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 your clients.

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 pants.

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 transportation).

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 priority basis.

"[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 arrangements."

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?" later.

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