Do ethics matter in travel? Yes, and here’s why

Maybe you missed the announcement that the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) is introducing a “ground-breaking” new course focused on ethics in the travel industry.

If you’re like most travelers, you may not know the American Society of Travel Agents from the American String Teachers Association.

But ethics? Well, after a mud-slinging presidential election season, when values were front and center, I probably had you at ethics, didn’t I?

Maybe not.

After weeks of research, in which I asked both travelers and travel industry organizations if they could share their stories of how an ethics statement benefited customers, I drew a frustrating blank. Experts say that’s because most ethics statements are little more than marketing gimmicks. But that doesn’t necessarily mean these corporate ethics pledges are useless.

Ethics statements are becoming common, says Anne Klaeysen, leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture. More consumers are concerned about ethics, and a clever declaration of values fulfills their desire “to believe that they, by extension, are ethical people if they buy goods and services from ethical businesses,” she says.

But are they? Consider the ASTA’s course and the questions it raises. One of the goals of its Business Integrity and Ethical Standards course, which is billed as “an in-depth study” of critical ethical considerations facing travel agents and the industry, is to boost travelers’ confidence in member agents.

“To consumers, the ASTA logo is synonymous with trust, and adding this course to our existing code of ethics will help drive that message home,” says Zane Kerby, president and chief executive of the ASTA.

The ASTA’s code of ethics is supposed to work like the Good Housekeeping Seal. Members pledge to conduct their business activities in a manner that promotes “the ideal of integrity in travel” and to follow all laws, refrain from any conflicts of interest and offer accurate information to customers. Travelers see the logo and think: We’re safe.

Among hotel and airline trade groups, I could find no comparable, industry-wide ethics pledge. But some companies have adopted ethics or values statements that work in a similar way. For example, Marriott dedicates a section of its corporate website to ethics, in which it reveals its “commitment to responsible business, human rights, and uncompromising ethical and legal standards in all aspects of our business.” It even publishes its business-conduct guide, which offers specifics on how employees are to behave.

Among air carriers, Delta Air Lines does the same thing, posting its employee code of ethics online, which encourages crew members to “know what’s right” and “do what’s right.”

The US Travel Insurance Association (USTIA) has a code of ethics that promotes “standards of ethical and professional behavior.” Among its requirements: to conduct business in good faith, “according to the highest standards of honesty and fairness,” not make false claims and to offer insurance products and services that represent value and high quality.

I asked if the USTIA could connect me with a member who had benefited from the code of ethics.

“I cannot comment on any consumers,” executive director Megan Freedman told me.

For the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA), safety is in numbers. Its ethics statement is a consumer protection promise that requires each tour operator member company to set aside $1 million of its own funds to protect consumers’ deposits and payments against losses arising specifically from bankruptcy, insolvency or cessation of business of that member company.

“Each USTOA tour operator member company is required to participate in the association’s $1 million travelers assistance program,” says Terry Dale, the USTOA’s president and chief executive. But like the USTIA, it would not connect me with travelers who had benefited from the $1 million program.

One of the toughest-looking ethics statements is that of the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA).

The cruise industry’s trade organization requires members to sign an anti-corruption principles statement and to offer a cruise passenger bill of rights. The anti-corruption principles prohibit bribery, corruption, facilitation payments and hospitality gifts, and require members to engage in “only ethical business conduct” among other things.

The bill of rights gives passengers the right to leave a docked ship if the cruise can’t provide essentials such as food, water, bathroom facilities and medical care; the right to a full refund for a trip canceled because of mechanical failures, or a partial refund if a trip is cut short for the same reason; and the right to timely updates about any changes in a ship’s itinerary caused by a mechanical failure or an emergency. It is widely seen as a successful industry-wide effort to thwart the U.S. government’s regulation push several years ago.

Still, says CLIA spokeswoman Elinore Boeke, “The bill of rights is a contractually binding agreement between a cruise line and its passengers and can be enforced by the courts if needed.”

I asked the ASTA for details of its ethics course. Like the ethics statements offered by other trade organizations, it looked appealing on paper. The curriculum covers agency relationships, fiduciary duties, legal compliance and dispute resolution. The course, which is sponsored by Hilton Hotels & Resorts, underscores the trade group’s goal, as outlined in its ethics statement, to have agents who are ethical and trustworthy. And that ethics statement has teeth, according to the ASTA. Violators can lose their membership and are reported online on the ASTA’s consumer website, TravelSense.org.

“The number is surprisingly small, on average just three or four per year, which is quite a low rate given the organization’s 8,000-plus members worldwide,” says Peter Lobasso, ASTA’s general counsel. Nearly all of the expulsions originate with a complaint received from either a consumer or another ASTA member agency, he added.

So are these trade group ethics statements and company-specific values promises just meaningless rhetoric? While not one of the organizations contacted for this story could connect me with a consumer who benefited from an ethics statement, I know firsthand how difficult it can be to establish a cause-and-effect relationship. But I suspect that such a relationship exists.

Every day, I read help requests from customers, and many of them will invoke the ethics to which companies publicly commit themselves in their correspondence. And that is perhaps the silver lining to what critics see as a cynical effort to persuade customers that the cruise, tour or travel insurance policy they are booking is safe.

An ethics statement can be an effective card to play when you’re trying to persuade a company to see things your way. It says: You promised to do the right thing. It doesn’t really matter why — a promise is a promise.

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