Wintry weather makes for busy phones

NEW YORK -- Millions of Americans spent the last days of January frozen to their bones, the victims of raw, wet, miserable weather from the Rockies to the Carolinas.

And Bill La Macchia was loving every minute of it. Especially the snow. It delivers the knockout punch.

"The winter motivates people to travel because it's cold, gloomy and depressing," said La Macchia, president and CEO of the Mark Travel Corp. "But you need the snow to really get them moving. The cold sets it up, but the snow is the final and best motivation."

The storms of late January were a boon to Mark Travel's business, La Macchia said. "Those who hadn't made plans are making them now. Business is very good. We had little snowfalls all this winter, but this last week was the worst, especially the last four days. Last Wednesday it peaked, and the phones were busy. It's still snowing here now. It will increase the activity today and the rest of the week."

But it is possible to get too much snow, according to Gogo Worldwide Vacations president Michelle Kassner, whose Northeastern customers are not as used to big snowfalls as those of Wisconsin-based Mark Travel.

"We're very specific about what we want," Kassner said. "We like cold with a little bit of snow. Too much snow and people cancel, airports close, it becomes a hassle. It takes a lot of work to reschedule all those people."

Although it may be hard to quantify, she said, "Cold weather always helps. Certainly the cold weather motivates people to go to warm places. And we certainly have the weather on our side this year."

"People are definitely out there shopping," Kassner added. "We may not be closing as many sales as we would like, but business is getting better."

Apple Vacations also reports that the weather is helping to boost sales. Senior vice president Tim Mullen said, "The cold weather definitely has a positive effect on business."

Ken Pomerantz, vice president of marketing and sales of Minnesota-based MLT, knows the cold weather helps, although he admits he doesn't have any tangible evidence.

"We don't have any numbers that support our conclusion ... we don't see it day-to-day. But we believe strongly that, on a seasonal basis, the weather does affect business," he said. "It's hard to know that bookings you take three weeks from now were influenced by a snowstorm today."

The frigid weather even has an effect on escorted tour bookings that are not necessarily to warmer climes, said Sharyn Cannon, vice president of business services of Tauck World Discovery, who said this year's severe cold is helping business.

"Heavy snow helps boost bookings," Cannon said. "It gives people an opportunity to sit down with the brochures and have discussions with their families.

"Our busiest time happens to coincide with cold weather, so it's hard to tell what influences what, but we know that when they are snowbound they take more time to research and start dreaming with their families about where to go next."

Caribbean hoteliers love the nasty winter weather as much as anyone. Typical is Richard Doumeng, general manager of Bolongo Bay Beach Club in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, who reported a 5% increase in January business "and more on the books for February than last year."

"It's not unusual [for business] to pick up between 10% and 15% during the month in last-minute bookings. The numbers are very encouraging," Doumeng said.

At the retail level, "The weather is doing what it is supposed to do," said Dianne Moore, travel sales consultant at Crossroads Travel in Milwaukee.

Locals are shoveling snow every day, she said -- just the kind of irritant to send clients to their travel agent.

Moore said business is now "almost at normal," meaning as good as winter 2000. The most popular destinations at her firm are the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Mexico because nonstop charters are offered.

"People love nonstops," she said, because they know their escape won't be thwarted by missed connections.

South Carolina doesn't get as cold as Wisconsin, but Imogene Russell, president of Russell Travel in Moncks Corner, S.C., said her agency always gets seasonal requests for warm-weather trips. This year, however, more clients are making getaways, mostly cruises with some Mexico and some Caribbean all-inclusives.

But winter does not have the same impact on every business: Dale Eyerly Colson, owner of Travelstar in Westport, Conn., said the cold has had no impact on her sales. For one thing, she said, her clientele is older and less impulsive about their travel.

"They don't rush to warm [places] just to do it," she said.

But at Church Travel in Barrington, R.I., chairman Gill Engles said it has been "pandemonium. ... People have that [get-me-out-of-here] mania in their eyes when they come to the office. It's been like this for three straight weeks."

David Cogswell, Gay Nagle Myers and Nadine Godwin contributed to this story.

To contact the reporters who wrote this story, send e-mail to [email protected] , [email protected] or [email protected] .

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