How prepared are you to respond to travel emergencies?

It’s inevitable that as a travel agent you’ll have to help clients out in a time of crisis. From government travel warnings to hurricanes to terrorist acts, a natural or human-created emergency in a popular tourist destination puts travel agents front and center. Agents who are best able to rise to the occasion and efficiently help their clients are those who have a plan in place ahead of time.

“You can’t prepare for a specific event—the details of any emergency will be different—but you do have to have a strategy in place so you can jump in and act immediately,” says Jennifer Doncsecz, CTIE, president of VIP Vacations, headquartered in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Sally Black, founder of Kunkletown, Pennsylvania-based VacationKids.com and director of Travel Agent Initiatives at the Family Travel Association, also emphasizes the need to have a plan ahead of time. “If you wait until the moment of a crisis, you’re going to be in a reactionary mode—which is not where you want to be working from in a time of crisis. Agents need to be prepared and in front of the situation…so when an emergency happens, it’s simply a matter of mobilization and implementing a well-rehearsed plan.”

These tips will help you maintain control during an emergency.

STAY ORGANIZED: “It’s crucial to have accurate customer information at all times,” says Barbie Groves, vice president of sales for The Mark Travel Corporation.  “Whatever CRM system you use, it must be up-to-date and you must be able to see who is in destination, who is about to travel, who is about to return, how to contact them and so on.” Accurate record-keeping is important at all times, of course, but this becomes imperative when faced with an emergency. “The last thing you want to do is have to scramble for phone numbers and contact details in the middle of emergency,” adds Black.

GET AHEAD OF THE EMERGENCY: Some crises come with no warning, such as a terrorist attack or an earthquake. But others can be reasonably predicted—and this gives agents a chance to proactively jump in. With Hurricane Irma, for example, Doncsecz started reaching out to clients who might be affected nearly a week before the hurricane made landfall in the U.S. “We could see the predictions by that point so we pulled the names of all travelers who might be affected for up to two weeks after the hurricane. Those names were sent to every agent in our office so that any agent could help any traveler if necessary.”

PERFORM “TRIAGE”: Black, who is a former nurse, has adapted the medical technique to her travel business. “[It’s about] prioritizing and assigning urgency to any situation,” she says. “This means having good assessment and leadership skills. It’s being able to delegate the right tasks to the right people.” While the instinct might be to help anyone who reaches out as quickly as possible, it’s important to stay laser-focused on top priorities first—those clients already in the destination, especially any with medical needs.

PARTNER WITH YOUR SUPPLIERS: “Good agents have contacts all over the planet,” says Black. “Maintain those friendships and connections in good times so you can count on their input during the bad times. Knowing precisely who to call in a crisis can be a tremendous comfort for all concerned, not to mention the most efficient use of time.”

Groves suggests a prepared list of questions for tour operators and other partners: Where can you find updates online? How can you contact the supplier? Is there a chat mechanism or other backup method of communication if the lines are busy? What protection is offered by the airlines? What are the ground handlers doing? What is the backup plan for hotels in destination?

COMMUNICATE: Black points out that it’s important to communicate with clients “even if you have no further information. Be willing to accept the frustration of others—don’t avoid it. It demonstrates your caring and commitment regardless of the message. It shows you are alert, proactive and monitoring what could be a very fluid situation.”  

In the case of a more long-term crisis—such as the Zika outbreak, the ongoing after-math of a terrorist attack or this year’s Mexico travel warning—honest and informative communication is just as crucial. “You can’t change someone’s fear,” says Doncsecz. “But as travel professionals we have a responsibility to present the facts.” For the Mexico travel warning, for example, Doncsecz created a PDF statement that could be easily sent to anyone with concerns, reassuring clients that their safety is important while also presenting facts that put the situation in context, along with the guidelines and penalties associated with changing a reservation.

SHARE YOUR EXPERTISE: In addition to your current clients, the public at large needs expert professional advice in a travel crisis situation. Feel free to extend condolences to affected areas in your own social media along with tips for travelers and personal examples of how you have helped travelers, as well as share articles about the value of travel agents in an emergency.

In response to some agents counseling each other to “keep quiet” about allegations of tainted alcohol in Mexico, Black wrote a blog piece on Huffington Post putting the situation in perspective. The post went viral and is still the top Google hit for “Are all-inclusive resorts safe?”

As an informed travel expert, Doncsecz reached out to local media to discuss the impact of the fall 2017 hurricanes. Hungry for accurate insider’s knowledge, several media outlets featured her insights on the situation as it was unfolding, cruising updates, travel through the holiday season and more.

CREATE AN OFFICE EMERGENCY PLAN: Emergencies can strike close at home too. Will you be able to continue working with your clients in the event of a snow storm, hurricane, power outage or other event that makes it impossible to do business as usual from your own office? “We have a standard operating procedure for if we can’t get into the office,” says Doncsecz. “For example, if there’s a blizzard, we know who has laptops and we’ve paid for a service that allows our laptops to mirror our desktops so that we can still access files. We can bounce our calls to our cell phones. We have insurance that will cover lost revenue if the power is out for a certain amount of time. It’s all about protecting yourself for the next crisis—being prepared without being paranoid.”

REVIEW AND REVISE: “It’s important to have a team meeting after the dust has settled to review your crisis management plan,” says Black. “Take a look at what you did and how you and your team could have handled the situation better.” And next time, you’ll be that much more prepared. 

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