Prepare, Respond, Recover: A Travel Agency Crisis Management Plan
Host Agency Reviews, as an organization, takes a stance of people over profit. I want to preface this article with the caveat that the top priority during any emergency situation—in our current time, a pandemic—is to keep yourself, and your local and global community safe from harm.
As a B2B (business to business) site, our mission is to provide you with resources to support your travel business, but this in no way diminishes the need to take care of individuals and communities.
We also understand that emotions are running high. Beyond even the aftermath of a horrible pandemic, an economic crisis will follow in its wake. When it comes to independently-owned agencies, this means your livelihood is at stake. In offering resources to help protect your agency, our primary goal is to equip you with the tools to protect your livelihood. To protect you.
So we continue to clock in and provide you with resources. Not in a spirit of “business as usual,” but in the spirit of drawing from the deep wells of resilience and tenacity you need for your business to survive.
If you’re reading this article right now, you may be thinking, “too little, too late.” But even now, amidst a crisis, there are measures you can take to ensure your response to the pandemic is confident and measured.
Following is a checklist of steps you can take to prepare for, respond to, and recover from the pandemic and/or any event that will disrupt—or threaten to derail—your business and your livelihood.
Phase 1: Prepare
You’ve heard it a million times, “Prepare for the worst and hope for the best.” We like to be hopeful, but when hard times hit, hope is not a business strategy.
Even if it feels too late to prepare for a disaster that has already hit, beginning to think about implementing these steps can help your business overcome future crises.
Start a Cash Reserve
It’s not an easy question, but it’s one you need to ask of your business, “How long will my business last if I need to suspend operations indefinitely?”
When considering a cash reserve, Chun (Chunnie) Wright, attorney and owner of Law Office of Chun T. Wright recommends stockpiling enough money to get your business through six months to a year. The more the better.
To determine a target amount for your cash reserve, consider your average monthly expenses (or projected monthly expenses, if you are in the earlier stages). You want to have enough to cover your overhead, pay your employees, utilities, insurance, host/consortia, licensing fees, for several months etc.
If you’re not sure what your business expenses are, check out HAR’ s Tax Organizer to help gauge your expenses.
In your business budget, include a monthly contribution to your cash reserve. In months where your business earns more than expected, you may consider contributing above your budgeted amount so you can hit your target sooner (or exceed it!)
Insure Your Agency
Look. I’m not going to lie. The more I read anything about insurance online the more I realize that you should never rely on the internet for counsel on insurance. In short, the following isn’t advice. It’s just a small sampling of what’s out there. So read on, but also call your insurance agency.
The insurance you need/want to protect your agency will depend on the scale of your business, your business model, and your risk tolerance among other things.
If you’re already sufficiently insured (by your own standard), review your current policies and make sure it’s still sufficient for your agency. Why? There’s no time like a pandemic for a hotel chain to find out that their “communicable disease” coverage doesn’t include suspected presence of a disease (this is a made up example).
If you work from home, you’ll want to talk to your insurer to figure out what exclusions apply to your home office under your current home owners insurance. (e.g. Injury that occurs to employees/clients on your property and/or loss of income if you’re unable to operate due to damage may not be covered.)
If you’re in the market to insure your agency (or expand your coverage), here’s a few examples of insurance you might consider. While there are brief explanations of each insurance policy below, please be sure to consult with your broker for the most accurate and up-to-date information that’s geared toward you and your agency:
Errors and & Omissions (E&O) Insurance: This type of insurance is very common among travel advisors. If your host agency has an E&O policy, ask them how their coverage extends to their independent contractors (ICs). If that coverage doesn’t satisfy you, you can always seek out your own coverage.
At its most basic, E&O insurance covers a portion of legal fees in the (hopefully unlikely) event a client brings a lawsuit against you.
1. General Liability (or Business Liability) Insurance:
This is more relevant to storefront agencies who need insurance to protect against claims including bodily injury, property damage, personal injury and others that can arise from your business operations. (If you meet a lot of clients in your home office, you may also want to consider this.) Some insurers offer blended E&O and general liability coverage.
