Hurricanes have travel agents proving their value all over again

Hurricanes have travel agents proving their value all over again

This story originally ran in the September 21st, 2017 issue of Travelweek magazine. To get Travelweek delivered to your agency for free, subscribe here.

TORONTO — Not only are travel agents now re-booking travellers in the wake of Irma and Maria, during the height of hurricane season they were pulling off near-miracles to help their clients – and sometimes, complete strangers.

As Irma made its way up to the U.S., one Vision Travel agent posted on his Facebook page that he was a travel advisor with access to an airline booking engine. He helped two families he didn’t know get out of Florida just one day before Irma hit.

One TPI travel agent said she had clients in destination and impacted by Irma who were sent home early, “and they were e-mailing and messaging me asking what they should do and what changes were being made to their plans. I also had numerous clients departing on the days the storm was hitting who were very unsure of what to do and were constantly seeking advice. I felt like I was a travel advisor, therapist, friend and miracle worker all in one last week.”

Luckily the airlines, tour operators and resorts “went above and beyond in every case to help clients, even bending the normal policies to accommodate requests to get clients rebooked. It was encouraging to work with our suppliers and feel like we all wanted what was best for the client.”

Hurricane Maria

The D.R. was one of many Caribbean destinations eyeing a hit from Hurricane Maria. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted a higher likelihood of an above-normal Atlantic hurricane season for 2017, and it hasn’t peaked yet.

Thinking ahead to know that a client would likely be cancelled just as Irma was about to hit Florida, the agent held a new room for her at Disney, just before there was a virtual sell-out. “Now I actually look good even though their plans are completely changed.”

Another travel agent, with The Travel Agent Next Door, faced down what seemed like an impossible situation: a hurricane season destination wedding, right in the path of Irma. “We had a couple that was getting married and everything was riding on getting it done in the destination,” says Flemming Friisdahl, Founder, The Travel Agent Next Door. “The agent was able to work with the suppliers, hoteliers and the destination wedding team and move it to another island and resort. There was close to 80 people in the group so this was no easy task. The customer was so grateful to the agent and was so happy she used a travel professional.”

Friisdahl had high praise for suppliers, particularly the tour operators: “We follow exactly what the suppliers are telling us”.

The work both during Irma and in the aftermath has been intense. “The first thing we did was run a report of all clients in affected destinations, and who maybe travelling to the impacted destinations,” says Friisdahl. “Once this was done, like hundreds of other agents, our agents spent many hours on the phone with tour operators, airlines and hotels to identify the severity of the damage.”

He adds: “We believe this is when a travel agent shines for a consumer, however there is very little money actually earned during this period, just a ton of goodwill with clients for the future, we hope.”

Vision Travel created an email blast and sent it out to database of clients “to say please hang tight until we know more”, says Vision’s VP, Leisure Travel, Lynda Sinclair. “Our plan now is to send out another email to give more of what we know for certain,” adding that clients have been supportive and understanding of the situation and the issues in destination.

Sinclair describes the feeling of seeing Irma’s devastation as utter shock. “It was very quiet as things sunk in and we began to see the images. It was strange as none of us really knew what to say or expect next.”

Fortunately clients have for the most part been receptive to directions provided by suppliers, when it comes to changed travel plans and re-booking, says TL Network VP, Christine James. “Our agents are advising their clients according to the directions provided to them through our supplier partners … [and] our supplier partners have stepped up to the plate in keeping our agents abreast of any updates.”

One TPI agent reached out to clients who are travelling to Cuba within the next couple of months. “There is a considerable amount of misinformation posted online so it was important to give them information that came from our trusted partners,” she said.

“Although the client’s hotels weren’t affected, they still wanted to know their options and develop a plan of action if changes were to be made. I feel as though it strengthened my relationships with my core clients, and it has also brought me in brand new clients who now recognize the value of using a travel professional.”


This story originally ran in the September 21st, 2017 issue of Travelweek magazine. To get Travelweek delivered to your agency for free, subscribe here.