Sandy was the first major “post-cloud” hurricane, and the ramifications for travel retailers were dramatic.
Widespread adoption of cloud-based applications and data storage in the past 18 months significantly improved the ability of home-based agents, host services and brick-and-mortar agencies alike to continue operating throughout the devastation wreaked on the East Coast by what started out as Tropical Storm Sandy and grew to be known as “Frankenstorm.”
Even in instances when home and retail offices were down for the count, without power or heat (and in some cases water), agents this time around were able to continue operating their businesses when necessary with little more than their smartphones and a car charger.
To be sure, the move to the cloud and other virtual networks is only part of most agencies’ disaster planning. Many deploy backup systems operating out of bunkers built to withstand a Category 5 hurricane, and they spread people and operations geographically to minimize the impact of disasters both natural and man-made.
But because being a travel agent means having to travel, and because of the advantages to both agencies and agents of working remotely, an increasing number are operating within the network-accessible storage and application systems known collectively as the cloud.
The cloud enables them to access everything they need to do business — client information, supplier offers, booking tools, marketing materials and more — from any Internet-connected computer, including a tablet or smartphone.
And because even the most wired agent can find herself or himself on a cruise ship or an island with limited or no Internet access, most independent agents have buddies they can seamlessly hand off business to when they’re on the road and out of touch simply by sharing access to their cloud accounts. Those buddies, in turn, are prepared to help when a hurricane or other natural disaster temporarily shuts down a colleague.
“It’s not just disaster recovery; it’s part of our business model,” said Karen Kent, vice president of marketing for Flight Centre USA.
Flight Centre USA is the parent of Liberty Travel, whose agencies are concentrated in the Northeastern U.S. and thus were right in Sandy’s path. Dean Smith, president of Flight Centre USA, said Sandy affected nearly 90% of Liberty’s agencies in some way. The morning of Oct. 30, after Sandy had roared through the region the night before, only 27 of Liberty’s 170 locations were physically open. Even so, Liberty Travel was open for business.
“At all times, we were functioning,” Kent said.
Liberty customers always had someone taking care of them, as evidenced by a letter from one British client thanking a Liberty agent for getting him and his family out of Newark the evening of Oct. 31, enabling him to be back at work Nov. 2. “Without your assistance I feel sure we would still be stranded in Manhattan, which would have caused us much distress, especially my children,” he wrote to Liberty agent Gustavo Vega.
One reason Liberty was able to stay in operation was because days before the storm hit, the company had gone over existing disaster contingency plans before executing them. Essentially, Liberty monitors which location has been compromised and finds other teams to take over until the operation can be restored.
But, at the same time, Liberty was also able to function because most of its travel consultants can work remotely through a virtual network, Kent said.
Working remotely is second nature to many agents today, particularly for home-based travel sellers, who work in a home office, on the road, at sea or anywhere they happen to be.
Avoya Travel, for example, says it has a three-pronged strategy: mobility, connectivity and community. Its agents can use all of Avoya’s systems on laptops, iPads, iPhones and Androids.
“We had several agents who work out their homes and had to leave because of the storm but had no interruption in their business,” recalled David Anderson, Avoya’s chief information officer.
This is not unusual for Avoya agents, who routinely work from iPads when on cruises. Avoya has also built into its AgentPower technology platform a feature that it calls the Colleague System. Avoya encourages its independent affiliates to partner with a buddy, usually so that agents have backup when they travel on a fam or on vacation. But it also means that if their business is threatened by something like Sandy, they’ve got backup.
In all, Anderson said, about 100 Avoya agents were affected by Sandy.
Another survival model are enterprise systems such as CruiseOne and Cruises Inc.’s Cruise Control.
The beauty of the enterprise system, said Sandi Szalay, vice president of information technology for CruiseOne and Cruises Inc., is that agents never need to maintain applications or data locally.
“They simply need Internet access to access our systems,” she said. “They’re all Web-based.”
Moreover, their data is backed up and protected with multiple redundancies, included fallbacks for power and a building designed to withstand a Category 5 hurricane. It also maintains data centers in multiple locations, said Drew Daly, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc.’s vice president of sales performance.
As a result, even if Sandy knocked out an agent’s power, his or her clients could access their travel on the agent’s website. And even agents who were without power were able to operate using their smartphones.
In addition, CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. has support teams that could reach out to the customers of agents who had been knocked offline. CruiseOne and Cruises Inc. agents also operate with a buddy system.
Cruise Planners/American Express agents use Cruise Planners’ proprietary ERez system, which is designed to work on computers and smartphones in everyday operations. But that system also enables agents to keep working during events like Sandy, said Vicky Garcia, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Cruise Planners.
Cruise Planners also uses a buddy system, which means its agents have a backup when they take vacations or a trip — or are dealing with a natural disaster like Sandy. And ERez, too, can be accessed and operated from any computer that has an Internet link.
Amanda Klimak, vice president of Largay Travel, a Virtuoso agency in Waterbury, Conn., said her agency is equipped to work remotely and collaboratively. Agents can access their office desktop remotely, but if they find themselves completely off the grid, their colleagues can help the agent’s clients through ClientBase and through Virtuoso Composer.
Social media also helped host agencies keep in touch with their agents and see how the storm was affecting them, Garcia said.
Klimak said systems that enable agents to work remotely are a huge benefit, not just because it enables her business to function even when a superstorm hits but also because “I’m able to employ people all over the world and all over the country.”
She said she finds home-based agents can be more efficient and focused. And rather than relying on an employee pool within a 30-mile radius of her office, “I now have the whole country at my fingertips.”Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly.