Travel agents and industry suppliers were focused on the recovery of their favorite Caribbean islands at the recent New Jersey ASTA chapter fall trade show and dinner, sharing stories of rebooking guests, and the extensive measures they and the industry are taking to educate consumers on vacation options in the region.
Two weeks to the day that Maria stormed onto the shores of Puerto Rico, Narciso Moreno, sales director for North America and Latin America, at the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, was explaining to agent attendees the status of his home island, where most of the available lodging and resort properties are currently serving police, fire, and other early responders engaged in rescue and recovery.
Most businesses and residences in Puerto Rico still have no electricity, hampering tourism’s ability to contribute to the island’s economy.
He said there were still several months of work to be done before the island can welcome tourists again. “I think we are going to miss the Christmas season but we'll be ready for January,” Moreno said. Puerto Rico has launched a microsite on the Internet where it is providing updates on hotels, airports and other tourism related information.
Travel agents educating clients about geography, rebooking trips
While Puerto Rico has been featured prominently in the American news media, the lack of adequate coverage of smaller islands, and islands that are not part of the U.S., is causing some confusion among American consumers, agents and suppliers agreed.
As a result, travel agents say they are having to help educate clients about Caribbean geography, and reassure them about existing reservations and future travel plans.
“I have three couples going to the Dominican Republic in December, and they called me to get a status on the hotels,” said Ralph Ferrara, a travel agent with Scully Travel in Sparta, N.J. “I reassured them that the Dominican was lucky, and that their hotel has no structural damage and the debris is gone.”
“We’re 100 percent operational and had only minor issues, but we still get calls from guests asking if we fixed all of our broken windows,” said Robyn Mitlitsky, director of sales and marketing, North America, for Alsol Hotels & Resorts in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, a boutique group of upscale properties.
“It’s not the agents though,” Mitlitsky said. “It’s the consumer. They don’t have accurate knowledge of the paths of the two hurricanes, and how vast the Caribbean is. They think it is smaller than it is. Just because some islands are receiving media coverage showing significant damage, doesn’t mean all of the islands were damaged.”
A Club Med representative, who asked not to be identified, agreed with Mitlitsky. “Agents are very aware of what state different islands and properties are in, so we have had to rebook very few guests because of a mistaken concern a property was damaged.”
Kimberly Collucci, travel planner at Cardinal Tours in Pompton Lakes, N.J., said she had two clients going to the Sandals Riviera Maya this fall who wanted to change their plans due to the alcohol scare Mexico suffered earlier in the summer.
She just rebooked them to a property in the Caribbean that was out of the path of both hurricanes, but still the clients asked her about whether the properties were open. “I told them I was getting constant updates from the property, and could see it was fine. That reassured them.”
Kim Tursiella, travel consultant with Travel Ports & Voyages, LLC, in Old Bridge, N.J., praised suppliers like Sandals for their frequent communications throughout both hurricanes. “They were giving us the ability to educate our clients, when they are uncertain, which helps prove our value because we have these relationships and communication channels,” Tursiella said.
Ferrara thanked a number of wholesalers as well for their constant communications throughout the recovery phase, including GoGo Tours and Travel Impressions. “They’ve been very supportive in helping us communicate with our clients, and that builds the trust that we stand for,” he said.
Shortage of rooms is pinching availability
Norrell K. Joseph, tourism marketing officer for the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority, had just returned from a visit to Antigua the week of the trade show. He reported that while Barbuda is completely devastated, “Antigua is doing very, very well,” with the majority of the island’s 4,000 hotel rooms planning to be reopened this month.
Still, the loss of such a large amount of room capacity is starting to reach the consumer, in terms of vacation options, agents said.
Rick Ardis, owner of Ardis Travel, in East Rutherford, N.J., does a good deal of all-inclusive bookings in the Caribbean, and said he is already seeing a squeeze in availability in the short-term as a result of the lost room capacity on other islands.
“Aruba all-inclusive bookings are way up, for this time of year,” Ardis said. “There is not a lot of availability around the Caribbean short-term.”
Like Moreno, Joseph talked with agents about how booking clients back to Antigua is one of the strongest statements they can make about their support for relief, as most island economies are almost completely dependent on tourism. “We tell consumers and agents all of the time now, ‘Visit Antigua, help Barbuda,’” Joseph said.
Suppliers are helping, agents too
Moreno noted how many industry suppliers have offered a variety of services and relief donations to help the island recover, and to evacuate both residents and travelers who were trapped on the island. He said that American Airlines, Delta Airlines, JetBlue, Spirit and United Airlines were especially helpful. Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines docked at the island to evacuate travelers and residents as well.
The ASTA fall trade show dedicated raffle proceedings to a Puerto Rico relief charity. Moreno mentioned how supportive the travel trade has been. “I’ve heard from so many ASTA chapters, offers and ideas for support, invitations to come and speak to their members,” he said. “We’re very grateful for our industry friends and colleagues. They’ve been wonderful.”
Moreno urged anyone interested in donating to visit the United Puerto Rico website.
Hope for the future
While the Caribbean is currently in its shoulder season, with traditionally lower demand, most of the agents and suppliers attending the ASTA New Jersey meeting said they are cautiously optimistic about the region’s rebound.
“As the news media shifts away from Puerto Rico relief and recovery coverage, I think you will see the consumer’s perceptions of the entire Caribbean start to shift,” said Mitlitsky.
Moreno talked about how some of the relief efforts will make the island more modern and self-sufficient. He mentioned how a German electric company is installing new “microgrids” on the island as utility workers get the power back on. These small-scale systems rely on a combination of solar panels and batteries. Similarly, Tesla Inc. is sending hundreds of battery systems to the island.
“What you will see is a Puerto Rico stronger than ever, and that will make tourism stronger too,” Moreno said.