Saturday, September 15, 2001

Travel agents face obstacle of fear

Many clients calling to cancel trips

By John Eckberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Tristate travel agents are scrambling to find flights for stranded clients, book new ones for other travelers and cancel tickets for tourists uncomfortable visiting places such as Africa and the Caribbean.

        “People are afraid,” said Michael Schwartz of Integra Travel, based in Queensgate.

        “A group going to Morocco, Marrakesh and Casablanca feels those areas are very unsafe, so they canceled. Another group headed for a cruise ship on the 19th, a very prominent family, and they are 85 percent certain they are not going to go. Another family was going cruising the end of September, they are going to cancel, too.”

        The terrorist attacks this week on New York City and Washington have led to canceled vacation plans and worried business travelers who must make travel plans to meet with clients — whether they want to or not.

        Disruption has been on every travel agent's calendar this week. It comes at a challenging time for the travel-agent industry. The Internet, which allows vacationers to seek competitive air fares and hotel room rates, may be wooing travelers away from agents.

        According to NFO Plog's, fifth annual Interactive Traveler Study, conducted online this spring among 2,100 business and leisure air travelers, 67 percent of respondents went online for travel information this year, compared to 57 percent in 2000.

        Also, 93 percent of leisure travelers went online compared to 66 percent last year. But going online for information is not the same as buying a plane ticket or hotel online, said Scott Ludwigsen, executive vice president of NFO Plog Research, a full-service marketing research company specializing in travel and based in New Brunswick, N.J.

        “People will go there to obtain information, but they will still call a travel agent to book because there's something about the security of talking to a human,” he said.

        Pete Hershberger, president of Prestige Travel, an independent full-service travel agency with offices in Montgomery and Milford, said many clients turned to agencies for help after the attack.

        Some clients were desperate. For instance, one group of business travelers was stranded in Fargo, N.D. When they could not get a flight, they rented a car and drove home.

        “We've gone through hijackings and the strike and this has been the most challenging time of all,” Hershberger said.

        “We have people who are scared, people who are frustrated and people who are angry. People are canceling, afraid to fly. And people booking because they want to fly.”

        Mr. Schwartz said that agents must check and double-check because flights that first showed up as full because of multiple bookings may later have openings because people finally chose a date.

        Vicky Mary, president and owner of Victoria Travel, a full-service agency based in Hyde Park, had one client drive to Cincinnati this week from Los Angeles.

        The client rented one of the last available cars and drove away that evening. “He's been through one or two wars and knew that he had to take action,” Ms. Mary said.

        One businessman had planned to travel to Kuwait for a meeting with a client. However, that meeting was canceled because of the terrorist attack. He was relieved that he would not have to make that trip.

        Ms. Mary expects air travel in the near future to be extremely safe because of enhanced security. Those steps are probably overdue, too, she said.

        “I just came back from Manchester, England, and it took two full hours to check through four sets of thorough security, and that's in an airport the size of Dayton,” she said.

        “I would think that is something we'd want for the United States.”


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