Travel agents report that the recent hurricanes have not majorly impacted current bookings. // © 2017 Getty Images
Feature image (above): Advisors feel that clients will respond well to cruise lines that offer onshore volunteer activities as part of Caribbean itineraries. // © 2017 Getty Images
The succession of three hurricanes impacting the Caribbean and its key ports has produced varied reactions among travelers, and both travel agents and clients are trying to balance having traditional comforts on vacation with the desire to support the islands and help them rebuild through tourism.
In general, advisors report that there has not been a huge impact on what is already on the books.
According to Scott Koepf, senior vice president of sales for Avoya Travel, other than the few cruises canceled by cruise lines, Avoya has not seen a big rash of cancellations. He notes that many clients had already paid in full, and they “still got a great fun-in-the-sun experience, with a different mix of ports in many cases.”
However, uncertainty lies in the strength of future bookings. Those agents with bookings impacted by hurricanes Irma, Maria and/or Harvey have spent an enormous amount of time getting refunds, assisting clients in changing plans and doing customer service, which has taken time away from selling future cruises.
It seems consumer reaction changed with Hurricane Maria, as travelers saw a weather pattern rather than an isolated incident.
“Although our initial channel checks after Hurricane Irma still had cruise lines in a very strong booked position for 2018 and the rest of 2017, subsequent hurricane disruption compounded by Maria has led to much more disruption and uncertainty in the near term than the cruise industry has seen from hurricane seasons previously,” said Robin Farley, a cruise industry analyst for UBS Investment Bank.
Hesitancy to book is at the root of the problem, report some agents.
“Clients aren’t saying ‘never,’ but they’re just stepping back and taking a deep breath,” Koepf said. “The question is: How long will they be hesitant, and what will it take to fill in the sales for the fourth quarter of this year and the first quarter of 2018?”
Farley suggests that the impact of the hurricane may disrupt the fourth quarter of this year, as opposed to just a few days of sailings.
“Cruise lines had previously been focusing on 2018 but have now had to retrench to focus on close-in Caribbean sailings in 2017, so we may not have seen the brunt of hurricane impact on fourth-quarter pricing,” Farley said.
Koepf feels that part of the problem is the news cycle.
“The news has been focused on the worst scenarios — tragedies such as Puerto Rico and Barbuda — and not on the 90 percent of the Caribbean that is unaffected,” he said. “And what the media shows affects attitudes in all directions; there’s even hesitancy about Alaska and Europe, although those places are completely distant from all this.”
Tom Baker, co-owner of Houston-based CruiseCenter, agrees.
“The media has portrayed such devastation,” he said. “It is going to be a hard sell for a while, I’m guessing.”
Upscale, sophisticated travelers are most likely to back out of Caribbean bookings and look for other options. Baker says he is seeing a lot of cancellation among those clients, and he thinks river cruising may be the stronghold of business for now.
The effects of the hurricanes will certainly extend well into next year. For example, Leslie Fambrini, owner of Personalized Travel Consultants in Los Altos, Calif., describes two different situations where Crystal Esprit Caribbean bookings were impacted. Fambrini looked at the possibility of finding enough islands to make a two-week itinerary in March for a couple celebrating an anniversary; a family group of four scheduled for next May in the Caribbean onboard Esprit chose to move to the Adriatic and a Croatia cruise.
However, upscale clients are also among those most likely to respond to onshore volunteer activities. Fambrini says she would like to see cruise lines offer dedicated Caribbean sailings that focus on service programs that “would not only provide needed funds to the islands but would continue the spirit of volunteerism featured by many cruise lines.” She suggests that there could even be an entire industry plan involving every ship that touches the islands. Likewise, Koepf believes that cruise lines are likely to dramatically expand such service-oriented shore excursions.
A few Western agents report that their clients have hardly been affected, as they are generally not in the Caribbean during hurricane season. Daniela Harrison, a travel consultant for Avenues of the World Travel in Flagstaff, Ariz., says she doesn’t have any clients affected by the storms or anyone booked into the path of the storms.
“We've been really fortunate with our clients being booked onto islands that didn't get hit, and we try our utmost not to send clients during hurricane season,” she said. “A lot of our travelers are still concerned about Zika and have been booking other destinations anyway. And our affluent travelers have been looking for more exotic destinations this year.”
Koepf believes it all comes down to messaging.
“Cruise lines are now investing heavily in getting out the message to stimulate the market,” he said. “People do know about the humanitarian response and the huge financial and other support from the whole industry. If cruise lines are fast enough and clean enough in their messaging, this will come back quickly.”