John Telfer of Explore Worldwide delivered the following advice to a Vantage Insurance seminar in London

I think of our business like a town. On any day, we have about 1,000 customers on tour worldwide.

For 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we are responsible for their enjoyment, wellbeing and safety. Someone, at some point, is going to need our help and we need to be prepared.

As a tour operator it’s crucial to be responsible. However, it can be dangerous to be overly risk averse – we could end up stifling the essence of what makes our holidays special.

The key is to understand what risks you are willing to accept. We operate on the basis that something could go wrong, so when it does we have a plan.

It is not good enough just to focus on your head office – it is vital to train your overseas suppliers on risk and incident management.

It’s probable that when an incident happens, it will be out of business hours. So imagine you have just been woken at 2am to news of a coach crash involving a number of your customers and local staff.

Ask yourself: is your office prepared? Is there a 24-hour duty manager? Is there an incident-handling checklist? Will your phones be overwhelmed?

Do you have staff trained to deal with sensitive issues? Do you have an office crisis team? How will you deal with the media? Do you have people with language skills? Will your commercial reputation be damaged?

At Explore, we learn from every incident and improve our incident plan accordingly. After 9/11 and the Asian tsunami we had to:

  • Have a fast way of reporting where everyone was
  • Make rapid decisions on what was covered
  • Have a way of logging what was happening to individual customers
  • Use the web and recorded messages to reduce calls
  • Have a phone rota 24 hours a day
  • Contact next of kin
  • Contact passengers on future tours

Whenever an incident occurs we are realistic. The situation will usually get worse before it gets better, and sometimes we’ll need more than one person in a country to deal with the problem.

Our UK team deals with the insurance companies used by clients, and we make sure anything related to an accident is recorded.

We often use counsellors and spend as much as needed to ensure customers get the best care.

Spending money upfront is a long term investment – we have a duty of care to our customers and want them to travel with us in future.

When clients return to the UK we meet and greet them at the airport if appropriate and, if necessary, arrange a private area for them to pass through the terminal.

The Package Travel Regulations mean we are generally liable for an accident when our supplier is at fault. We try to claim what we can from suppliers and our policy is to insist they have public liability insurance.

However, there are countries where this is unavailable or prohibitively expensive.

Nowadays you need to be prepared to deal with multiple nationalities, embassies and journalists – and be prepared for information to be in the public arena almost immediately.

My advice is to be transparent about what you are doing on the ground so people can see what action has been taken.

It is important customers know you are on their side. We share information with competitors when it could impact on them.

Overall my advice is: understand your risks; prepare and train your UK staff: have a crisis plan in place; review and test it regularly; train your overseas suppliers; look after your staff; put customers’ emotional and physical well-being (and their friends and family) top of your list; and review everything regularly.

John Telfer is product and operations director at Explore Worldwide. He delivered this talk at a Vantage Insurance seminar on Crisis Management in London in February. Thanks to Keith Betton