operator – none of these things are our fault as Travel Advisors. I might not be able to solve everything perfectly to the client’s satisfaction – I can only do my best. Validate the client’s emotions “I understand that this is a frustrating situation,” but avoid the tendency to say “I’m sorry”. Self-blame is only negative energy. Focus energy on solving the problems. Learn from the experience and keep my eye on the end goal – delivering an amazing vacation for my client.

Does this story have a happy ending? This was the email I received upon my client’s return home:

Thank you!  We had a fantastic time on our trip, and are so appreciative of all of your efforts to smooth out the hiccups with [the tour company].  The credit card company is still processing our dispute, but indicated it should be resolved by early October. In terms of highlights from the trip, we found all of the excursions to be really fantastic.  The hiking and rafting guides, in particular, were wonderful.  The kids adored the horseback riding… we had a great time and are so glad we got to explore [the National Parks].  Our future vacation plans are a bit in flux, but we would love to work with you again once we’re ready to plan another trip like this!

I am beyond relieved that my client’s trip was a huge success for the family. I have earned their trust, and hopefully their repeat business. The effort was substantial – but my professional integrity would not allow me to do anything less on behalf of my clients.