Tour Operator Legal Issues In Spotlight At CATO & UofT Event

Anna Kroupina, Open Jaw

Do tour operators have a responsibility to disclose flights aboard a 737 MAX? Where does the duty of care begin and end for tour operators? How can tour operators represent a product accurately, but also appealingly?

These were some of the topics raised at a "Trains, Planes and Contracts, Legal Issues in the Travel Industry" event organized last week by the Canadian Association of Tour Operators (CATO) in partnership with the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.

Approximately 50 representatives from tourism boards, tour operators and Global Affairs Canada attended the workshop at the Jackman Law Building. The discussion was led by panelists Tim Croyle, Chair of CATO and former VP of WestJet Vacations and Cargo; Pierre LePage, Executive Director at CATO; Associate Professor Anthony Niblett, Ph D Economics, (Harvard), LLB (Melbourne); Emily Orchard, Assistant Dean, Graduate Program, Faculty of Law, University of Toronto; and Brett Walker, Vicechair of CATO.

The MAX question: will travellers get onboard?

On the 737 MAX pax disclosure issue, bound to be a hot topic for travellers and their advisors when the Boeing bird flies again, the answer is not so clear cut.

Professor Niblett said that while there are rules and guidelines for tour operators to act in accordance to duty of care and avoid legal troubles, there are lots of grey areas and it's difficult to provide a one-answer-fits-all.

"A lot of the law is quite vague and based on standards around what is reasonable and it's really very heavily fact-specific. A lot of it is looking in the rear-view mirror. Once something has happened, then we go back and see whether somebody acted reasonably or not. There's a lot of post-analysis," Niblett said.

One of the benefits for CATO members attending the event is that they were able to ask scenario-specific questions during the closed session that would help narrow down the "right" answer.

Social media meets duty of care

Stéphanie Bishop, Managing Director at Globus family of brands, a participant at the event, said tour operators are adapting to new realities, as news of incidents impacting travellers and operators is now delivered immediately.

"With social media, there is a much higher degree of instantaneous information, awareness and access if something happens on a tour or cruise. As companies, I think we all do quite well in having really robust instant response teams."

The Travel Corporation's President, Jeff Element, also a participant, pointed out that while both tour operators and consumers are more educated and it's easier to make complaints, more issues are being resolved outside of the court system.

Can regulation keep up with change?

The fast-evolving environment is one reason CATO supports "reform and change" to Ontario's Travel Industry Act, The Travel Industry Council of Ontario (TICO) and the Ontario Travel Industry Compensation Fund. The Act has been in recent debate as the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA) and other travel professionals also push for reform.

Click here to read Open Jaw's coverage about ACTA's push for Compensation Fund reform and here to read what industry professionals think about the proposed changes, and share your own thoughts.

"Having an Act that spells out what should and shouldn't be done is a good reference point. We did have some revisions that started about three years ago and we are continuing to have those dialogues to try and help modernize the act so that it reflects conducted business today, which is a lot more digital online and global than it would have been 10-15 years ago," said Croyle.

Advisor advice: beware of overselling

Croyle says that as intermediaries between a tour operator and a customer, travel advisors have an important role to play in conveying the right message and not overpromising.

If a traveller contracts with a travel advisor, the obligation falls on the shoulders of the advisor, Croyle said; likewise if they contracted with a tour company. And if an agent oversells or exaggerates a tour operator's product beyond the scope of the terms and conditions, that could pose legal problems for the retailer.

Element had this advice for travel advisors: "Travel agents should understand what their rights and obligations are. We're sometimes contracting or selling something that is being delivered by someone else in another part of the world.

"A travel agent is selling something that we are delivering and they should understand what their rights and obligations are. Are they overselling what I am selling? Because they are the ones talking to the customer directly. They need to educate themselves on that."

Panelists and organizers of the "Trains, Planes and Contracts, Legal Issues in the Travel Industry" event. L-R: Pierre LePage, Executive Director at CATO; Tim Croyle, Chair of CATO; Associate Professor Anthony Niblett, Ph D Economics, (Harvard), LLB (Melbourne); Emily Orchard, Assistant Dean, Graduate Program, Faculty of Law, University of Toronto; and Brett Walker, Vicechair of CATO.

Anna Kroupina

Anna Kroupina Journalist

Anna is OJ's newest member and she joins the team as a writer/reporter. She co-writes the daily news and covers events. Although she's new to the industry, pursuing a career path in travel/tourism has been a goal since her first family road trip to the Florida Keys sparked a desire to discover the world and this exhilarating, fast-paced industry.