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Bookings in January critical for travel industry

Backstage Pass

While travel agents are busy unwrapping presents this holiday season, the one gift they’re hoping for won’t be determined until January.

Most travel agency bookings are made in January, after the hubbub of Christmas vacation has worn down, the weather has turned chilly and boredom has set in. Even though the picture won’t be clear until the end of January, tale-tell signs should be noticeable by mid-month.

“The first two weeks of January will make it or break it for many agencies,” said Bill Bryan, president of Bryan Tours in Jackson and vice president of international travel for MTS Travel Management Group of Pennsylvania. “Everybody in the travel industry is waiting for that period because if it isn’t a boom, then the travel industry may collapse along with the airlines.”

Travel agents were flooded with cancellations for two weeks following the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks. Since then, bookings have edged up to about 50% of normal. Most U.S. hotels have continued a slide that began earlier this year. An exception: New Orleans, where hotel occupancy is down only 10% for the year.

Less than a month before the terrorist attacks, travel agencies were squeezed by a 60% cut on airline commissions. American and TWA airlines led they way by dropping commissions from $50 to $20 maximum on roundtrip tickets booked by travel agents. Before the end of the month, all other major carriers followed suit. Later, it would be considered ill-fated bad timing.

The commission cuts, economic slowdown and huge drop in travel have already taken a toll on many travel agencies. AAA Travel Agency closed 13 agencies nationwide — the office in Jackson closed Oct. 5 — and other area travel agencies have taken drastic cost-cutting measures. The last two weeks of December are typically the slowest of the year for travel bookings.

“The last few months have been a struggle for survival for the entire industry, and travel agencies have had no relief whatsoever,” said Chris Mize McMillan, CEO of Bonner Travel Service in Jackson. “We have actually done more work after 9/11 that is non-profitable than any other time I can ever remember — helping stranded travelers return home, travelers who were not even our clients, assisting in refunding tickets that are normally non-refundable, canceling and refunding tickets and trips, etc.”

Earlier this month, McMillan was in contact with U.S. Sen. Trent Lott’s (R-Miss) office regarding the Economic Stimulus Package at the request of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA). McMillan also serves on the board of the Society of Government Travel Professionals (SGTP), a national association representing the $35-billion government travel market.

“Those of us who have survived these last few months are counting on the American public to kick back in and proceed with their normal travel habits,” she said.

Curtiss Brown, president of Avanti Travel in Jackson, said the agency’s leisure activity “picked up considerably in November,” a sign, she hopes, that January will be profitable.

“Many people seem to be taking the attitude that life’s too short and they’re going ahead with plans to visit Disneyworld, for example, rather than just talking about it,” she said.

Jackson Tour & Travel, which operates a fleet of luxury motor coaches, has shifted its focus to boosting and maintaining its group and motor coach business, said Dobson Bowdon, general manager of the firm.

“The cruise market has also been a bright spot for us because of reduced fares, increased competition, more and better offerings in New Orleans and a new market in Mobile,” he said.

Last month, Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., two mega cruise lines that announced a merger earlier this year, publicly vowed to overtake Carnival as the world’s most profitable cruise operator. Partly as a result, the cruise business has become a consumer’s market. Once pricey holiday cruises can be snapped up for a bargain.

The New Orleans Port previously had little to offer in the cruise market. The port’s staple cruise line, Commodore Cruises, with above par food and service but with smaller cabins and older ships, filed bankruptcy in July.

Carnival, however, has had exceptional success in New Orleans. The cruise line recently announced it would swap one of its ships, The Inspiration, which debuted in the crescent city last September, with a larger, 2,976-passenger vessel, Conquest, by the end of next year.

The cruise line’s first-ever sailings from Mobile, Ala., will begin in March when Carnival offers two- to six-day cruises on its 1,452-passenger Holiday. The eight passenger deck superliner features 10 bars and lounges, three swimming pools, including one with a 115-foot long water slide, a health and fitness facility, a children’s playroom and a top-rated children’s program. And of course, there’s food galore.

“We’ve been eyeing ‘Fun Ship’ departures from Mobile for some time,” said Bob Dickinson, Carnival president. “Short cruises have become the fastest -growing segment of the cruise industry, offering the convenience and flexibility desired by today’s time-crunched consumers.”

In April, Carnival’s Holiday will become the cruise line’s second ship sailing from New Orleans. There, it will offer seven-day western Caribbean cruises.

Also in New Orleans, Royal Caribbean will take the 2,000-passenger Rhapsody of the Seas on a six-week test run Feb. 23 to March 30, offering six- and seven-night western Caribbean sailings. Strong bookings — spring break week has long been sold out — prompted the cruise line to commit to sailing the Grandeur of the Seas from New Orleans from November 2002 to May 2003.

“When Royal Caribbean first announced this offering, we immediately blocked as many cabins as they would allot us,” said Bowdon. “We’ll be taking at least 100 passengers to New Orleans for the spring break cruise alone.”

Beverly Gianna, vice president of public affairs for the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the number of cruise passengers has more than tripled since 1995.

“The cruise line industry has become a very viable component of our hospitality business,” she said.

Other major cruise vessels operating from New Orleans Port include:

• Carnival’s 2,606-passenger Celebration, sailing a seven-day Caribbean cruise and offering a spa, library and casino on board.

• Delta Queen Steamboat Company’s Delta Queen. Even though the company filed for bankruptcy protection Oct. 19, the company still operates the 3,360-ton, 285-foot steamboat built in 1927 for $1 million. The 174-passenger vessel travels the Mississippi River.

• American Canadian Caribbean Line’s Niagara Prince, a 175-foot small ship, which is easily navigable in shallow waters and under low bridges, lands right up on a beach and accesses remote ports-of-call other ships cannot. The 84-passenger vessel, with a dining room, meeting room and on-board leisure activities, has four 15-day sailings to Chicago in early summer and fall and four 12-day sailings to Nashville during fall foliage season.

• RiverBarge Excursion Line’s R/B River Explorer, a 295-foot custom-built hotel barge. The 198-passenger vessel is the first American-built, flagged and crewed hotel barge vessel in North America. With 99 spacious, outside staterooms, dining room, showroom, library, game room, exercise and sports facilities and a bar and grill, guests choose from seven different geographical regions along the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, Cumberland Rivers, the Atchafalaya Basin and the Gulf IntraCoastal Waterway on four- to 10-day excursions.

Lynne Wilbanks Jeter is a contr
ibuting writ
er for the Mississippi Business Journal. Her column on business travel and the travel industry appears regularly. Her e-mail is lwjeter@yahoo.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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