Three months after Sandy, travel still feeling business impact

By Gay Nagle Myers
Although the ravages of Hurricane Sandy had a devastating initial impact on the travel industry, delayed or canceled vacations appear to have created pent-up demand that is now working to the benefit of sun-and-sand spots in Mexico and the Caribbean.

Still, the lingering impact of the storm on travel remains a mixed bag.

More than three months after Sandy wreaked havoc from the Caribbean to Canada, hitting hardest in parts of New York and New Jersey, floodwaters have receded. But for the thousands of homeowners and businesses caught in the storm’s lethal path, the challenges drag on.

The storm’s destruction cut across towns once thought safe from a hurricane’s fury, brought down roller coasters that had withstood a century of storms, washed out miles of commuter train tracks, crumpled the railings surrounding the Statue of Liberty, flooded tunnels and hospitals, destroyed thousands of homes, forced the cancellation of the New York City Marathon, caused gas rationing and cut power for millions of people for weeks on end.

Among the storm’s financial impact was that all sectors of the travel industry took a hit in November and December, a setback reflected in year-end earnings reports from cruise lines and airlines as well as occupancy levels at hotels and resorts.

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. reported a dip in booking activity in Q4, “with the greatest decline coming in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy,” said CFO Brian Rice.

Airlines canceled 19,729 flights from Oct. 27 through early Nov. 1, Amtrak shut down rails in the Northeast Corridor, and straphangers in New York had no subway service for a couple of days.

In the Caribbean, cruise lines altered course to avoid Sandy.

The Bahamas Ministry of TourStJamesClub-Antigua-springism estimated that lost revenue from five missed calls at the port of Nassau totaled $742,000.

Adding to the cruise lines’ losses were several thousand tourists who could not get to their Caribbean-bound ships because of canceled flights and crippled airports across the U.S.

Closed airports and canceled flights meant empty hotel rooms, restaurants and convention centers. The car rental business boomed, however, so much so that cars were in short supply in cities that lost air service.

Even today, the travel picture remains a mixed bag in the aftermath of Sandy.

The family travel market is typically on the move this time of year, beginning with the long Presidents Day weekend holiday and following right through to Easter and spring break.

This year, Presidents Day is Feb. 18 and Easter is March 31. In normal years, both would be peak vacation times for families.

Not this year.

Post-storm school closings threw attendance calendars into disarray. Most states require school districts to be in session for 180 days.

In New York, for example, three vacation days were cut from the weeklong February break. Many teachers, administrators and parents had already made vacation plans based on the previous schedule.

In late November, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) urged the travel industry, specifically airline and cruise companies, to create a refund policy for families who had to cancel trips due to changing school calendars.

Kimberly Milnes, a home-based agent in Teaneck, N.J., said her clients were adjusting to the shortened school break or, in some cases, ignoring it.

“Some had already booked and did not change their plans,” she said. “People just want to get away.”

Much of the Jersey shore remains littered with storm debris. Houses are unlivable, insurance claims have not been processed and federal assistance has been slow in arriving, due in part to funding delays in Congress. The first installment of a nearly $51 billion emergency aid package for Sandy victims in the Northeast was not released until Feb. 6.

Business has slowed at Metuchen Travel in Metuchen, N.J., said Trish Shuller.

“There are a lot of reasons for it, like the economy, the job situation and people not knowing when insurance money will come in,” Shuller said.

Another stumbling block is the cost of air.

“Fares are awful,” Shuller said. “Those with kids whose vacation plans haven’t been altered now are hesitating to book because of the high price of air tickets.”

At Beach Travel in Freehold, N.J., business is “OK,” although a spokesman said harsh economic times have made it difficult for some clients.

Rapka Travel in Wall Township, N.J., saw some cancellations from clients who lost homes to the storm.

“There was some real devastation around here, lots of water damage to homes and businesses,” said owner Walter Rapka.

JW Marriott CancunRapka said he is doing more marketing to recoup the losses due to shortened school vacations cutting down on family travel this year.

For some agents, however, the urge to escape Sandy’s devastation and the Northeast winter is resulting in a boom season, with bookings especially strong to Mexico, Jamaica and Punta Cana and for cruises.

“I’m the busiest I’ve ever been,” reported Maria Tilton with Cruise Planners Travel in Millstone Township, N.J., 20 miles from the hard-hit Jersey shore.

“My January was incredible. I thought Sandy would really impact our business. We were without power for 13 days after the storm, but the following Monday, the phones starting ringing.”

Although no one wanted to travel right after the storm, and many could not afford to, Ira Kaplan with Cruise Holidays in Marlboro, N.J., said, “Spring break here starts around March 22. There’s a big demand for cruises out of Bayonne [N.J.] because it is a convenient market.”

Hoteliers in Cancun and the Caribbean are seeing the results of pent-up demand, as well.

“We’re seeing a higher demand now vs. the same period a year ago,” said Christopher Calabrese, vice president and general manager of the JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa and the Casa Magna Marriott Cancun Resort. “The tristate area is our largest source market, especially this time of year, with travelers wanting to escape winter and spend spring break with their families.”

Both resorts are sold out through Feb. 15, booked solid for Easter weekend and are pacing well for Presidents Day weekend, Calabrese reported.

All three Beaches resorts (two in Jamaica, one in Turks and Caicos) are fully booked for the school holiday periods, with the bulk of the business coming from the Northeast markets, according to a representative.

Jolly Beach Resort & Spa in Antigua is offering two free excursions to families booking spring break travel.

U.S. bookings at the resort are up 12% year to date over last year’s results, according to General Manager Vernon A. Jeffers.

Elite Island Resorts’ collection of nine properties on six Caribbean islands “weathered the storm well,” said Cheri Selfridge, director of sales and marketing.

Elite’s family-friendly resorts — St. James’s Club and the Verandah Resort & Spa, both on Antigua — report a 15% jump in family travel for the February and spring break periods.

St. James’s Morgan Bay on St. Lucia is up 12% for the same period. Aruba’s Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino has seen a pickup in Presidents Day week bookings and a surge in its spring break business.

“I feel that many guests decided to delay their vacation to late March and early April rather than the traditional February dates,” said Antoinette van den Berg, director of sales and marketing.

Tom Stieghorst contributed to this report. 
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