Wave of Uncertainty

In the wake of the catastrophic tsunamis that devastated parts of Southeast Asia on December 26, many meeting planners with scheduled trips to the region are wrestling with the question of whether or not to proceed as planned. Even those headed to areas that sustained relatively minor damage are unsure of the best course of action.

"Our client is truly torn about what we should do," says Deborah Burner, president and owner of Atlanta, GA-based incentive house Trinity Ventures, who was set to take 160 sales incentive winners to the island of Phuket in Thailand next month. "Our number-one concern is for the people over there, and we don't want to make the situation worse than it already is by pulling our business out of their economy."

In Burner's case, it's not a question of infrastructure. The JW Marriott, Phuket, where Burner's group was booked, was only minimally damaged by the tsunami and has already fully completed repairs. Phuket's International Airport has resumed normal operations. And Burner also says that all of the activities she'd incorporated into the program are still possible.

The problem is one of perception. Although much of Phuket was virtually untouched by water, the tsunamis still killed more than 5,200 there, more than half of them tourists. Survivors were still struggling to identify bodies weeks later. "This is an incentive, a reward," Burner says. "Will our people feel comfortable going over there to celebrate, knowing that the people around them are suffering so greatly?"

Accordingly, airlines that serve the region, including Cathay Pacific, Thai Airlines, and Singapore Airlines, have temporarily waived cancellation fees. Likewise, most hotels in the region will accommodate requests to reschedule, relocate, or cancel reservations. Burner says the JW Marriott is willing to waive the usual fees should she decide to cancel or postpone her reservation. "They have been extremely good about everything," she says. "They have only asked to be informed of our decision as soon as possible." But because Burner's incentive is scheduled to spend three days in Hong Kong prior to the Phuket arrival, postponing the trip is not an option. "We have no reason to reschedule the Hong Kong leg of the trip without incurring all the penalties," says Burner. "So we will either decide to proceed with Phuket or we'll have to find another destination on very short notice."