he president, it appears, wants to
keep his options open to launch an attack on Iraq.
As the merits of such action are being debated, there does seem
to be one certainty: If there is a war against Iraq, much of the
travel industry will, for an indeterminate time, be -- now, what's
that technical term? -- oh yes, in the toilet.
How does one prepare one's business for the future when there's
such a big "what if?" hanging out there? For most businesses,
creating a contingency plan may seem like a luxury -- such plans
take time and thought to prepare, and most leaders in the travel
business still have their hands full dealing with the fallout of
Sept. 11. Staffs are smaller, yet budgets and marketing plans are
in need of constant revision. Who can spare the time to create
plans for events that might never occur?
The reality is that, if you're a supplier or a travel agent, a
contingency plan may well be the most important thing you have to
do today. In a crisis triggered by war in the Middle East, it's
very likely you'll be dealing with events that are as predictable
as they are dramatic -- getting passengers home safely, refocusing
your business to areas that are geographically "safe," being in
contact with suppliers around the world that may be able to assist
You can expect your phones to start ringing from both your
traveling and nontraveling clients. The travelers may need help
getting home, while those at home may have questions about upcoming
trips (or the desire to cancel them).
Agents need to be talking to suppliers about "what if?"
questions. They can know ahead of time which ones are ready for a
crisis and which are going to be flying by the seat of their
Far & Wide Travel, the world's largest tour operator, had
5,000 clients overseas on Sept. 11. The company's chairman and CEO,
Phil Bakes, told me that his company had just earlier that year
completed an extensive crisis management program.
The Far & Wide program had three primary aspects: 1)
Protection and medical care for guests; 2) Communications, from
headquarters to its offices and to company people on the ground in
foreign destinations, as well as to clients and their families; and
3) Logistics (re-arranging itineraries, accommodations and
The second two were triggered on Sept. 11. Even the best-laid
plans didn't predict that air transportation would be suspended,
and Bakes said he did have a bottleneck to unclog over the days
following the resumption of service. Far & Wide also ran into
some communications problems between clients and their families in
the immediate aftermath of the attack.
Still, Bakes felt the company was much better prepared to deal
with the situation than if he hadn't had the plan in place. He
credits "good cooperation and adjustment by our suppliers,
particularly hotels and airlines, in accommodating our clients on a
"[Our] overseas offices and personnel [are among] our core
assets for communications and logistics," he said, "and the
communications network also involves two outside firms, one in
London and one in the U.S., to make sure the communications loops
and logistics arrangements have a 24/7 capability.
"We've refined the plan since then," he continued. "The area
where we made the biggest improvement was to tie more of our
suppliers -- airlines and hotels, for example -- into our
communications protocol and grid so we could more readily get
up-to-date information and make travel and housing
As its name implies, Far & Wide serves many long-haul
destinations, and both the scale and complexity of the challenges
it faced were significant -- it had both more resources and more
problems than many companies in the industry.
Ironically, it may have benefited by devising its plan when
there was no perceived threat and economic times were good. Now we
face the opposite situation -- we're hard-pressed economically, but
we'd be foolish to ignore what appears to be imminent danger.
It's far better to ask "What if?" now than "What now?"