Cut off by Ian, travel advisors improvise to stay in touch with customers: Travel Weekly

When weather forecasts made it increasingly clear that Hurricane Ian would pass over the Orlando area, Nick Pena, owner of a Cruise Planners franchise in Davenport, Fla., was faced with a choice. Either send an email to clients warning them he might be slow to respond for several days or scramble to handle any immediate requests while dealing with potential fallout from the storm.

“I thought some of them might read that and say, ‘Well, that’s the problem with going with a small agency — if something goes wrong or something happens to him, then we have nobody,'” Pena said.

He opted not to send a mass email but instead proactively contacted just his clients who were traveling within 72 hours of the storm’s projected hit, asking if they had any questions.

Luckily, it was a moot point. Pena never lost cell service; he did lose power and internet access, but he was never fully disconnected from clients. He also didn’t have much fallout to deal with on a personal level minus emptying out his fridge and some landscaping cleanup.

But the storm revealed to him the importance of having a backup plan for his business, especially because his focus is luxury travel. He decided to have a written plan by the end of the month.

“When you have customers at that price point, that expectation is going to be that I have a contingency plan,” he said. “If something happens to me, or I’m part of a catastrophic event like this, they’re going to have continuity in their travel because they’re paying a very premium price for it that I’m charging.”

Planning for the what-ifs

For MAD Travel/Travel Leaders in Naples, Fla., having an after-hours answering service to help clients with travel needs during the height and aftermath of the storm was key, said vice president Lisa McCarthy, who owns the agency with her husband, Lee.

The McCarthys live in South Naples. While their home had extensive damage during Hurricane Irma in 2017, they were spared the brunt of Ian. But they feared the worst for their storefront, which is just a few blocks from the beach on Ninth Street.

The McCarthys spent Tuesday, Sept. 27, putting up the office’s storm shutters and sealing its doors the best they could. Thankfully, their efforts were rewarded. Despite seeing a video of water rushing down an impassable Ninth Street, only a little water made it into the agency.

On Sept. 28, when the storm hit, the McCarthys worked remotely until the power went out, and calls began going to their after-hours service. By the next day, Lisa was able to tether Lee’s laptop to her cellphone so he could access the internet, but service was sporadic; on Friday, they drove until they had decent cell service, and Lee worked from a bench in a shopping center.

Last week, they were back to normal operations, but Lisa said having an after-hours service was “crucial” to making it through the storm. “We relied heavily on them during Irma, and the same this time.”

She encouraged other agents to do as Pena planned: Have a plan in place for various scenarios.

“Our focus, it’s always first on our agents and on our clients,” she said. “We always just try and do whatever we can to help people. That’s usually the focus of what we do all the time, and it just comes a little bit stronger when there’s a crisis like that. I would just tell other agencies to think about all the possibilities and the what-ifs and have a plan for them.”

Assistance from WhatsApp and colleagues

Juan Velazquez, owner of a Cruise Planners franchise in Fort Mill, S.C., was onboard the MSC Divina when the storm hit. The ship left Port Canaveral on Sept. 25 and was set to return Sept. 29, but its route was altered and extended to avoid the hurricane.

He had informed clients he would be away until the 29th, and he now needed to alert them that his schedule changed.

“Here’s what I would say to any new travel advisor: Never leave home without your laptop,” Velazquez said.

Unfortunately, Velazquez was without his laptop, and he was left only with messaging and WhatsApp for work. Combined with help from other Cruise Planners agents, he managed to accommodate his clients.

“We’re very fortunate that we have a good group of agencies and franchisors that can help each other out under these circumstances,” he said. “I found myself reaching out to those resources and saying, ‘Hey, I have a client, I can’t do much with them. Here’s the parameters. Can you go ahead and take them forward?'”

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