Agents scramble to reaccommodate cruise clients in storm's wake

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NEW YORK -- When Becky Strecker saw the devastation in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina, she realized that the 246-person group she had booked for the Carnival Conquest in October was in trouble.

Strecker, an agent with Cruise Planners in Fairfield, Va., quickly got on the phone and put hotel rooms on hold in Texas and Florida, guessing that Carnival Cruise Lines would redeploy the 110,000-ton Conquest to Galveston or Miami. I actually had a meeting with the group, handed them their tickets and still didnt know where they were going, she said.

Her gamble paid off. As soon as she heard the ship was to be based in Galveston indefinitely, she faxed in the confirmation at the Houston Embassy Suites, and within 30 hours she had the entire group re-booked to Houston Bush Airport.

Its the second time in nine years that Ive had to do it under this much stress, Strecker said. And the other one was 9/11. With the same group.

Front-line travel agents last week scrambled to reaccommodate thousands of guests who were previously booked on Carnival ships. Some, like the Carnival Conquest, were merely redeployed.

The Ecstasy, Sensation and Holiday, meanwhile, were chartered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for six months beginning Sept. 5.

Those six months of bookings were cancelled through March.

The Elations itineraries, meanwhile, were changed from seven-day cruises to four- and five-day cruises. Passengers on the Ecstasy were moved right to the Elation. But the Elations passengers didnt have a comparable -- or empty -- ship to bump over to.

Carnival paid full refunds to bumped clients and offered a $100 per-person onboard credit. Carnival also protected the travel agents commissions on both the original sale and the rebooking.

And there was plenty of work for agents like Mimi Comfort, president of Comfort Tours of Kansas City, Mo., who said the agency had tons of passengers to reaccommodate.

We had several groups on different ships. Its a difficult situation, she said.

We had a meeting yesterday and ran reports on all the ships and clients affected, said Comfort. We contacted them on an individual basis. For those who want to go ahead and go, were moving them over.

The snag, said Comfort, came for the displaced passengers: The cruise lines are charging them prevailing rates, often higher than when the passengers originally booked.

In some cases they booked a seven-day cruise and are now bumped to a five-day cruise for practically the same money, Comfort said.

Although she understands the need to help the people in New Orleans, Comfort said, It shouldnt be a disservice to the clients. Theyre told to book early to get the best price. Now theyre being kicked off the ship, and they are paying for it. The cruise lines are not giving any kind of break.

But Patti Edwards, the sales manager for Comfort Tours sister agency, Cruise Holidays, said although some clients are disappointed at seeing their purchases downsized, Everyone was of the mindset that this is small compared to what [Katrina evacuees] are going through. It became a matter of being creative and trying to find ways to work with the situation.

Agents in the office were really having to scramble, Edwards said, but I think everyone is getting accommodated. Agencywide, about 50% are just shifting to another ship. The only thing Carnival should have done was to have protected their rates. [Clients] are having to pay about 30% more than they did originally.

Carnival reiterated that they gave passengers a full refund and a shipboard credit and said the decision to charter its vessels was difficult due in no small part to the fact that we realized we would be disrupting the vacations of tens of thousands of people.

Bruce Scottow, the editor in chief of the Web site at Seven Blue Seas Vacations of Pasadena, Calif., said he thought Carnivals offer was generous and sensitive, even though some clients prices rose.

For people who were booked on truly good deals that were no longer available its unfortunate, but Carnival cant give away the house, he said. I was very impressed with Carnivals response.

According to Scottow, By Thursday or Friday [following the Monday when Katrina hit New Orleans] they had already been in talks with the powers-that-be about possible chartering. Then by Monday they had a game plan in place. My overall impression is that theyre acting really fast. Thats something we can tell our customers.

Clients, too, were putting inconvenience into perspective, Scottow said. If they are not getting their perfect vacation or alternate date, they are understanding, saying: Hey, we dont have it so bad. Were talking about going on a luxury cruise. I think the traveling public is sensitive too.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

Rebecca Tobin contributed to this report.

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