Cold winter left local travel agencies with sunny outlook

CRYSTAL LAKE – The conclusion of one of the coldest and snowiest winters in recent history has left Margaret Skoulund with a bittersweet feeling.

Like most residents, she is glad the relentless winter has passed, but so too has one of the most successful seasons her travel agency has seen.

Skoulund, a travel agent of 25 years with Cary Travel Express, said the company saw a roughly 30 percent increase in business compared to average winters which are already the busiest time of the year.

“This is one of the best seasons we’ve ever had,” Skoulund said. “The colder the winter, the more people want to get out of town and see sunshine.”

People throughout the Midwest and Northeast flocked to warm destinations this winter at a higher rate. Visit Florida – the state’s official tourism bureau – reported a 3 percent increase in hotel bookings during the heart of winter from mid-January to mid-February.

Counting only travelers from Illinois, New York, Massachusetts and Washington, hotel bookings in warm-weather locations increased 7 percent compared to January 2013, according to reports from travel experts Jetsetter.

Darrellynn Hanes, owner of Worldwide Traveler in McHenry, said she also saw a 20 percent increase in business this winter and many were first-time customers.

“The snowfall is always going to make people want to get to warmer climates, especially when it lasts as long as this year,” Hanes said. “We have seen more last-minute travelers that come in and say, ‘I can get off next week, where you can take me?’”

Because of the high demand for flights out of the cold, Skoulund said many last-minute travelers paid the price. In one travel package Skoulund offered, she said the price increased $300 a person from one week to the next because of its popularity.

The extreme winter conditions combined with the flurry of people looking to book flights did create some challenges for travel agencies this year. Skoulund said delayed and canceled flights were difficult to deal with for agents. But those agents’ difficulties made it easier for clients who did not have to worry about rescheduling flights unlike travelers who don’t book through agents.

“Whether it is a storm in New York or Iowa it’s still going to affect where planes are at,” Skoulund said. “There was a lot of negotiating with the airlines to try to get [customers] to their destination as fast as we could.”

Sandi Waryck, owner of SW Travel in Cary, said she saw an increase in individual and corporate travel, which is her specialty. She said business increased about 25 percent on a per-month basis during the winter months.

“It was a terrible winter and Mexico, Hawaii, Jamaica were all bigger destinations than they normally already are,” Waryck said. “So I actually saw a lot of people going to the Central America market where the prices are more reasonable.”

While the winter was a busy time for travel agencies, Skoulund said she does not think it will mean a slow spring or summer.

She said there were enough people who missed out on vacations in the winter because they waited too long who will take trips in the summer and others who will start to book vacations for next winter this summer to avoid higher prices. And just like the winter, weather could be the great driver.

“Weather is a big aspect of travel and you just never know what we are going to get,” Skoulund said. “Who knows how this summer will be?”

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