For weeks now, travel agents and vacation packagers have been working to rebook hoards of hurricane-impacted travelers who had been scheduled to take vacations to the Caribbean or Florida in the coming days, weeks and months. What they are discovering is that their biggest challenge is finding availability in alternative destinations, especially as the busy holiday season gets underway.
Another big challenge, further in the future, will be to persuade travelers to go back to damaged or destroyed destinations once they reopen.
"The holiday season will be difficult because of flights and limited availability," said Laurie Palumbo, COO of Island Destinations, a wholesaler. But, she added, "There is availability out there, and if the client is flexible they can certainly have a fabulous holiday in the Caribbean."
Palumbo said millions of dollars in Island Destinations' business was impacted by the storms. The company has already worked with its agent partners to rebook the vast majority of customers who had vacations in the next few weeks in the impacted destinations, she said.
Most opted for alternative destinations in the Caribbean, she said, with some choosing Mexico instead and a small smattering switching to vacations in altogether different destinations, such as Hawaii or Tahiti.
"We'll be dealing with [rebookings] probably for a while, for a few months, but on a major level, probably for another 30 to 60 days," Palumbo said. "Once we have firm opening dates on all the properties, things will start to calm down."
Her longer-term concern is working with hotel partners to discern exact reopening dates so that she can confirm clients who were booked after those dates and hopefully reignite a much-needed return of business in hardest-hit destinations, such as St. Martin, Anguilla, Puerto Rico, the British Virgin Islands and St. John and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands
"Some islands will require a longer rebuilding process, but others are on track to reopen their doors for the busy festive season," said Albert Herrera, senior vice president of global product partnerships for Virtuoso. "For anyone who wishes to support these areas, the best thing they can do is visit when doors reopen. Tourism is the lifeblood for so many of these islands and their residents."
In a poll unveiled last week, Virtuoso reported that 80% of its members said that of the recent spate of natural disasters, Hurricane Irma had the greatest impact on bookings, requiring the most changes in both short- and long-term travel requests.
Twenty-eight percent of Virtuoso agents said they have seen an uptick in bookings to Caribbean islands that were not damaged by the hurricanes, such as St. Lucia, Aruba, Curacao, Jamaica, Barbados and Grand Cayman, and 22% reported a shift in bookings to Mexico.
Mickie Rooker a Travel Leaders agent in Memphis, said she expects it to take until at least the end of the year for business to get back to normal.
"Reviewing the damage in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and the earthquake in Mexico, I couldn't even begin to predict when the damage from Irma and Maria will be repaired," Rooker said. "We certainly have challenges ahead in selling destinations affected by the hurricanes."
She noted that as she works to rebook her mostly corporate travel clientele, availability is her biggest challenge, a sentiment that was echoed by others.
"People want to help, but space is limited," she said.
Rooker and other travel sellers said that change fees mostly haven't been an issue as most airlines, hotels and suppliers have been waiving them.
Amy Eben, a Travel Leaders agent in Sioux Center, Iowa, said she, too, is dealing with availability issues. She is working to book a November destination wedding that was originally scheduled to take place on St. John. The clients want the wedding to be held around the same time and in a similar destination, so she is trying to find something on neighboring St. Croix.
One way Eben has been keeping up with hotel partners to get information for her clients is through social media, and she has gotten all the updates she has needed thus far simply by reaching out to the hotels via Facebook.
Similarly, Palumbo said she used Whats-App to connect with her hotel vendors and get the latest information to convey to clients.
As the busy booking season gets underway for the holidays and first quarter of 2018, agents who sell the Caribbean are gearing up to do the twin tasks of working to educate clients who are making new bookings about what their options are and continuing to work with any clients whose plans have been impacted.
"This is our busy season," Palumbo said. "Consider it almost double the business, because you're dealing with the new business and anything that has been booked that has to be redone. It certainly has been busy. But manageable.
"Have we had a glass of wine at the end of day? Yes. But we are smiling, because we're happy that people are rebooking."
She said that if there was any one message she wanted to get to her clients it's this: "If they want to help these islands, ... rebook these islands when they say they are ready for [visitors] again."