Don’t worry, if it all goes pear shaped, you’ll be looked after

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One of the biggest challenges faced by tour operators in these days of huge competition and something approaching a perfect market is how they can successfully differentiate what they do. For many years, I have used the line above to show how tour operators do differentiate their service. However, for 99% of the time, holiday buyers never give this issue a second thought. It is only when a tragedy occurs like the shootings in Tunisia that all of a sudden what makes tour operators different is so clearly recognised.


I suspect that I was one of many people who on Friday afternoon sat horrified watching as events unfolded in Tunisia – luckily it remains relatively rare that tourists are specifically targeted for terrorist attacks, which makes it all the more frightening when something like this happens. It is an issue that everyone can relate to – we go on holidays to relax and escape tension, not to be exposed to a truly awful experience. And for those of us in the travel industry, it is all the more real – many agents will have recommended those hotels to their customers, and many of us have actually visited the resort where the shootings happened.


What impressed me, and seemed to impress a number of customers in Tunisia was the speed and competence of the tour operators’ response, particularly by Tui, who were the most obviously affected – both the hotels were operated by Riu, a sister company to Tui.


However, great customer care in situations like this isn’t a result of chance, but as a result of hard work in developing and then implementing effective crisis management procedures – from the moment of the attacks to the first customers being brought home on specially laid on flights was less than 24 hours. Even so, those involved and their families do now expect instant, comprehensive service, and the challenge for any travel business is how to deliver that level and type of response.


So, what would have happened after the news broke on Friday in the offices of big tour operators, and where else would they have turned for help? As soon as an incident like this happens, ABTA plays a key role in pulling together its members to share information and intelligence with each other, as well acting as a co-ordination point for the affected operators with both the Foreign Office and the Tunisian Tourist Office. Speed of information flow and the nature of individual contacts means that there is a lot to be gained by these joint discussions – and during any crisis, ABTA will co-ordinate several. From a practical perspective, they have to limit the discussions to those most directly affected, with the most customers in the area, but ABTA will also issue operational bulletins so that their other members are kept informed on major developments.


The operators themselves have a relatively simple set of priorities – although the implementation of these can be challenging. They are to identify or account for all their customers in the immediate vicinity of any incident – and this is still proving challenging; decide what needs to be done to help those directly involved customers; to look at other customers in the same destination as any incident, and determine what assistance and support these customers need; and then to consider how to deal with future planned arrivals to the destination.


At the same time, the operators are receiving a constant stream of calls and queries from friends and relatives of holidaymakers in the destination – and sometimes those in other destinations, as well as many (sometimes hundreds, even thousands) of calls from the media, who want to know how the operator’s customers are affected, and what the operator is doing for those customers.


In a major event, like Tunisia, it is very easy for a business simply to be overwhelmed by the volume contacts, and then suffer criticism for its inability to respond effectively.


The challenge for any travel business now is to accept that it will be all but impossible to stay ahead of the information flow – social and normal media channels mean that information is flowing back from an affected area much quicker than can be communicated by email or phone call. Instead, any travel business needs to be able to come to a clearly defined, reasonable and appropriate response to the events. Some of this is achieved by having pre-prepared statements and positions, as well as checklists which help the business guess what information and actions may be required.


Unusually, in a business world where management is largely about collaboration and team work, crisis handling tends to operate quite differently. Team work remains fundamental, as there are so many aspects to handling a crisis that you need to ensure that a group of like minded individuals are looking to achieve the same objectives. However, there is also a need for a “command and control” approach. Any crisis response needs to have a clear leader, capable of making and implementing difficult decisions – which may not be popular with those who hold the purse strings. The decision to send 10 aircraft to Tunisia to bring home affected customers, and then to allow future bookings to amend or cancel comes at a significant cost. However, the long term reputational damage of not making those decisions is even greater – but it can take a strong leader to ensure that decisions of this nature are made and communicated quickly.


However, when an operator gets it right, they will be praised for their response – and you realise very quickly where an operator has got it wrong. And what about those who have travelled independently? They have no-one available to offer that type of support and assistance. Which brings me back to my opening point. Responding well to crises is, unfortunately, a key part of the tour operators’ role. Most of the time customers don’t see it, but simply expect it. So it becomes difficult to market this strength – but we do need to find a way of selling this service.


Equally, I am sure that there will be operators out there questioning how they would have responded had they been the affected travel business. I would urge anyone involved in travel to take a long hard look at their crises systems and processes, and see how they would have coped.


Just remember – it might be your customers facing this situation next week.