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The COVID-19 related failure of prominent OTA Bookit.com illustrates the value of working with a travel advisor, as dozens if not hundreds of travelers have this week found themselves stranded in international destinations and facing unanswered queries of future booked travel representing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The OTA, whose proprietary software allowed travelers to select destinations and travel packages based on the traveler's region of origin, shut down unexpectedly on March 17, devastated by cancellations generated by the spreading virus.
A statement on the company's website reads: "BookIt.com has paused normal operations, and the international destinations we service have closed their borders to arrivals. Due to the nature of this unprecedented pandemic, we have had to close our call centers in Florida, Jamaica, and El Salvador. This, effectively, means that we will be unable to provide agent assistance in canceling any upcoming trips."
The statement continues: "BookIt is in the process of canceling all upcoming travel between now and June 30, 2020, for international travel. Your resort booking will be canceled automatically. As we are currently unable to process refunds to you, please contact your bank for options available to you as a cardholder. If you wish to reschedule your stay to a later date, please do so directly with your selected resort."
In a March 17 letter to hotel partners, CEO Bud Finlaw said "Since Monday of last week, we have experienced a tsunami of cancellations. Over the weekend and through today, our cancellations have exceeded new sales, and dramatically so," he said.
"Obviously, this is an untenable situation. Despite great efforts from our Exec Team [sic] to find a path to continue with business as usual, we have now determined that the best option is to suspend regular operations until this crisis passes."
The company's next decision is particularly damaging to travelers: "This cut will affect our ability to service your resort as we would normally do. And, as a result, we do not plan on making payments for arriving guests who do not cancel their stay."
The move left hundreds if not thousands of travelers in untenable situations, as many guests found their Bookit.com resort payments were not made, with resorts demanding full payments from departing guests.
The last post on the OTA's Instagram page is littered with appeals from travelers desperate to cancel upcoming bookings or resolve resort payments on current travel that were not made. A post from @meghanhays7 reads, "BookIt.com I have a trip in 5 days! With the outbreak I need to cancel and cannot get ahold of anyone. I have called 30 times. My ID is 50617917! Please help!!!"
Another poster, @nhmtnx, writes "Soo I've tried to call multiple times and all the different numbers available none of the numbers are working! I had no issues checking out of the hotel yesterday, but my friend and her husband are stuck! The hotel is telling them they can't leave until BOTH rooms are paid in full at FULL PRICE!!!! Like can someone help!!!"
Travelers weren't the only ones harmed by the OTA's overnight shutdown. Workers at the company's Florida office reported they were terminated without notice or warning.
In his letter to resort partners, Finlaw added, "As we ride out this storm, we understand that you, too, will be facing the same difficulties. We realize that you must make your own business decisions as to arriving guests."
In a Facebook posting, Tom Varghese, owner of Travel Tom, posted screenshots of complaints from Bookit.com consumers left high and dry by the OTA's failure, warning travelers and colleagues. "A major OTA is going under. And they are leaving all their clients high and dry," he said.
Varghese warned followers to check any Bookit.com reservations and offered to assist re-booking clients. "The CEO basically told the hotel partners that they will not be paying the resorts and will be keeping the client's money, so, clients will have to pay again when they arrive or will be turned away. Unbelievable!"
Varghese added, "Many folks book on online websites because there is a perception that it is cheaper or faster, which most of the time is no longer the case when you work with a qualified travel consultant that understands you and your requirements.
"We all go to our favorite barber or hairstylist, not because they are the cheapest but we know that we trust them and they will take care of us. Why would you do any differently for a multi-thousand dollar experience for you and your family?"
Nadia Sparkle, owner of Travel by Sparkle, also warned travelers and colleagues via Facebook: "They have tons of clients currently in destinations and are not able to leave the hotel/resort because Bookit.com failed to pay them," she said.
"This is one of the reasons I am selective about who I work within the travel industry. I've heard so many people say, 'Why use a travel agent when I can book online myself?' Yes, you can, but who's your advocate in a situation like this?"
Brian Major is Managing Editor for Digital Publications & Guides/Caribbean.
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