On Nov. 8, The Canadian Association of Tour Operators (CATO) and the University of Toronto Law Faculty hosted a private session for CATO members and members of the press to further examine several examples of common legal issues that can arise for those working in the travel industry.
The event, titled Trains, Planes and Contracts: Legal Issues in the Travel Industry, was moderated by the associate professor for the University of Toronto's Faculty of Law, as well as Canada Research Chair in Law, Economics, & Innovation, Anthony Niblett.
Alongside professor Niblett, panel members of the event included Brett Walker, vice-chair of CATO; Tim Croyle, Chair, CATO; and Pierre LePage, executive director, CATO. Law, as Niblett explained, is never black and white, and in the travel industry, it's incredibly easy for loopholes to arise, and the more educated and aware tour operators are, and how transparent they are with disclosing their product descriptions and offerings, the less they'll have to ever worry about facing legal ramifications.
The power of a contract
What must tour operators legally disclose to their clients? What happens if something isn't disclosed, and the client endures a negative experience?
These are just a few of the questions that arose in the panel discussion, and as Niblett pointed out, it's the perfect example of why a clear and legible contract between the tour operator and the client is crucial, especially when it comes to understanding what happens if the elements of a supposed contract were not fulfilled.
"You have the actual documentation you receive when you book a tour, but then there's also what's in the brochure, the advertisement, and maybe even what you discussed with someone over a call, or a contact centre, and what of that, if not all of it, constitutes the contract for your client?" LePage asked.
The obligation to fulfill that contract when multiple factors and channels are involved, such as who supplied the flight, where the trip was booked, where the trip was taken, and what hotel was booked, becomes a challenge to the tour operator who is in fact selling the promise of a dream vacation to their respective clients, because factors out of their control can arise at any time.
A perfect example would be for a client who was sold a vacation to Mexico. Perhaps on the tour operator's website, the hotel description promised 'sparkling turquoise waters', but upon arriving to the resort, the client finds the beach covered in sargassum.
So, if the client decides to turn around and ask for a refund, who is to blame, and who should front the bill?
Is it the tour operator's fault for not being careful with their product description? Or is it the hotel's fault for not doing enough to keep the beach clean?
The fact is, the lines become blurred and a negative scenario can spiral into a domino effect, especially for travel agents who must trust the tour operator to promote to them an honest and accurate depiction of the product that they're trying to sell to their clients.
"There's never a right answer, because a lot of the law is quite vague, and based around standards about what is reasonable," Niblett said.
Choose your terms carefully
With the rise of the Internet, specifically, social media, if a client has a negative experience, it's easier than ever to complain. From photos, to launching complaints to international call centres, to writing scathing reviews, the reputation of a tour operator can be damaged in seconds.
"Ten years ago, nobody took a phone on vacation with them, but now you can be anywhere in the world, take a bunch of photographs, and start emailing them," Croyle said. "Because it's easier, it's also part of why we see more feedback from guests."
Another key part of the discussion had to do with how much disclosure is reasonable, with regard to external factors like a pandemic (Zika virus, Ebola, Yellow Fever, or Malaria outbreaks), and to what extent is a tour operator responsible?
Social and political climates are another debatable topic; one in particular that CATO has seen discussion over is animal rights, and how animals should or should not be included in tour operator programs and packages.
"Words really do matter, and [tour operators] must be careful not to over-promise anything when trying to describe the product in as glowing terms as possible without going over the line," LePage said. "Consequently, you need to find where the proper line is located, and where you are prepared to accept any risk that would go beyond that, and where you are still able to solve the problem if there is one, through customer service instead of in a courtroom."
"Whether it's a consumer contract with a travel agent verbally or otherwise, maybe something is different between the terms and conditions of what a tour operator offered, and what's actually in the brochure," Walker added. "If the travel agent has promised something beyond the scope of the terms and conditions, then that would potentially be a different agreement."
At the end of the day, CATO panel members stressed, travel agents must understand their own rights and obligations are, in order to protect themselves first, because at the end of the day, tour operators are often pushing product from all over the world.
The GPLLM program
The joint event between CATO and the University of Toronto was also an opportunity to promote one of the university's programs, offered by the Faculty of Law. It requires no thesis, and provides professionals with more exposure on legal education.
The University of Toronto currently offers The Global Professional Master of Laws program, a one-year, part-time program that invites already-established professionals to gain a better understanding of the areas of law that could arise in everyday business interactions. Those who are interested in the program do not have to be a current lawyer; anybody can enroll.
"The program is really about teaching people to start thinking like a lawyer, and what questions one might want to ask oneself in order to avoid any problems in the future," Walker said.
To learn more about the GPLLM program, click here.
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