Agents Cope With Latest Storm Challenge
by Maria Lenhart  and  Fred Gebhart

With memories of Superstorm Sandy still fresh in their minds, travel agents jumped into action last week and over the weekend to cope with the anticipated and actual effects of a massive storm.

While the blizzard that crippled parts of the Northeast this weekend was nowhere near as catastrophic as Hurricane Sandy, it required agents to take similar steps on behalf of their clients, as thousands of flights were grounded.

Advance planning in Massachusetts
Circles, an Ensemble agency with offices in Boston, Chelmsford, Mass., and Toronto, began “feverishly planning” right after hearing the first forecast last Tuesday, said Kate Urekew, executive director-travel product and marketing.

“We looked at everybody in our database who is traveling and reached out to them,” she said. “We were able to rebook all their flights and, in some cases, got some of them switched over to trains. With clients flying back to the Northeast from Europe this weekend, we rerouted them to fly into cities where they could catch a train home.”

In many cases, the agency convinced clients to cut their trips short and fly home before the storm hit or flights were cancelled. “We had clients in Europe who ended up coming home 24 hours early,” Urekew said.

Hotel rooms for clients & staff
Along with rerouting flights for clients, the agency secured hotel rooms for them in their rerouted locations.

“We did this so people wouldn’t be panicked that they would have to sleep on an airport floor,” she said. “When flights are disrupted by weather, everyone rushes for the nearest airport hotel. So it’s important to make sure your clients have a room.”

Urekew estimated that as many as 100 clients were affected. Agency staffers, including senior management, were on call 24/7 throughout the weekend to provide guidance for clients dealing with the blizzard.

Circles also secured nearby hotel rooms for its agency staff in the Boston and Chelmsford locations so they could get to the offices. This was necessary as Massachusetts banned all vehicles on the roads as of Friday evening – the first such order in the state since the Great Blizzard of 1978.

Where can I buy a generator?
Circles, which promotes itself as a travel concierge, did more than help with travel arrangements – it even handled requests from clients who were not traveling but needed assistance because of the storm.

“We had every kind of call you can imagine – people who had lost their power and wanted us to get help for them,” Urekew said. “Someone called us and asked us for help in buying a generator.”

Biz travel impact
At suburban Boston-based Atlas Travel, approximately 1,500 business travel clients were affected by flight cancellations on Friday and Saturday, according to Mimi Cleary, vice president, corporate services.
The firm brought in additional staff to service clients on Thursday and Friday evenings and opened on Saturday to alleviate volume, Cleary told Travel Market Report.

In advance of the storm, Atlas had implemented its risk management communication platform. The platform provides “general alerts, impacted traveler and flight notifications as well as a ‘who and where are my impacted travelers’ communication and dashboard for our travel managers,” Cleary said. 
“We ran activity reports to pro-actively monitor potential cancelled flights and began contacting our clients starting on Wednesday. Many opted to leave or return prior to the original schedule that was anticipated to be impacted,” Cleary said.

19 stores affected
Among travel agencies in areas that took a direct hit from the storm was Liberty Travel. The firm’s 19 stores in Massachusetts and Connecticut, along with nine on Long Island, were affected, according to Jacques DiCroce, senior vice president of FC USA Information Technology.

“In Connecticut and Massachusetts, the roads were closed, so we couldn’t have people in the shop. We gave directions to the staff to go home and directed the calls elsewhere.”?

All stores were open for business Monday morning.

Overall, the company said, recent inclement weather has shown the importance of planning ahead.

The company implements its emergency management plan several days before an event, said DiCroce, who is in charge of emergency and disaster recovery management.

“It gets our support team on the product side to start communicating with our airline, tour and hotel partners. Where appropriate they start to make the modifications to travel.”

CWT takes action
At Carlson Wagonlit Travel, staffing levels were increased over the weekend and into Monday so it could respond to additional call volume, with a focus on travelers who needed to be re-accommodated for current or imminent travel, said spokeswoman Michelle Surkamp.

“CWT began monitoring the storm on Tuesday and has proactively communicated with clients who might have travelers that are impacted,” she said. “We’re also updating airline re-accommodation policies, which can be found on our website.” 

American Express Global Business Travel also was prepared. The firm “aggressively secured additional skilled resources through the weekend to handle the increased in-bound call volume. As the region recovers from the storm, we continue to evaluate our client needs and adapt accordingly,” a spokesperson said on Monday.

Andrew Sheivachman contributed to this report.


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