Storm stories: Agents come up big when weather gets bad

Credit: Jaromir Chalabala
Photo Credit: Jaromir Chalabala/Shutterstock

From language barriers to religious requirements, agents faced adversity in rearranging clients' travel during and after last week's massive storm that blanketed the East Coast with snow. They succeeded and proved their value.

At Santa Monica-based One Travel Group, a division of Virtuoso member First in Service, the agency was tasked with getting 60 executive travelers to a convention in San Francisco, said managing partner Mona Behringer. Twenty of them were trying to fly out of New York.

"Everything was sold out," she said. "Rates at hotels by the airport, if available, were selling for over $600 -- at a Courtyard or similar. Flights were just as busy."

Behringer said her agency starts preparing early for impending storms. In this case, the prep work began on Jan. 1. Often, airlines proactively close flights to availability prior to storms, only releasing seats when conditions start to clear, she said.

"It's a pattern we've seen over the years as experienced advisers," she said. "We constantly monitor the GDS to secure our clients' seats as soon as the flights open."

Behringer said storms can prove especially stressful to advisers. Executive travelers need to get to their destination, and they usually don't fly in economy. "There are really limited options, and everyone is looking for them," she said.

In this case, all the executives made it to their destination through a combination of planes, trains and cars. Most took Amtrak's Acela Express from New York to Washington, D.C., and were able to fly out from there. Some took four-wheel-drive vehicles to open airports.

ETC Group, a Travel Leaders agency in Arlington, Texas, also had a number of corporate travelers affected by the storm, said Samantha Doss, vice president of operations. One was flying from Los Angeles to New York. His flight was canceled and the rest were completely booked.

"The traveler was not very flexible on dates," Doss said. "Being Jewish, he had to make it home by Friday afternoon for Sabbath."

ETC managed to find him an alternative that worked: a red-eye flight into Washington Dulles that arrived at 1 a.m., then an Amtrak ticket to New York on a train that arrived around 6 a.m.

Agents at Travel Advantage, a Travel Leaders agency in Sioux Center, Iowa, had clients with a language barrier. Missy Swets and Kayla Rosenboom said one of their clients brings in religious leaders from around the world for meetings -- this year, on Jan. 3 and 4, when the storm hit.

The agency worked "tirelessly" to re-accommodate flights. With some airports closed, it also meant overnight accommodations and transfers for some travelers, who lacked a form of payment and spoke little to no English.

"We requested and completed credit card authorizations for the rooms and all meals, and even made a spreadsheet so they could track every traveler's whereabouts," Swets and Rosenboom said. Their efforts were successful.

Wayland Travel, a Signature Travel Network member in Wayland, Mass., didn't have many issues, said president Karen Schragle, but that was because of the agency's preparation. Employees are outfitted to work remotely during inclement weather. The agency also pulls flight data ahead of time to track clients who might be affected.

Wayland has guidelines when booking winter travel. Any connections should have a minimum of 2 to 3 hours between flights when nonstop flights are not an option. The agency's meticulousness inspires customer loyalty, Schragle said.  

"They know that we've saved them and their vacation," she said. "This is one of those instances where you need to have a great travel company and a great travel agent."

Shana Brewer, owner of a Travel Leaders agency in Medford, Ore., sent a family of 11 to the Riviera Maya for a vacation over the New Year's holiday. Their flight from Cancun to Houston was canceled, and the airline told them at the counter that they couldn't get out again for days. Brewer rebooked them on a flight that got them home in time for work the next week.

"My first thought was, 'What if they had booked online?'" Brewer said. "They own a family-run business, and all of them work there. They would have missed three more days of work. This is a really good reason to use a travel agent."

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