2. Business Interruption Insurance:
This coverage may protect travel agencies if they need to halt operations for reasons such as natural disasters and/or if government actions cause operations to temporarily cease. While this type of coverage typically addresses closure of physical business locations due to natural disasters, business interruption insurance may also include clauses that cover interruptions to business from “civil authority” prohibiting access, and/or cover losses caused by communicable or infectious diseases.
Talk to your insurer if/how this may apply to home based businesses. Review any policy carefully. For example, some Business Interruption policies exclude interruption due to viruses.
3. Contingent Business Interruption Insurance:
According to Insurance Journal, this type of insurance is an extension of business interruption insurance and may cover losses incurred by a significant interruption to your supply chain. It may cover supply interruptions due to government shutdown, natural disasters, and/or bankruptcy.
These are just a few examples. If you already have some of these policies, review what is covered. If you’re pursuing a new or extended plan, equip yourself with questions to ensure your business is covered adequately.
Again, don’t take my word for it. Talk to an insurer!
Diversify Income Streams
Diversifying your income stream is one way to promote income stability. What does this mean for travel agents? Here’s a few strategies:
1. Consider expanding your niche:
I know. I know. At HAR, we champion niches. We sing their praises from the mountaintops. Really, we love ‘em because they position you as a knowledgeable expert and help you create really focused marketing initiatives.
But be careful of embracing a niche at the expense of any product diversity whatsoever, whether in terms of product (aka. I only sell Magellan river cruises) or destinations (I only book trips to Estonia).
It comes down to diversifying your supply chain. If you rely primarily on one product or destination and something happens to that provider or in that location, it could be a hard hit for your business to absorb.
Don’t have the bandwidth to learn a new product or destination? Consider partnering with another agent. For example, if you refuse to sell or book cruises, why not partner with an agent who loves to do cruises? You can either take them on as a sub agent, or send referrals their way for a kickback on the booking.
2. Offer another product or service (only if it makes sense):
If you want to hold tightly to your very niche, you may consider opening your business to other services. You could offer consultation, create educational resources, start to go on the speaking/ presenting circuit at trade shows. Again, this would not be an option to take lightly and I wouldn’t recommend it unless it aligns somehow with what you’re already doing and if you have the time, resources, and talent to start such an endeavor.
3. Charge a fee:
If you don’t already, consider charging a service and/or consultation fee. Nervous about charging fees? Go check out our primer here. Not only will charging a fee increase your bottom line, it stabilizes your income. How? One, it diversifies your income stream so you don’t have to rely entirely on commissions. Two, it redistributes when you earn income, getting some payment at the time of planning or booking a trip in addition to receiving commissionable income after the travel is complete (which can take many months).
Phew. That’s a lot! Would I recommend doing all these things? Heck no! But the preparation phase is a great time to explore ways to diversify (and increase) your income.
Don’t wait for disaster to hit before you delegate tasks. What tasks require a task force? Here’s a few:
1. Communications/ Messaging to Clients:
Appoint a person or a small group of people to be in charge of communications when/ if a crisis hits. Choose people who you trust and are responsive then let them take the wheel. These are the people who will be in charge of your business’ messaging during tough times.
The risk of having too many people involved with communications during a crisis is 1. The communications will not be responsive 2. The message will become vague or diluted 3. It will be inconsistent.
The good news is that many host and consortia will provide resources and materials to help you along in this department. But make sure you customize the messaging to your brand (more on this later)
2. Point Person for Support/ Client Inquiries:
You may already have this. If so, yay! But make sure you have a point person to address sensitive and immediate needs for clients. Appoint someone who is staying in touch with ongoing developments and who can respond quickly and effectively.
If you’re flying solo and you tremble at the thought of becoming a one-person call center, take a deep breath. You can rely on some automated messaging to ensure your clients are informed about what’s going on even when you’re not available to talk to them in person (more on this soon!) You got this.
3. Supplier Communications and Destination Updates:
Make sure someone is on top of the most current information from suppliers and destinations—especially when it comes to cancellation and rebooking policies.
4. Create a Plan and Keep it Updated:
Where do you find all the names and numbers and task force items that you jotted down on that Post-It note 8 months ago—the last time you actually had a spare moment to do any pre-planning?
You find with John Doe, who you assigned to create and maintain such a document! Again, if you’re all by your lonesome, never fear, use our checklist (at the end of the article) to get you started!
