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Key cruise sellers assess impacts of this unprecedented hurricane season

(Hurricane Maria photo: NOAA)
From left, Signature's Alex Sharpe, WMPH Vacations' Uf Tukel; Dream Vacations, Cruise One and Cruises Inc.'s Drew Daly; Avoya's Steve Hirshan
Three catastrophic hurricanes impacting the world's No. 1 cruise destination, the Caribbean, and the No. 1 source market, the United States, have caused big challenges for cruise sellers.

Not only are bookings affected, but agents really have to step up to shepherd clients through the complexities of itinerary changes, cancellations (cruises and flights) and rebookings, answer a flood of questions, calm anxieties and give informed advice. On top of it all, many agents living in key travel markets like Texas and Florida have been personally impacted by hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

Seatrade Cruise News reached out to several leading retail groups to gauge the repercussons of this unprecedented hurricane season.

Alex Sharpe, president & CEO, Signature Travel Network; Drew Daly, general manager of network engagement & performance for Dream Vacations, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc.; Steve Hirshan, SVP sales support, Avoya Travel; and Uf Tukel, co-president & founder of WMPH Vacations, talked about members, staff and franchisees, how their head offices are providing extra support and how agents are supporting each other. Their views of the impact on demand for cruises vary somewhat, but all are unanimous in their sympathy for the destinations and awed by the cruise lines' response in supporting recovery.

How have your travel professionals been getting along, given the disruptions to their work?

Alex Sharpe: Our members, overall, have been pretty fortunate. Certainly, this process of rebounding from Irma or Harvey hasn’t been easy and has created disruption, primarily because both physical offices and their own homes have been impacted, some by flooding, or just lost power/Internet. For the most part agencies have been able to cobble together enough consultants to help, at the office or remotely.

Some members have routed calls to other member agencies that offered to help them service their customers. It’s beautiful to see everyone pitching in.

Signature has made some modifications to the marketing schedule for affected members and is looking to help them grow their audience even more once they are back online, understanding the local market, especially in Houston, might not be traveling right away.

I'm heading to Naples/Fort Meyers [on Florida's Gulf Coast] today to meet with members and their teams. Next Monday we're hosting a dinner in South Florida for members who missed Signature's Owners' Meeting last week to check in on each of them and share updates. We also plan a 'mission' to Houston in mid-October, where we hope to do some local service, assist members directly with anything they need and just reassure them along the way.

Drew Daly: Both Harvey and Irma have impacted more than just agents located in Texas, Louisiana and the Southeast, but all across the country due to having customers living in those areas or traveling outside of those regions on cruises.

The agents located in the impacted areas are slowly but surely getting back some sense of normalcy. We have seen our agents come together as a greater community to provide additional business and personal support for any agent who needs it.

Steve Hirshan: Avoya has been working extra hard to support Independent Agencies (IAs) affected by Irma and Harvey as well as the clients that were scheduled to travel through the affected areas.

Avoya offers network support and customer service seven days a week and has remained in constant communication with IAs, suppliers and travelers to ensure network members have been receiving everything they need to properly assist customers and run their business.

Avoya’s Agent Power technology enables Independent Agencies to work from anywhere as long as they have access to the Internet, and has allowed many network members in Texas and Florida to conduct business and help clients remotely if they were forced to relocate. In addition, many IAs that were unavailable to help clients or take Live Leads [a trademarked Avoya service that channels inquiries to specialists] due to the storm were able to request backup support through Avoya’s My Colleague System to connect with other network members, ensuring their businesses can continue to run.

This program allows Independent Agencies to choose a colleague if they need them to fill in and allows them to access their book of business, take calls and check bookings.

Uf Tukel: We all fared well during Hurricane Irma. We learned some lessons the hard way from hurricanes Frances and Jeanne in 2004 and again with Hurricane Wilma in 2005. In each case, our business and operations were dead in the water without power at our company for over a week.

After Wilma we decided to protect ourselves from future hurricanes by moving all our phone sytems, servers and other technology and systems to the cloud. The investment definitely paid off and we had minimal disruption to our operations.

[For Irma] we had plenty of time to prepare. Fortunately over half of our sales and clients services teams work from home anyway. By the time we evacuated our offices before the storm, we made sure that everyone whose jobs could be done remotely was set up to work remotely.

The safety of our staff and their families was our most important priority. We encouraged everyone to work with their managers to schedule time out during business hours early on to buy supplies, put up hurricane shutters and do whatever else they needed to prepare for the storm. We insisted they follow their community orders for evacuation. We were constantly communicating what was happening to our headquarters and home-based staff.

As a result we were adequately prepared to have staff on the phones from home until they evacuated to a safe place or lost power if they stayed put. We had more than enough home-based staff who were outside the path of the storm so were able to maintain normal business hours during the whole storm.

