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Travel Companies Have a New Clientele: Hurricane Evacuees – The … – New York Times

“I called so many airlines trying to get them off the islands and to the U.S. before the storm, but they were all booked or absolutely ridiculous prices,” around $5,000 a ticket, Ms. Harrison said.

Mr. Evans, who had been staying at a private home on St. John, found refuge from the storm at a bed-and-breakfast on St. Thomas, then tried to evacuate via a Marriott-chartered ferry, but was turned away because of liability issues, Mrs. Harrison said. Fearing the worst from Hurricane Jose, in Irma’s wake, Mr. Evans and 10 others used “some connection in the States to connect with the owner of a boat in Puerto Rico and then hired a captain for it,” said Frank Filacchione, a friend of Mr. Evans who is in Puerto Rico. They paid $7,500 plus fuel for the trip to Puerto Rico, where they are awaiting a Tuesday flight home to Florida, Ms. Harrison said.

The group was among some 35 turned away at the St. Thomas cruise ship dock, where the ferry evacuated guests from the Marriott properties but left residents and tourists from other hotels on the shore, Mrs. Harrison said.

Erik Fox, a storm chaser and police officer from Oklahoma who followed the hurricane to St. Thomas, was with the group seeking evacuation on the Marriott ferry, and is hoping to find a way off via one of the cruise ships.

“I knew what I was getting into, but the locals that needed it and the tourists that were here without air-conditioning, water, showers, were being turned away” on Friday, said Mr. Fox, who likened the lack of infrastructure to Hurricane Katrina and Hugo levels. Mr. Fox said the Coast Guard and ship captain O.K.’d additional passengers to board the ferry, but did not receive approval from Marriott.

A Marriott spokeswoman, Kerstin Sachl, said that the company had secured a ferry on Friday to transport 600 guests from St. Thomas to Puerto Rico, but that those not on the manifest were not authorized to board.

“We very much wanted to assist these other travelers to Puerto Rico, however, the Marriott team on the ground was told they had no authorization to board additional passengers who were not on the manifest. This was enforced by dock security,” Ms. Sachl wrote.

On St. John, the smallest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Westin guests were safely transferred to Puerto Rico, Ms. Sachl wrote.

Also on St. John, smaller vessels from St. Croix, 40 miles to the south, are aiding in relief efforts. Tour boat companies Big Beards Adventure Tours and Caribbean Sea Adventures made the 40-mile trip north on Sunday to deliver cases of food and water to Cruz Bay and Coral Bay, the companies report.

Six boats are expected to evacuate some 250 people from St. John to Puerto Rico and St. Croix, which have working airports, on Tuesday.

Seaports in St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix are now open, with service between St. John and St. Thomas limited to daylight hours only. The St. Croix airport is open, and American Airlines is expected to resume flights there on Tuesday.

On the mainland, a number of hospitality companies have pitched in to find housing for those affected by the hurricane.

Among those that worked with the state government is Expedia.com, which partnered with Visit Florida, the state’s official tourism marketing organization, to help ensure that hotels in Florida are making their rooms available to evacuees and not overcharging for them. Expedia is helping Visit Florida because the two have had a longstanding marketing partnership.

Hari Nair, the global senior vice president of Expedia Media Solutions, who is behind the initiative, said that several dozen Expedia employees are monitoring nightly rates the prices hotels are charging for rooms before they appear on the company’s site; any properties which appear to be overpricing their rooms will not be listed. “We want to prevent price gouging,” he said.

The travel company has also set up a site, expedia.com/florida, with a booking portal, which is updated throughout each day, allowing people to search for lodging throughout Florida.

The company’s efforts were praised by Florida’s governor, Rick Scott, who plugged them at a news conference on Sept. 7: “If you need a hotel, go to Expedia.com/florida,” he said. “Expedia is working on hotel occupancy in real-time.”

At the same time, the vacation home rental sites Airbnb and HomeAway activated disaster relief programs in which they ask hosts and homeowners to to offer free or heavily discounted housing for those who have been displaced by Hurricane Irma as well as to relief workers who are helping with the disaster.

HomeAway, the Austin-based marketplace that focuses on vacation rentals, has listed nearly 100 properties in St. Martin, Puerto Rico and Florida as well as in destinations likely to attract evacuees including parts of Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Its inventory comes from HomeAway as well as VRBO and Vacationrentals.com, two sites the company also operates. And Airbnb activated its Disaster Response Program on by reaching out to hosts in the greater Tallahassee area, Northwest Florida and parts of Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, according to the company. Its $0 listings are available until Sept. 28.

Though the efforts seem selfless, they are good for business. These actions to give back during a disaster helps build good consumer will toward these companies, said Joshua March, the founder of Conversocial, a software system that allows companies to engage with customers over social media. “Thanks to social media, everything companies do is under a microscope, and positive moves go a long way in maintaining a positive brand image, especially when there is negative backlash about airline price gouging going on right now, “ he said.

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Travel Companies Have a New Clientele: Hurricane Evacuees – The … – New York Times

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