Over recent weeks, as borders shut down and travel ground to a halt, travel agents canceled, rebooked, counseled and rescued their clients. To illustrate their importance and professionalism, TravelPulse is sharing stories of Virtuoso travel agent heroics during the coronavirus outbreak.
Working From a Hospital Bed
Nikki Miner, president of Creating Travel Dreams, an affiliate of Andavo Travel based in Ankeny, Iowa, literally handled her clients’ problems from a hospital bed. She was hooked up to an IV while juggling a work phone, a personal phone and a laptop to arrange for clients to get home early.
“I was texting with the client on my personal phone and had the supplier on my work phone with my computer logged in using my hotspot,” she said. “While I was making the adjustments on the computer with one phone to my ear, my husband stepped in to hold the other phone. Because it took a while to get everything adjusted for them, I kept kinking the IV line making the alarm go off. My daughter stepped in to clear the alarm bell so the nurses wouldn’t come in and scold me.”
Despite the health challenges, “I stayed in touch with my clients during their trip home and they knew they could call or text me at any point during their travels.”
Staying Ahead of the Game
Samantha McClure, owner of Small World Travel, an affiliate of Brownell Travel in Austin, Texas, had clients, a mother and two children, on an around-the-world trip. They were en route to Bhutan via Bangkok when Bhutan closed its borders.
Before the clients landed in Bangkok, McClure had designed a whole new Thailand itinerary. “The reason I knew of the Bhutan border closing is that I got a call from my partners in Bhutan,” McClure said. “They actually called me while the press conference was going on, and we started making plans the moment we heard that they might close the borders.”
The clients rolled with the punches and had a great time in Thailand. They planned to go to Indonesia, but with the threat of more border closures, McClure and the clients made a split-second decision to go to Australia, landing just 14 hours before a 14-day quarantine was implemented.
“For an update, they were supposed to go to Tasmania for a week, but now Tasmania has closed their borders, even within the country,” McClure said. “So, we are continuing to stay a few steps ahead of them in terms of designing their itinerary.”
“None of this would be possible if I had not established a strong relationship with the clients prior to their departure, so that I knew what they would want to do and be capable of doing, if I had not built a strong trust with them, and if I did not have strong relationships with my partners on the ground who have really stepped up to assist at one of the most difficult times for our industry,” McClure said. “I know that everybody is reeling from cancellations and changes and under a lot of stress, but they put the needs of traveling clients ahead of that.”
Saving a Paris Trip
Louisa Gehring, of Gehring Travel, a Cincinnati-based affiliate of Brownell Travel, was in Paris and coincidentally had clients in Paris as well when the European travel ban was announced at about 2 a.m. March 12 Paris time.
Gehring woke up to rearrange flights for herself and her clients before the ban went into effect at midnight Friday, March 13.
Gehring left on a Thursday flight, and her clients decided to fly home Friday. Cutting the trip short meant the clients might have to forgo a visit to the top of the Eiffel Tower and a dinner cruise by celebrated chef Alain Ducasse (which was non-refundable).
But within hours, Gehring moved both experiences to their final day in Paris – as she was flying home. “I was working online in the air thanks to the wi-fi on the plane, and coordinating with my assistant, who was in the office back home and knew this was a priority,” Gehring said. “Together we worked to rebook the Eiffel Tower and work with Alain Ducasse’s team to rework the cruise. We were able to rebook them quickly because we spoke with the clients and made it the day’s top priority, and thankfully, the clients were also very responsive and decisive!”
They were among the last visitors to the Eiffel Tower before it closed, followed by the dinner cruise, where they were basically the only guests and treated like royalty.
Easing the Pain of Cancellation
Kay Fahlberg of Ippo Travel in Denver, an affiliate of Andavo Travel, tried to ease the sting of a cancellation of a trip to Japan in mid-February by offering a Japanese experience at home.
“We worked on their itinerary together with all the details for creating their dream trip to Japan. One of the highlights was to experience a tea ceremony in a Japanese garden,” said Fahlberg, who was raised in Japan. “Since I was trained to perform the ceremony as my grandfather was a founder of a flower arrangement (ikebana) school and a master teacher of tea ceremony, I thought this may be an opportunity to bring Japan here. And the class would be a great way to introduce a part of the culture and talk about travel etiquettes as well.”
However, then came restrictions on group gatherings, and the class was postponed. “They thought it was a good idea and I would check back with them once the restriction is lifted. It’s something to look forward to,” Fahlberg said. “They are planning on using the same itinerary next year. I think the class would give them more appreciation to the experiences in Japan.”
Karen Upchurch of Odyssey Travel, a Virtuoso Agency in Ormond Beach, Fla., decided to scout resorts within a few hours drive, such as Montage Palmetto Bluff in Bluffton, S.C. and The Cloister at Sea Island in Georgia to plan long weekend trips.
“All those destinations are lovely for a drive vacation,” she said. “If they’re home alone and thinking they can’t go to Europe, a lovely three- or four-day weekend close to home really comes into play.”
She’ll wait to see how the situation evolves, and when it simmers down, she can promote the close-to-home suggestions. “It will help people continue to dream and have something to look forward to,” she said.