We didn't set any sales records last week, but I'm very proud of how our client services team was still able to take care of our guests, and our sales staff for making bookings during this period. Overall, our office building was closed for almost six days, but the cloud technology and the home-based strategy really minimized the disruption we could've had.

Have the hurricanes, including now Maria, impacted cruise bookings?

Drew Daly: There has been a degradation in cruise bookings resulting from people unable to travel or cruises that were canceled. We have advised our agents to work with any displaced passenger and help them get rebooked on a future cruise.

A cruise vacation is still a very safe alternative for consumers. The safety of guests is the highest priority for all cruise lines. That said, we have educated our agents to continue to promote the value of cruising and to utilize all of the great promotions available in the marketplace now.

The media coverage before, during and after each storm led to a lot of anxiety. Travel agents are invaluable during this time as they reach out to customers to alleviate and help diminish any anxiety and provide alternative arrangements when available. Personalization is a main differentiator for a travel agent and this personal service was reinforced to consumers when agents reached out to check on anyone impacted.

Steve Hirshan: When these types of issues arise, those who book don’t tend to cancel, but new bookings do tend to slow down.

If clients are holding off or seeking advice about the affected area, travel agents can help by providing information on alternative Caribbean islands and itineraries that may be more desirable, and educate them on refundable deposits as most vacations are refundable up until final payment, typically 90 to 60 days prior to departure.

Travel agents can also recommend vacation experiences in other parts of the world such as Europe and [elsewhere in] North America that might be more appealing.

Uf Tukel: The storms really are affecting bookings. We are hearing from guests that they are a bit hesitant about booking the Caribbean considering the active hurricane season we are having and the damage that was caused to St. Maarten and St. Thomas. It's too early to say about Puerto Rico.

Our client services department has been swamped with [questions from] concerned guests. We've had a handful of guests who have asked us to move their deposits from the Caribbean to Alaska or other destinations. Prior to the storm, we did change our phone greeting to ask our callers to be patient for longer hold times due to the storm and we put a page on our website with links to each cruise line's hurricane status updates and we have a page on hurricane FAQs. This was one the most popular pages for us last week, according to Google Analytics.

Alex Sharpe: Overall, demand has continued, but there is uncertainty as cruise lines hurry to assess damage and create alternative plans. We haven’t seen big cancellations for 2018 Caribbean cruises, but are certainly hand-holding those folks as well as those who have closer-in bookings to determine what those vacations will look like. With Maria this week, it’s a bit of a moving target.

These are the times where consultants are more important than ever. They can give their customers objective feedback on alternative itineraries and help them maximize their plans and their vacation. Truly, it's where we shine.

Would you like to say anything about the destinations, or relief efforts or what the cruise lines are doing to help?

Steve Hirshan: Avoya president Brad Anderson said it’s incredible what cruise lines have been doing in response to the hurricanes and evacuations—from donating the essentials such as food, water and medical supplies to the affected islands, to the various ways they have been supporting displaced residents and providing them with emotional support such as allowing them to bring pets on board.

Also, Avoya has been working with the Friends & Family Community Connection to provide support and funds to those impacted by Hurricane Harvey.

Uf Tukel: It's very sad to see the level of damage to Barbuda, St. Maarten and St. Thomas. I've been to St. Maarten and St. Thomas more times than I can count and it breaks my heart to see the destruction. I visited all three in February on a Windstar cruise.

The cruise lines are doing a wonderful job bringing supplies and providing aid. It was particulary moving to see Andy Stuart's blog regarding the Norwegian Sky trip to St. Thomas to help guests and Royal Caribbean providing housing on one of their ships to employees impacted by the storm. Bahamas Paradise has already chartered one of their ships to FEMA as a floating hotel for first responders and National Guard in St. Thomas. I wouldn't be surprised if we see more of this.

Alex Sharpe: Amazing! I have never been more proud of our industry. What cruise lines have done for their own co-workers is nothing short of inspiring. What they have done for stranded travelers and for the islands/destinations themselves is really what we are all about.

Certainly they are making an impact, but in the face of billions of dollars in damage, governments will have to come to the rescue as well. Ten percent of worldwide employment and 10% of the world’s GNP is related to travel and tourism, but in these islands, the percentage is much higher.

We all have a vested interest to help these folks recover, but we also have a moral obligation to continue to do the right thing and all of our supplier partners are doing so.

Drew Daly: Harvey, Irma and Maria’s impact in the Caribbean is just so tragic. The efforts undertaken by each cruise line have inspired the industry to do more to support the destinations and those areas affected.

I am proud to be a part of an industry that supports one another and rallies together to provide support to communities that are vital to our continued success. I would expect to see agencies and other organizations pulling together in the weeks ahead for additional efforts to help these areas.

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