Christopher Elliott is a syndicated columnist for MSNBC, the Washington Post, and National Geographic and writes about consumer rights, the travel industry, travel tips, and helps consumers troubleshoot problems they encounter. His articles frequently talk about consumer relations and he is always helping people deal with the bureaucracy of many travel companies. I lucky enough to meet him at TBEX 09 and today we get to hear his thoughts:
Nomadic Matt: How did you get into consumer travel?
Chris Elliott: I felt drawn to consumer travel during the early 90s, as an editor at Travel Weekly When you’re working for a trade publication, you see the world from the inside-out — which is to say, you see companies and their efforts to monetize their customers. I noticed a disconnect between the products the industry was offering and what their customers were actually getting.
I became very disillusioned with the travel industry. I had been seduced by it and I felt as if I was just a cog in the wheel of a giant machine that churns out vanilla copy and leaves advertisers rich but consumers clueless. So I quit. I made a detour back into academia for a year, left the country, got a little perspective, and when I came back, I was determined to follow my conscience.
One of the first calls I got when I came back to the States was from a producer at a new Web site called ABCNews.com, who was looking for a new travel columnist.
“I think you have the wrong guy,” I said. “I can’t say that I love the travel industry.”
“No,” she said, “You’re exactly what we’re looking for.”
So that led to a four-year gig as the Crabby Traveler, from 1996 to 2000, which led to National Geographic Traveler, my syndicated column, and blog.
Do you feel consumers are really protected or have any rights these days?
No. There aren’t enough consumer laws on the books, and the ones that exist aren’t adequately enforced. Still, a little knowledge of the law, and of your rights, can often take you a long way when you have a dispute with a travel company. So it’s a matter of using what you’ve got.
If that is the case, what recourse do consumers really have then? It took a guy to make a viral video on United to get them to listen.
There’s always the court of public opinion. Anyone who has posted a viral video or blog entry about travel knows that social media can be an effective way to mediate a dispute. But also, I think politeness is an underrated weapon. Being nice — and persistent — can get results, even for a company that’s programmed to say “no.”
What advice would you offer travelers for making sure their problem resolutions with big travel companies go as smoothly as possible?
Oh, that’s a loaded question! I’ve written a whole post on the topic. If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, let me just offer one piece of advice: Be brief and polite.
What is the one thing you wish you saw in the travel industry related to consumer protection?
I’d like to see a well-staffed, federal consumer protection agency that takes over the consumer-protection duties of the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Transportation, plus has oversight over car rental agencies and hotels. And I’d like to see a series of tough laws on the books that protect the interests of travelers instead of shielding the industry from the customers they failed to serve. I know, I know. Dream on!
How has the internet changed the way companies deal with consumers?
It’s revolutionized it. Not only have you seen the emergence of user-generated forums that hold the travel industry accountable, such as my blog, TripAdvisor and FlyerTalk, a popular forum for frequent fliers. But you also see that now, these sites are held accountable by other Internet-based forums.
Let me give you an example. Last week, when TripAdvisor quietly removed a negative review from its site, my readers called it out. Likewise, a few months ago, some FlyerTalk members tried to game a fare error by British Airways, and they were also outed on my blog.
It works the other way around, too. When I make a mistake on my blog or get it wrong in a story, I get folks from those forums jumping on top of me until I fix the problem. And we all have to answer to the great masses on Twitter. The bottom line for all of us, whether we’re consumer activists, industry cheerleaders or frequent flier fanboys, is that there’s no place to hide anymore. The Internet will hold us all accountable.
Do you think any companies are using the internet to effectively deal with customers, PR, or handle problems? Are there some signs of hope- that some companies “get it” and are embracing the internet?
Yes, there are a few standouts, but most travel companies have been reactive to the Internet, which is to say they only deal with it when they have to. That’s unfortunate. I hope it will change. But I’m not holding my breath.
As an “old media” writer who also utilizes “new media”, how do think the two fields will really blend?
I don’t really think in terms of “old” and “new” media anymore, and I think most of my more progressive media colleagues don’t, either. They’re just different platforms. Print is great for certain messages. Online is suited to others, and broadcast for still others. I think anyone who believes that “old” and “new” media are incompatible is seeing the world in the wrong way and needs to adjust their perspective.
Where do you see the future of travel writing going?
I think the future is already here. Travel writing — and again, I’m not sure “writing” is the right term — is far more interactive, multimedia, engaging and fun. I know that a lot of my colleagues are struggling with making a transition from “old” to “new” media, and I’m not really sure if all of them will be successful at it. The future of travel journalism is far more dynamic and unpredictable than what we were used to.
You are a very well known name when it comes to consumer travel. How does it feel to strike fear in the hearts of customer service reps all over?
I’m not so sure if that’s true. Or I should say, I hope it isn’t. When I contact someone on behalf of a reader, it’s never done in an accusatory way. I politely ask them to help me answer the reader and it’s my sincere hope that the problem is just a simple misunderstanding. If you’re working for a company with a solid commitment to customer service, you’ll be as concerned as I am that this case wasn’t properly addressed by the customer service department in the first place. You definitely won’t be afraid of the results — or of me.
For more on consumer travel from Christopher Elliott, visit his blog at Elliott.org