Agents Facing Wartime

Crisis called 'historic' opportunity for vital service to clients

By: Robert Carlsen

Travel agents need to be prepared for lots of work on flight cancellations, said Pat Funk, vice president of operations for the Association of Retail Travel Agents. “I think we’re going to see wholesale cancellations of flights.”

She said most of the cancellations would be confined to “major carriers, those that are in severe financial difficulty. I don’t see the low-fare carriers canceling many flights, at least not in the beginning.”

Things, however, could cascade.

And Kevin Mitchell, president of the Business Travel Coalition, said travel agents should realize that they are “in a historic position” to add value by keeping their customers fully apprised of developments.

“Because,” he said, “those developments will become mind-numbing.” One noted industry expert contends many travel agents actually have not prepared for war.

Nolan Burris, president of Vancouver, B.C.-based Visionistics, a travel agency consulting firm, said only 50 percent of the agents he addressed at a recent seminar said that they had made plans.

“And of those who said they had made some preparations, most of them said it was ‘mental’ preparation,” Burris added.

War in Iraq is no surprise to travel agents. They have had months to advise clients about travel this spring, especially whether they should go to volatile, or potentially volatile, regions of the world.

Like many of their fellow agents, “we have been focusing on trips closer to home, in and around the Pacific Northwest motorcoach trips, Alaska cruises out of Seattle, trips to national parks,” said Sue Collins of Cascade Travel in Hood River, Ore.

“As of this moment, we’re keeping tabs on who is traveling where, and have some back-up plans in case they are stranded.

“We’re already up to date on our airline and tour company cancellation plans, but so far we have not had any cancellations,” she said.

Some agents say they are wrestling with whether to levy service charges for cancellations and rebookings, should they start coming in floods.

“I realize this is a tough time and we need to be sympathetic to our clients,” said Karen Torello of Holiday Travel in Burlingame, Calif., “but we are a business.”

Torello said she’s considering charging a refund/reissue fee. She said she might apply that fee to a rebooking to keep the client’s mind focused on future travel.

Sheila Hyman of Tanforan Travel in San Bruno, Calif., said she spent last week reassuring members of a large group to stick with a Panama Canal sailing set to depart April 21.

So far, the group is holding steady, she said.

But on the eve of war, Hyman said her phones had stopped ringing.

“Never in my 30 years in this business have I seen it this quiet in the office,” she said.

“Everyone seems to be in a wait-and-see mode. Our clients seem to feel they cannot enjoy their vacations while our troops are defending their right to have a vacation.”

War or no war, Stephen Shields said he planned to get on a plane and travel to Switzerland at press time.

Shields, of Shields World Travel in Pleasanton, Calif., said six of his clients canceled a trip to Maui “because they were afraid they couldn’t get back.”

"We have a lot of crossed fingers here,” he said.

“I don’t believe we have any clients traveling in Europe right now and the ones for the future are holding firm so far.”