Airlines, cruise ships, tour operators, hotel companies—and especially travel agents—are scrambling to keep customers moving and out of harm’s way as Hurricane Matthew roars through tourist destinations in the Caribbean, with stops in or near Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba, Turks and Caicos, and soon a final destination in or near Port Canaveral, FL.
In Florida, meanwhile, agents find themselves moving not only customers, but also locals fleeing west as Matthew nears.
In either case, in a year of natural and man-made travel disruption, the nation’s corps of travel agents continue to deliver quality customer service in the face of disaster.
Diane Bean of Off on Vacation in Bangor, ME, for example, said “I truly felt I'd gone to war for my clients” yesterday.
“I had honeymooners set to go to Beaches, Turks and Caicos on Sunday October 2 just ahead of the hurricane. To put this in perspective, I have been a full time travel consultant for 28 years so I've seen a few storms over the years, both hurricanes and blizzards.
“I truly I felt I'd gone to war for my clients”
“I knew earlier last week Matthew was going to be a nasty storm. My nervous bride and I talked Thursday morning and for almost an hour I tried to calm and reassure her that I, the airlines and the resort did NOT want her and her fiance in the middle of a hurricane. She just kept crying. So, I kept watching the weather reports. I watched them all during our drive from Bangor, Maine, to Montreal, Quebec, where we had plans to see Adele in concert Friday night. The storm was stalled in the middle of the Caribbean that night and all of Friday.
“Saturday morning the bride was more upset than ever. American Airlines had put Jamaica, Cuba and the Bahamas on its travel advisory list. No advisory for Turks and Caicos.
“I called AA Vacations, talked to an agent and told her how upset my client was about Matthew....Could we change their dates without penalty at this time, agent put me on hold. She contacted Beaches who said they were NOT changing any Turks and Caicos clients yet. She said she would continue to work on it and would contact me later in the day if she could get another answer. Now Saturday morning Matthew was headed straight for Jamaica. I relayed this to my bride who was still upset and in turn had her father call me at my hotel in Canada.
“We talked for 15 minutes and he told me how his engineer daughter was very distressed because her wedding was to take place that day on the top of a beautiful ski mountain in North Conway, NH, during the height of foliage season. However, rain was currently pouring down and that ski mountain was fogged in. Now, on top of that, a hurricane is raging in the Caribbean. She not only wanted to move her wedding, she wanted to cancel her honeymoon. Well, Dad was a voice of reason. He wanted her to continue with her plans to go on her honeymoon because at that time, the weather reports said the hurricane would go to the west of the Turks and Caicos islands and while they'd get rain, there would be no storm. I agreed. He thanked me for everything I'd done on her behalf.
“Fast-forward to Saturday night. I had no message from AA Vacations all day. We'd driven back from Montreal to Bangor. I sat down at my desk to check my client’s flights. (This is where my nightmare begins.) I couldn't pull them up. I called AA Vacations. OMG, there was no air in their record.Apparently the AA agent had cancelled them Saturday morning and NEVER got back to me. She just left their record with no air!
“I got an AA vacations supervisor who promised me (and I videotaped our conversation) that we'd get this honeymoon rescheduled Sunday for another time. It's 9:30 at night now and I texted the bride and her father: CALL ME, URGENT. 10:30 pm and I am sweating bullets. I can only imagine them showing up at the airport Sunday morning and NO flights. I am also watching the weather and the storm was moving now to the east...wasn't going to hit Jamaica, but Haiti instead and would end up affecting the Turks.
”Bride’s father finally texts. I told him no honeymoon; AA Vacations was going to allow them to reschedule it. Dad thanked me for my "hat trick" and tells me he will let the couple know.
“Sunday morning, newlywed couple texts me...thanking me for everything I have done and gave me dates to reschedule them. I call AA Vacations and get another supervisor who said the one I talked to Saturday had no authority to tell me that my clients would be rebooked and I'd have to talk to that same supervisor! (yeah good luck with that) Finally Sunday afternoon, American Airlines puts the Turks on their travel advisory. At this point I tell the last supervisor I talk to that I have a video of my Saturday night conversation with the supervisor who told me she'd rebook these clients. He is rude beyond belief to me and tells me nothing will be done until Monday morning. I relay this to my clients. I told them I WOULD rebook them then.
“I called Monday morning and got a true angel agent at AA Vacations who professionally handled the entire rebooking process in breakneck speed, it took her all of 15 minutes to rebook them for next May. She profusely apologized for the terrible service I'd received Sunday. I text my clients SUCCESS. They text me back, "Oh yay, awesome!!! Thanks so much!!"
Dad texts me, “Diane, we have booked our own vacation for March but we are thinking of going to Italy next year…”
In Florida, Deborah Director “rehomes” local customers ordered to evacuate
In Boca Raton, FL, meanwhile, Deborah Director of SmartFlyer has been relocating customers from their homes, as an emergency evacuation has been ordered, while juggling a girls’ group headed for the Caribbean.
“I’ve been literally glued to my computer since late afternoon yesterday,” she said. “Everybody was making a mass exodus from the east coast for the west coast, so I have been rehoming my clients who live along the I-95 corridor. Plus I had a girls’ group from Chicago that was flying into Miami; we are just going to pivot that and fly them to Scottsdale instead.”
Travel advisors "make magic happen, thanks to our partnerships and history in the industry,” she said. With no space showing on online websites, six of her customers called to ask for help in finding hotels to the west—and she was able to clear space for them “at some nice properties” in Naples.
“That access is the real value of using a travel advisor,” Director said. “Our partners understand the plight of our clients, and our relationship is key to making it happen as a seamless transition.”
The hotel in Miami, meanwhile, waived all cancellation fees on the three-bedroom suite the girls’ group had booked, and the girls are going “to a nice spa retreat at Camelback” instead.