From late August to mid-September, hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria struck parts of the U.S. and the Caribbean in rapid succession, leaving agents scrambling to take care of their clients and, in many cases, their own homes and offices in the path of the deadly storms.
In most cases, outright cancellations were minimal. But two weeks after the last major storm, Maria, finally dissipated, agents were still working to rebook clients, putting in long hours to plan new trips for essentially the same commissions.
Travel Leaders Group CEO Ninan Chacko said agents have been extraordinarily busy in the weeks following the storms. But he said most clients seemed to be returning to their agents for new plans, a positive sign for business going forward.
"While a Caribbean cruise may end up being rerouted somewhere else or might convert into an all-inclusive in Mexico, obviously the economics of that transaction might change somewhat depending on what we're talking about," he said. "But in general, our expectation is that most of those trips will get reaccommodated, likely to a different destination from [the one that] was impacted."
John Werner, president and COO of the MAST Travel Network, agreed that most travelers seemed to be rebooking with their agents.
"This time, these hurricanes were so severe that [some islands] won't be up and running in time for the holidays," Werner said. "So those are the trips that our members have really been scrambling" to rebook.
Agencies most affected were the ones in the path of the hurricanes. Often, they had to close offices because they had no electricity or internet.
"We had a 10-day period that we were completely down," said Ralph Santisteban, owner of a Dream Vacations franchise in Miami. "We didn't sell one cruise for 10 days."
Todd Elliott, owner of Orlando-based Cruise Vacation Outlet, said it took 48 hours for power to come back at his agency and another five days for reliable internet. Once it was up and running again, Elliott saw an initial spate of cancellations, but he said he expects to recover that business.
"The increase in cancellations was actually quite significant," he said. "But probably 90% of those who did cancel are going to rebook something, probably within the next three months."
Cruise line-protected commissions on canceled sailings also helped, Elliott said, as did incentives such as discounted fares on future cruises for affected passengers. Agents got paid for planned cruises in many cases, and their clients often quickly returned to book their next cruises.
Wyllys Professional Travel, based in Coral Gables, Fla., closed for three days.
President and CEO Susan Weissberg said agents could not work remotely during those days as they were without power, as well. Upon returning to the office, a number of cancellations and rebookings had to be dealt with.
All of Wyllys' clients have rebooked, Weissberg said; and while it is extra work, she said it comes with the territory.
"We just look at it as part of our job, and we do our best to keep our clients happy," she said.