Monday, 25 July 2016

'I choose to live'

'I choose to live'



Arnie WeissmannThe inaugural cruise of the Regent Seven Seas Explorer departed Monte Carlo, Monaco, early on the morning of Bastille Day. I was in Nice, France, two days before and, one week later, flew out of the city.

During the cruise, I found that every European port where the ship called was crowded (in the case of St. Tropez, vastly overcrowded). Flags flew at half-mast, but otherwise Europe's sunny holiday season appeared, on the surface, to proceed undimmed by the terror attack in Nice.

And during that week, I mingled with 600-plus travel advisers, media, cruise line executives and invited guests aboard the ship. Their responses to the incident in Nice were insightful; for the most part, they're sophisticated executives with experience in the cycles of travel disruption.

My first conversation was with Walter Revell. That name may not be familiar even to travel agents who loyally book the lines of Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH) -- Regent, Norwegian and Oceania -- but he has had a hand on the tiller of NCLH and its predecessor entities for the past 23 years. As the longest-serving director and, today, chairman, he has a unique perspective on the past, present and future of travel and cruising.

We lunched with our wives at a small restaurant off Piazza San Michele in Lucca, Italy, just hours after we learned about the Nice tragedy.

Out of 7 billion people on Earth, he said, "point zero, zero, zero, zero, zero one" is going to be deranged enough to heed a call to kill scores of innocent people.

The link between extreme mental instability and the threat of violence positions terrorism in a context that doesn't completely remove the political and religious aspects, but puts the scope of the threat in rational perspective.

Those very few unstable individuals, Revell continued, should hardly be the ones to "govern, ruin or rule" our travel choices.

NCLH's CEO, Frank Del Rio, cast it slightly differently but again brought a sense of scale to the issue. 

"It would be easy to say that if you don't keep traveling, the terrorists have won," Del Rio said. "You can say that at 30,000 feet, but how do you communicate that to the individual who is sitting in front of a travel adviser, wanting to take a trip somewhere? It's very difficult to take something that's so emotional, so personal, and turn it into a statistic. But we need to remember: It's never absolute. It's not that no one is traveling. After the Paris attacks, air arrivals were down 11%. Hotel nights were down 20%. It's not down 95%, it's down 20%."

His comments reminded me that even in the dark days after 9/11, air travel was still at 80% of pre-attack numbers. The problem for travel-related businesses is, of course, that depending on operating margins, a 20% drop in traffic can easily spell the difference between viability and bankruptcy.

"It's in the margins," Del Rio agreed, "but we'll boost it up to where it needs to be."

Van Anderson, co-founder of the host agency Avoya, had yet a different perspective, framed within the broader profile of life and risk. 

"You have to be aware of risk, no matter what you do," he said. "Some choose to surf, dive and bungee jump. We all make choices, and you have to do what makes you comfortable. Even having gone through Nice the day before that horrific tragedy, and after what happened in Orlando, I'm not hesitating one bit to travel this summer with my grandchildren to Orlando."

Anderson continued, "I don't think we live in a more dangerous world. It's just a world that's more aware of the dangers. So we have to choose, by ourselves, with our friends and families, what we're comfortable with.

"I don't travel because I'm trying to beat terrorists," he concluded. "I travel because I enjoy it. Life is about making choices. I choose to live."

All three perspectives are thoughtful, astute, complementary and can help in counseling clients.

I will add one more perspective.

Summer may be the high season for travel within Europe, but we're also concurrently in the quadrennial high season of politics. The recent terror incidents, though in aggregate statistically representing only a small risk, are amplified by political agendas, and clients of travel advisers might be susceptible to politically motivated arguments that will inhibit the desire to travel.

Revell's, Del Rio's and Anderson's perspectives could help blunt those arguments. I hope so.

But I'll point out that small scale can be deceiving. History often turns on events that involve relatively few participants but whose impact is outsize:

The Boston Tea Party. The siege of the Alamo. Rosa Parks.

These incidents became pivotal because they represented the hopes and desires of great numbers of people.

I find it hard to conceive, however, that the slaughter of innocent people represents anything but a perversion of theology or a philosophy that appeals only to the sickest among humanity.

If politicians present this as an existential threat, I believe they're acting cynically to replace rational thought with purely emotional, fear-based responses.

But there's also an emotionally resonant appeal to keep traveling, even in the face of terror. Anderson said it succinctly: "I choose to live."