Storm Snows In Mid-America Retailers


CHICAGO -- Shannon Stewart, vice president of sales and marketing for Professional Travel in Englewood, Colo., waited hours for snowplows to clear her street on Oct. 27. She finally reached her agency at midday.

An early storm dumped nearly two feet of snow on the Denver area, shutting down the airport for a good part of last weekend, then moved east to make life miserable for travelers in other areas, including Omaha, Neb., and Des Moines, Iowa.

Shannon said Professional Travel could not staff its Denver Airport office on Saturday because the main airport access road was closed and employees were trapped at home, anyway. Agents managed to get to the airport on Sunday and divided the crowd into two lines -- one for Professional Travel's clients, predominantly business travelers, and the other for vacation travelers who were not the agency's clients but had been stuck at the airport and were desperate for assistance, Stewart said. At the peak of the crisis, the wait in line was about 45 minutes, Stewart said.

In the meantime, the agency's toll-free after-hours line was deluged, logging more than 250 calls during one 24-hour period. "That was just unbelievable," Stewart said. The good news, she said, was that the agency's reservations center was fully staffed on Monday morning.

Because of the uncertainties about road conditions, the agency was advising customers who were using paper air tickets rather than electronic ticketing to pick up tickets at the airport location rather than try their luck with delivery services, Stewart said. "We have discovered that an airport location is extremely valuable," she said.

Elsewhere, the effects of the storm were clearly illustrated by the message on one agency's answering machine: "Due to the storm in Omaha, we are without power; if this is an emergency, please call our after-hours service."

Another Omaha agency, Travel and Transport, did not have the same problem, but "it was a very busy weekend for our after-hours service," said Frank Dinovo, the agency's president. Dinovo said he went to bed Saturday night amid local weather predictions of two or three inches of snow and a quick melt. "I woke up and there was a foot of snow on the ground," he said.

Dinovo said the agency had to worry about clients stuck in Denver as well as many clients whose plans to fly out of Omaha and Des Moines were stymied by Mother Nature. Travel and Transport doubled its after-hours staff for the emergency, "and that still wasn't enough," Dinovo said.

"It got pretty bad at about 4 a.m. Sunday [with the] calls coming in. We were scrambling around trying to find people to come in," he said. "Tree limbs were down all over the place. Just getting people into work for the emergency shift was a challenge."

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