Thinking About The Unthinkable

Author's note: I wrote this post before Saturday's terrorist attacks in London, which sadly shines an even stronger light on this subject. Fortunately, my wife and I had left for Italy on Friday so we narrowly missed this tragedy, but we have not been spared the fact that it forces us to think about the unthinkable in ever more personal terms. 

As my wife and I packed for our trip to London last week, we couldn’t stop thinking about the tragedy in Manchester, England, where terrorists killed 22 people, including children, and wounded more than 80 others. Even though Prime Minister Theresa May has just lowered the official terror threat level from “critical” to “severe,” which meant that a terrorist attack in the country had gone from “imminent” to “highly likely,” it didn’t fully dampen our anxiety or stop us from questioning the timing of our travel. 

Is it any wonder we couldn’t help but think about the unthinkable? 

And then things kept getting darker. A few days after Manchester, 29 Christians were killed as they were driving to a monastery located south of Cairo. Within days, there were also car bombings and terrorist acts in Jakarta and the Philippines, further reminding us that terrorism is a global issue that, sadly, we can’t expect is going away anytime soon.

In fact, in the wake of all these tragedies, America’s Homeland Security Secretary, John Kelly, sounded an alarm that the threats of terrorism are indeed bigger than any of us are likely imagining. He commented during a recent appearance on Fox TV, “It can happen almost anytime. I was telling [Fox host] Steve [Doocy] that if he knew what I knew about terrorism, he’d never leave the house in the morning. It’s everywhere. It’s constant. It’s non-stop.”

Hardly comforting. And it’s making me think about the unthinkable.

Although I’ve been touched by terrorists targeting my hometown of Boston and found myself in Paris on that fateful Friday the 13th in 2015, I temper any looming date with fate by reminding myself of the story in The Washington Post that proclaimed, “You’re more likely to be crushed by falling furniture than killed by a terrorist.” Not to mention that statisticians have calculated that the odds of a fatal terror attack in the U.S. by a refugee are 3.6 billion to one. (For reference, the odds of dying in a car crash are actually 1 in 47,718).

Of course, even improving odds don’t completely deter me from thinking about the unthinkable. 

Maybe it’s the seeming randomness of it all and the fact that those killed were innocent bystanders, enjoying life at concerts, watching sporting events, going out to eat or just commuting home. Doing the same very ordinary and sometimes mundane things that you and I do without ever thinking twice or suspecting these could be a life and death decision.

However, as someone who makes his living from marketing travel and advising firms, these terrorist acts and all the repercussions that surround them force me to think long and hard about the unthinkable and how it impacts our industry.

While there’s no easy or ready answer on how to stop terrorism, it’s clear that broad and sweeping bans on immigration and travel are more likely to hurt tourism than eliminate terrorism. The Global Business Travel Association has projected the United States will lose over $1.3 billion in travel-related expenditures this year from our government’s efforts to stem terrorism by banning people from certain countries, combined with the ban for carrying on computers and other electronics from 10 airports in the Middle East and Africa.

Fortunately, tourism is a very resilient industry and a terrorist attack has so far proven to be a challenging but only temporary barrier for travelers seeking out an impacted destination. Research by the World Travel & Tourism Council has found that it takes approximately 13 months to recover from a terrorist attack. That compares to 21 months to come back from disease, 24 months from a natural disaster and 27 months from political unrest.

Equally resilient have been the destinations themselves. In Manchester, we got to see a city of great diversity come together and show its true colors. From taxi drivers shuttling people for free to hotels taking in people unable to get home to Domino’s sending free pizzas to the scores of aid workers who rushed to the scene. So, too, in Boston, we witnessed “Boston Strong” in the wake of the marathon bombing with untold acts of courage, community and generosity that continues to unite and bond the city to this day. 

While nothing can fully prepare you for terrorism or predict how we’ll react should we face it directly, all of us in travel would be wise to pause and think about the unthinkable and contemplate how we might handle the unimaginable, as improbable as that may be.

As I examine my own business, I’m embarrassed to say we’ve got well-established plans and protocols in place for snow days and power outages, but nothing for a true tragedy. How can we train our team to be ever more vigilant and watchful? How will we communicate with and check the safety of our staff? How will we coordinate and interface with local authorities and hospitals? How do we access grief counselors and other professional services? And this is just scratching the surface.

I find myself thinking about the unthinkable because I believe we have a responsibility to ourselves. Our loved ones. Our employees. Our travelers. Our communities. And even our country.

But thinking about something doesn’t mean we have to be paralyzed by it or can’t stay positive. I, for one, refuse to change my travel plans or live in fear, lest the terrorists somehow win. 

Barry Diller perhaps said it best when he was contemplating whether or not to invest in Expedia in the wake of 9/11. In a GeekWire interview last year, he recalled that everyone around him was saying that travel was dead and wouldn’t recover. “Then somebody in the room said, ‘If there’s life, there’s travel.’” “And I said, yeah, that’s what we’ll do. We’ll bet on life.”

The unthinkable deserves our thought. But life is why it matters.

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