How to Successfully Navigate Through The Storms

By Cindy Bertram

The recent back to back catastrophic hurricanes that first went through the Caribbean, and then moved inland were scary. And as we watched the news coverage, it brought genuine concern for people in the areas that were hit and affected. Yes, it halted transportation — canceling flights, cruise departures and more. But the travel industry jumped in immediately to help out through diverse ways. Travel agent professionals worked diligently helping their clients, from rescheduling, redirecting, and rebooking, using contacts, leveraging help from suppliers and more. It did give new meaning to the idea of successfully navigating the through the storms.

Learning and Having that Back-Up Plan

In life as well as in the business world, it’s important to have a back-up plan. That’s even more critical in travel. Putting together a strategy plan to handle emergency situations is part of what we do as travel professionals. Having that list of key contact names, phone numbers and contact information for the suppliers we use is a core part. And having this ready to use can reduce a bit of the stress, letting us jump in quickly. 

When the tragedies of 9/11 took place and the world literally stopped, this really brought a new meaning to having that back-up plan. I was working at a retail full service travel agency at the time. It was truly unexpected. We had clients who were stranded, with flight cancellations and more. But thanks to our “jump in and do it” mindset, we managed to get our clients taken care of using diverse methods. And at the agency, we then worked harder with a bit more of a formal emergency strategy plan.

Another Part of the Strategy Plan – Enticing People to Travel Again

After 9/11 tragedies, another unexpected situation occurred. People became hesitate to travel and began to “cocoon.” Rather than planning trips to escape, some people stopped traveling, instead spending the money they had set aside to buy “things” - possessions. What I did do to combat that? I began doing a monthly newsletter, sharing updates along with fun tips, working to entice peoples’ interest. I make sure I didn’t use this media piece to “sell cruises and travel.” And it worked. Eventually the people who were hesitant to travel decided it was time to travel again, realizing that creating those memories of a lifetime were also important. And collecting those memories became more important than collecting “things.” I had a set of clients who cocooned for a year. But as a result of my newsletter, they decided to travel again.

Insights from Camille Olivere, Senior Vice President, Sales, Norwegian Cruise Line

As we’ve once again recently seen, cruise lines monitor tropical storms and hurricanes, making sure they keep their ships outside those storm paths. Cruise lines have policies in place as they work to keep their ships and people safe. Camille Olivere, Senior Vice President, Sales, Norwegian Cruise Line and I recently had some time to chat about these topics. I asked Camille how Norwegian Cruise Line monitored storms along with keeping travel agents informed. Camille explained, “We monitor tropical storms and hurricanes ensuring the safety of our ships, crew and guest. In the event that we must deviate a sailing notification is sent out to guest and travel partners via email, voice reach and text. Should the need arise where a sailing is cancelled we will offer 100% refund.  If a guest chooses to cancel due to the weather they are subject to normal cancellation penalties.”

Keeping Ships Away from the Storms and Updates with Travel Agent Partners 

Camille and I then discussed a bit more about what cruise lines do, including Norwegian Cruise Line, when a hurricane/tropical storm is actually in the area of the return port of call. Norwegian Cruise Line went through this with Hurricane Irma, delaying ships from returning to PortMiami. Getting those ships with their guests and crew safely back is a top key concern. I asked Camille, “How did Norwegian Cruise Line keep their travel agent partners updated through this particular situation?”

Camille provided more and explained, “We typically make these decisions as a team so we communicate to the trade immediately after we make the decision. We heard from many partners that we were best in class in terms of transparency and communication timing. That is one of the most important aspects of successfully managing through crises, so we are very pleased that travel partners recognized this.”

How Travel Agents can handle emergency situations

Having worked in the cruise and travel agency industry for several years, Camille has seen successful tactics that travel agents use to help their clients, when these unexpectedly emergency situations come up. I asked Camille to share a bit more, and she mentioned, “My personal view is honesty is the best policy. Keeping customers in the loop with what you know is very important. I think the telephone works better than email with customers. If you want to communicate something, pick up the phone so they can ask you questions and you can give them more color on the situation and past experiences.” 

Compensation for Guests Affected and how that is handled

Then Camille and I chatted a bit more on the area of compensation for guests affected when an unexpected situation evolves, like the recent hurricanes this fall. I asked Camille, “What have you been providing cruise guests who were affected?” 

Camille explained, “Compensation varied based on the timing of the cancellation and we don’t have any flat stated policy as we factor in everything, but we want our customers to come back so we are very focused on taking good care of them. Sometimes it can be a windfall for the guest when a cruise is cancelled because they could get a full refund and a bunch of goodies on top of it that will help offset the next vacation.”

Dealing with Clients Who Now Might Be Hesitant to Travel – Suggestions

Camille and her team talk with travel agents on an ongoing basis, from sales calls, and being at travel conferences, along with being at their own specially planned events. Camille and I then covered a bit more - the important role travel agents also play, being on the front line, dealing with their clients along with future clients on a day to day basis.

I asked Camille, “What suggestions would you provide to travel agents when it comes to how to best handle the question their clients now might ask when booking a cruise vacation? If their clients had been thinking about taking a cruise but now with the recent hurricanes, might hesitate, being concerned about their safety?” 

Insights from Camille Olivere, Senior Vice President, Sales, Norwegian Cruise Line

Camille said, “I just had this conversation with some people who had never cruised. What I told them is what I think agents should say and that is this was the worst hurricane season in over 100 years. The likelihood of something like this season happening again next year is extremely low. Some people don’t know there is a hurricane season. I told them hurricanes are most likely in Sept/Oct timeframe with August and November on the fringe. Also hurricanes are fairly predictable so you know well in advance any areas of concern. Safety is not an issue. It’s inconvenience that is caused by changes in itineraries or delays and on rare occasions a cancellation. If a hurricane is coming we can typically reroute the ship to optimal conditions. We can also have early departures or arrivals to accommodate. So guests can make a more informed decision.” 

Adding that Personal Touch 

Adding that personal touch factor is important. I mentioned that cruise documents list all their policies in the "fine print" but it's important that travel agents walk through those key things (more on a personal basis) with their clients. Camille said, “I would just restate the above. Clients need to know they are committed to the cruise even if there are some changes that need to be made. When you have your guests on Norwegian you can be sure that we are always looking to make sure that our guests will have the best experience possible so they come back again and again. On some of our itineraries we even added a 4th port to a 7 day itinerary when we changed it which enhances the guest experience.”

Camille and I then talked a bit more about what Norwegian Cruise Line did by redirecting their Norwegian Sky to St. Thomas, not just bringing supplies but also getting over 900+ people evacuated off island (due to the airport being shut down) and back to Miami safely. I mentioned it was a wonderful amazing story, and shared the personal, caring side of Norwegian Cruise Line and their parent company. Camille said, “Yes, thank you. I was very proud of our company and we continue to help through our charity “Hope Starts Here”. And by the way, it wasn’t just humans we rescued. There were dogs, cats and Ferrets as well! No one wanted to leave their beloved pets behind! I know I would never!”

Some additional thoughts

After the recent hurricanes’ devastation, we saw some wonderful humanitarian efforts occur, thanks to the travel and cruise industry. And now many of those ports and areas affected are coming back. Letting people know that those areas have gotten through those storms is also another important part of our travel agent DNA – keeping our clients and future clients informed with “gentle” updates, creating and building interest again.