N.Y. state of mind: What city's agents are saying

Caribbean editor Gay Nagle Myers sampled the agent state of mind during a series of New York sales calls with Sonesta. Her report follows:

NEW YORK -- I took the temperature of Manhattan on an Indian summer day late last month. Although the weather was warm, agency business was not.

I accompanied Donald A. Weber, director of marketing for Sonesta Beach Resort & Villas Anguilla, while he paid calls on retail agents. Sonesta boosted commissions to 20% on bookings through Dec. 15 at its resorts in Anguilla; Aruba; Bermuda, and Key Biscayne, Fla.

Weber wanted to spread the news, as he had not made sales calls in New York since April. At that time, Caribbean summer and fall bookings looked pretty good, and agents had reported a successful winter season just past.

It's different now.

We started at Tzell Travel Specialists, which represents numerous independent agencies under one midtown roof. Rose Harrington, Tzell's director of leisure development, was upbeat but realistic.

"Although there will be some casualties, agents will emerge stronger," she said. "Consumers need us now more than ever, especially to guide them through the travel deals that are out there."

Harrington advocated support for the airlines despite the commission caps. "American came to us and asked for help," she said. "It behooves us in the long run to support the airlines." Cruise line support also is critical, Harrington added.

"Support those lines which support us," she said. "We have the power to push a lot of business their way, especially this winter in the Caribbean." Holiday bookings, usually running at a good clip in October, "are dribbling in," Harrington said.

Diane Hobday, at Liberty Travel's branch at 72nd Street and Second Avenue in New York, reported that Caribbean winter travel is beginning to pick up at her agency. The numerous air and hotel deals now available will help push bookings along, Hobday said. Tzell's agents described the Caribbean booking situation as "very fluid, depending on the most recent crisis." Group business to the islands is at a standstill, and leisure bookings are "slow," according to Jill Kabat of All Nations Tours.

Parents are reluctant to travel as a family unit, although the closer the holidays get, the more that could shift.

Rita Ann Ruth at Tzell is selling cruises, but said the typical "hectic rush for Christmas is not happening."

Ken and Tom Schmidt, a father-son team with Tzell, had just booked six nights for five people next July on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. "That's great, but we need many more of those bookings right now for the Caribbean for the fall and winter seasons," the younger Schmidt said.

Sonesta's Weber was realistic. "The winter won't be a complete bust, but it will be last minute," he said. "I need the support of agents more than ever before to sell our programs."

At a Liberty Travel branch on the Upper East Side, good news greeted Weber. Agent Cindy Weasen had booked five nights in December at Sonesta on Anguilla.

"These are new clients. They'd heard about Sonesta's prices, live nearby and just called me," Weasen said.

Both she and colleague Diane Hobday reported "brisk" holiday business. "In this neighborhood, people want high-end hotels and nonstop flights," Hobday said. "What we need is a cold snap to pump up winter business."

Our final stop was an American Express branch on the East Side, which, in normal times, produces a high volume of leisure business. Agents reported inquiries but few bookings.

"The fear factor is still too high," one agent said.

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