So far this fall and winter, the Midwest has been hit by a huge ice storm; massive snow storms smashed into the Pacific Coast and the Rockies; and a nor’easter this week hit the Atlantic Seaboard all the way up to New England.
“Weather is always a complicating factor in the winter. My work hours have no boundaries,” said Deborah Director of Boca Raton, FL. “Travel agents work without regard to holidays, nights, weekends. I’m always on call during hurricane season.”
During Hurricane Matthew in October, Director had a group of six women flying from Chicago to Miami for a ladies’ getaway. “At the last minute, I was able to get the airline and hotel to cancel their reservations without penalties, and I rerouted the whole group of six to Phoenix.”
Kyle Seltzer of New York City owns his own SmartFlyer affiliate agency. He was in London when a hurricane and 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit El Salvador and Nicaragua over the Thanksgiving holiday. “I was up until about four or five in the morning, waiting for American Airlines to issue my clients a travel waiver. Availability was limited because everyone else was changing their plans to get out of the country.”
Jay Dill, owner at the Travel Junkie, Wichita, KS, recalled a weather event from the winter of 2014, when he had 14 clients on an awards trip in Cancun. “The morning of their return, we had a big snow storm in Wichita that closed the airport. We started with the airfare, as no one was flying into Wichita, my first priority is to secure space on the best flights I could for my clients when the airport reopened,” he said. “Itineraries from Cancun to Wichita were slim and they had no accommodations for the night, so it made the most sense to let them fly to Houston as planned. I was able to re-accommodate all the flights from Houston to Wichita for the next day. Once that was confirmed, I found rooms in Houston for the group and arranged for the hotel to pick up the group as it arrived.”
Dill did all of this before the group leader even found out the flights were cancelled.
Then he made sure to let the group know to get room receipts so he could help them get their travel insurance claims started. “Instead of dealing with this monster snow storm and multiple hours on hold (from Mexico), they went and had a goodbye brunch and a few mimosas,” Dill said.
Always on call
“I had to work on my father’s 75th birthday,” Seltzer said. “I had to skip out for 30 minutes to take care of a client. My friends and family understand that my schedule isn’t predictable.”
“In general I consider myself to be ‘on call’ while clients are traveling—but when there is a hurricane, or a volcano eruption, or a public transport strike, I make sure to contact my clients (even on weekends/evenings)—to let them know I am aware of any situations that might result in itinerary changes and also that I am here to help them sort it out,” agreed Leila Peverett Coe of World Class Travel in Orlando, FL. “I don't want them to have to contact me first with their concerns; I'd rather let them know I am aware and keeping an eye out for any possible issues.”
Darby Savasta of Darby's Destinations LLC in Mansfield, MA, constantly watches the weather to try to advise her clients in advance of any issues. “Several times I was able to get my clients flights and or travel dates moved around so they are able to get out on their vacation,” she said.
She also gets alerts of any flight changes through TripCase, usually before the client is even aware there is a delay. “I find it is easier to change the clients with the airline before the flights are cancelled and there are 100 other travelers finding the same seats,” she said. “The traveling client becomes the priority even if it is a weekend.”
Crises have silver linings
Responding in times of unexpected difficulty helps travel agents raise the importance of what they do and adds credibility for when they charge a service fee. “I think our profession is gaining more respect and understanding,” Seltzer said.
While the hectic nature of living beholden to Mother Nature has its negatives, most agents said they greatly enjoy the ability to serve others, and every now and then, they can see bright silver linings in tempestuous clouds.
Seltzer recalled a note his clients in Nicaragua sent him a week or so after their disrupted Thanksgiving. “They thanked me and told me not to worry because even though they didn’t get to spend Thanksgiving Day in their beautiful hotel, the experience reminded them about how to be thankful for what we do have, and how fast things can go bad. I thought that was a great takeaway.”