Post Hurricane Harvey, Houston Travel Agents Get Back on Their Feet

by Richard D’Ambrosio
Post Hurricane Harvey, Houston Travel Agents Get Back on Their Feet

Photo: Defense.gov


While images of hotel lobbies filled with water and flooded airport runways focused the industry's attention on travelers last week, many travel agents in and around Houston face even greater long term challenges as water levels subside.

Vacations To Go chairman and CEO Alan Fox, said the company's Houston headquarters suffered "only minor water damage," and the phones were down only through Wednesday, Aug. 30.

Fox wrote in a letter on the company's website, "all 800 Vacations To Go employees were safe and I can confirm now that all escaped injury," though 64 employees "have sustained serious flooding to their homes" and another 33 were evacuated from their neighborhoods.

"Some have lost every material thing that they owned -- house, cars, clothes, furniture, everything," Fox wrote. "Several of our employees are high and dry in their homes but surrounded by floodwaters that prevent them from leaving their neighborhoods."

Stuart Godwin III, CTC, president, Leisure Travel Alliance, Inc. (LTA), estimated there are approximately 143 LTA agents in the affected areas. "One agent's home has been flooded and she lost everything," Godwin said.
 
Mike Weingart, an independent agent with Air Land Sea Consultants in Houston, and Houston/Southwest ASTA Chapter president, was at the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) conference as Harvey smashed into Houston. His return home was delayed a day as he waited for airports to reopen. When he got back, he found only minor damage to his car.

Weingart and his colleagues have reached out to local members, and as best as he could tell late last week, "virtually all our member agents are up and running."

Kathy Burns, general manager, with LTA's Central host agency offices in Houston, said she heard from one part-time agent whose home was impacted when the city released water from the Addicks Reservoir, but otherwise everyone was safe.

Future trip cancellations were minimal so far, "I only had two or three agents get in touch with me about issues with client cancellation, and I am still waiting only on one for the supplier to let us know what they are going to do."

Agents could face long-term impact
Meanwhile, tens of thousands of residents remain displaced, and have moved out of the city temporarily, taking their incomes with them. Others now have little or no discretionary income to pay for travel as they wait to return to their homes.

The result is travelers cancelling or delaying trips as they sort through their personal finances. For instance, Weingart had a business trip to New Orleans planned for this week, but the airlines cancelled his flight, and ASTA's newest Texas chapter has cancelled its upcoming trade show in Austin.

"People are not planning vacations in the middle of this crisis," said Godwin, a longtime Houston resident who heads LTA from its Austin headquarters.

The trouble means agents can lose commissions for cancelled trips, due to no fault of their own.

"The agents in the area are going to have a large number of cancellations, and some suppliers won't protect their commissions. We're asking them to protect commissions the best they can, but we understand they are under financial stress too," Godwin said.

At the ASTA Global Convention in San Diego, ASTA President, Zane Kerby made both public and private pleas to suppliers and member agents to assist agents in the affected areas, and asked everyone to contribute to community organizations involved in the Texas relief effort. 

"As the travel industry stands united to help the displaced, we hope that our supplier partners will be compassionate and understanding while working with ASTA member agencies and their clients on cancellation, re-booking and remuneration policies connected to travel impacted by the devastation," Kerby said.

"The loss of income from these cancellations will be fairly significant, and we are very concerned about a drop in future bookings as Houston recovers," LTA's Godwin said.

Airlines Reporting Corp (ARC) has assembled a team to assist travel agencies affected by Hurricane Harvey with operational needs, like late reporting or location changes.

"We want to work alongside you to find solutions that meet your needs during this difficult time, so please do not hesitate to contact us if there is any way we can provide assistance," ARC said.

Help is on the way
In response to the financial stress, many entities are creating funds specifically to provide assistance to Houston and travel agents.

ASTA's Corporate Advisory Council (CAC) is currently allowing chapters who meet their ASTAPAC goals to use their share of up to $40,000 in ASTAPAC Charitable Matching funds, for Texas charities assisting in Houston's recovery.

Carnival Corporation, and the Micky and Madeleine Arison Family Foundation pledged a minimum of $2 million to Houston relief organizations. Additionally, guests sailing on certain Carnival cruises will have the option to make a donation when they check in for their cruise.

LTA has created the LTA Hurricane Harvey Special Account, with an initial donation of $10,000 from senior management. Godwin and his company are asking LTA agents to match that sum with their own contributions.

Auto Europe is pledging $5 per reservation booked by any travel agent, nationwide, for their client now through Sept 30, 2017, towards a relief fund to assist agents. Auto Europe's CEO Imad Khalidi vowed to personally match pledges.

Vacations To Go said it is committing $1 million to the shelter and recovery operations underway in Houston, dividing that amount equally among six long-established, local, charitable organizations.

Tourism Cares also has launched a fundraising campaign. The Hurricane Harvey Tourism Recovery Fund is targeting "the recovery of coastal communities directly in the hurricane’s path."

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