Panel debate: Are too few travel businesses crisis-ready?

Hundreds of tour operators and travel agents have their heads in the sand when it comes to planning for a crisis, experts warned in a Travel Weekly round-table debate in association with insurance specialist Vantage Underwriting.

It is not a matter of “if” a crisis happens, it is “when”, said Derek Moore, chairman of the Association of Independent Tour Operators, who warned companies’ brands could be damaged by bad publicity.

Moore said: “If a client gets into a crisis situation, whether you are responsible for it or not, you will get the flak and the national press will be on to you. But a well-handled crisis could help you to generate more business.”

The response to the tsunami in 2004 was a “marvellous ad” for the trade because of the efficient way it was handled, he added.

However, companies can go under if they ignore crisis planning, said Vince Wilkins of Vantage Underwriting, which provides crisis management policies to travel companies. “It’s your company’s reputation on the line; if you want to be trading next month you need a crisis response.”

It’s your company’s reputation on the line; if you want to be trading next month you need a crisis response - Vince Wilkins, Vantage UnderwritingMainstream travel companies often ignore the issue or put it at the bottom of their to-do list, added Moore.

“There is a lot of talk in the adventure community about risk assessment, but mainstream companies do not take as much interest in this as they should. Your customer could be on a villa holiday – the risks are the same.”

Have a plan

Wilkins stressed: “Every company has to have a continuity plan that enables you to keep your business running.”

Mark Wright, managing director of Chameleon Worldwide, which owns travel brands Wildlife Worldwide, Walks Worldwide and Dive Worldwide, said: “The most important thing is doing the drill. A lot of it comes down to practical issues: who is going to take charge and who is going to man the phones.”

His company’s plan includes a series of tick boxes for action points to be taken during a crisis.

Companies also need to train staff to deal with distraught relatives, the media and clients on the ground.

Moore said few operators collect next of kin information, which often causes problems when family members need to be contacted urgently.

“You have to contact relatives very fast, but how many operators have got next of kin information?” he said.

Use technology

The first hour of a crisis is the most critical time. Often dubbed ‘the golden hour’, this is when companies need to assess the seriousness of events.

Wright said: “We have yellow, amber and red levels of crisis. We decide which level it is and then start a whole series of tasks.”

Technology has made this first hour even more critical, as holidaymakers will often make phone calls or take photographs at the scene before the operator is even aware of the crisis.

Wright has first-hand experience of the speed of technology after his clients were involved in a coach crash in South Africa last year.

“The crash was two days before the World Cup. The world’s media was already there to test out their equipment. Within 30 minutes, the first pictures were being beamed across the world,” he said.

“We tried to advise clients and families on how to prepare for the media onslaught. What we learnt very quickly was that Facebook comments were distressing people so we asked Facebook to pull them.”

Explore product and operators director John Telfer added that regular website updates were a crucuial way of getting information to clients quickly.

Learn from the past

The importance of crisis planning came to a head 13 years ago when 16 British holidaymakers travelling with Explore were kidnapped in Yemen, leading to four deaths.

Moore, who co-founded Explore in 1991 but no longer works there, said: “What happened in Yemen was before the existence of crisis management plans.

“The incident cost us £100,000. Operationally it was out of control, but we were lucky to have the cash in the bank to cover the costs.”

Vantage Underwriting began offering crisis management policies 10 years ago. “We were the pioneers,” said Wilkins.

Crisis case studies

Explorer sinking, 2007

In 2007, adventure cruise ship Explorer struck an iceberg in the Antarctic, forcing 85 passengers, including 24 Brits, to abandon the ship in freezing conditions.

All passengers were rescued before the vessel sank.

John Telfer, product and operations director at Explore, which had clients onboard the ship, recalls the importance of dealing with smaller aspects of the crisis, as well as the initial rescue. He says it was critical to ensure clients had everything they needed after being brought ashore.

Telfer, who met clients in Buenos Aires, said: “The group was safe but went through a harrowing, near-death experience. We gave them money, clothes and food as they had only the orange suits they were wearing.

“We took all the decision-making away from the customers. You can get criticism if you deal with something quite trivial in a really poor way, even if you reacted well overall.”

South Africa coach crash, 2010

Chameleon Worldwide was put on ‘red alert’ within two hours of hearing about a coach crash in South Africa involving its customers on a student field trip.

The crisis came three weeks after the special-interest tour operator had rehearsed its crisis management plan.

Chameleon immediately put media and operational response teams in place, and the company’s entire staff worked around the clock to deal with the crisis.

Competent handling of the incident meant the Hampshire-based company retained clients and developed long-term relationships with the families of the three clients killed.

Managing director Mark Wright said, “We have been amazed by how many clients said ‘thank God we booked with you’ because of the way we dealt with this. We didn’t expect that.

“We are not a big company. We worked hand in hand with the families of the deceased and we are still in regular contact. What is more important is the human relationship you develop because you care.”

Advertisement: Vantage Crisis Management Insurance

Vantage logoVantage’s crisis management insurance policy has been created for travel organisers to cover the cost of their response to a crisis for which they are legally responsible or not.

It covers the holders in the following areas:

  • Travel and subsistence costs – up to a maximum of 10 staff and up to two relatives of an injured person sent to the scene of the accident
  • Public relations expenses – PR consultant to handle all media relations
  • 24-hour telephone assistance – emergency contact to coordinate the immediate response, providing medical and evacuation services as required

In addition to the ‘principal cover’ the insurance can also offer specific help in the following areas:

  • Kidnap and terrorism – the cost of sending and using trained hostage negotiators, crisis counselling for hostages and staff and public relations team to handle the media
  • Hazardous or adventurous activities – dispatch of medical team if specialist aid is required and legal staff to collate evidence
  • Accommodation and transport disasters – dispatch of engineers to ascertain cause of accident and prevent a repeat and legal staff to collate evidence

Crisis planning tips

Supplied by Keith Betton of Keith Betton Consulting

  1. Plan for a possible event by having a spokesperson and making sure they are properly media trained.
  2. Don’t under-react. It is better to scale back your response later than build it up and look like you are late in working out what’s going on.
  3. Work with the media and help them if you can, and don’t make promises you can’t keep.
  4. Be sincere and demonstrate that your company cares about its customers.
  5. Monitor how the media is reporting the incident, and make sure you quickly correct any factual errors.

Betton offers courses on crisis management PR with Aito chairman Derek Moore.  Contact him at

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