This is a lot to delegate if it’s just you and your office dog. If you’re flying solo you may consider outsourcing some of this. But even if you are doing it alone, you’ll have a great resource to help make the process fluid. This brings me to . . .
Create a Hub for All the Resources You Need
Ask yourself this: If you went to the moon and tomorrow a pandemic was declared, would any of your co-workers know what the heck to do? Well they will soon because you’ll have a handy resource that documents what to do and who to contact in a disaster situation.
Right now, I’m imagining one of those huge Trapper Keepers (a giant and oftentimes pink binder that’s a relic of the 90s for all you young guns who’ve never seen such a monstrosity) that contains all the info you need at your fingertips.
Of course, in the 21st century, this will more likely take the form of a fancy spreadsheet. In your big old binder/spreadsheet have available:
Emergency Resources: Do you know how to get your client safely to the Italian embassy? Do you know where to find destination-specific information if your client needs repatriation services? Do you know how to contact the local authorities of where your clients are traveling? If not, this is the time to learn how (and to document it).
Develop a contact list and processes for such scenarios. When you do site or supplier training, ask the business development manager about his information and document it so you all the information you need is centralized when a crisis unfolds.
1. Checklist of Immediate Steps to Take:
Not sure where to start? Psst . . . we have a checklist at the end of the article, so sit tight (or fast forward to it right now)!
2. Pertinent Insurance Policies & Contact Info:
Make friends with your insurance broker, okay? This way after you review all your insurance policies, you’ll know who to call with questions.
3. Pertinent Supplier Info:
If your client has an emergency with a certain supplier, do you know who to call? I know you have this info. Now put it in a binder and keep it updated!
4. Examples of or Links to Prior Communications:
I don’t know about you, but when disaster happens, I am at a loss of words. The good news is that if you belong to a host or consortia, many of them will provide amazing resources to help you create communications for your clients via email and social. Make sure you know where to find these in the event you need them (typically in their agent portals).
If you have responded to a crisis before, put in a link or provide examples of what you’ve said in the past. That will help you recover from paralysis or calm any panicked messaging (even if the messaging isn’t the exact same).
5. Links to Emergency Resources:
Make sure you have these resources at your fingers so you don't have to dig them up every time. Here's a list to get you started:
- State Dept.
- STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program)
- WHO (World Health Organization)
- CDC (Centers for Disease Control)
- Destination-Specific Government Websites & Updates
- Supplier-Specific Booking/Cancellation Updates
If you’re a first-timer responding to troubling times, make sure you have links handy for resources whether they’re from HAR, your host, consortia or even links to third-party articles or resources.
Trust me. Future You will be really happy that Present You put something like this together. Even if you don’t have a resource like this as you’re responding to the pandemic crisis, use the steps you are taking now and document them in one central location. It doesn’t have to be fancy.
Breathe in. Breathe out. You’re doing great.
Phase 2: Respond
Okay, so now you’re super prepared. Disaster strikes and you have the resources to respond in a way that’s compassionate yet professional.
Stop or Pause Any Automated Communications
Stop any automated communications that go to your client base immediately. Beyond the risk of appearing tone deaf in response to a crisis, there’s also a risk that your communications may be construed as advice to travel.
Remember that when disaster strikes, the situation unfolds rapidly. What is status quo one day might be unspeakable the next.
When you hit the pause button, consider:
- Automatic email replies
- Out of office replies
- Automations notifications/ trip updates to booked clients
- Automate sales/ promotional materials to client list
- Pre-scheduled social media posts
- Newsletter communications
- Scheduled blog posts
- Automatic appointment scheduling
Pausing these communications will give you a breather and help minimize damage control measures you need to take to protect your agency. Read on, because we’re about to talk about how to adjust your communication strategy.
Run a Financial Forecast
It's a scary prospect, but when you run into disaster you'll want to look at how much money you’re bringing in and what’s going out. Look at cc statements and bank statements to get an accurate idea of how much time you have until you run out of your emergency fund.
Are there software expenses or items you’re currently paying for monthly that you can pause, or move to a free or lower-priced plan? Do you have marketing in the pipeline that you can stop? Reassess the contractors you’re working with—whether graphic designers, developers, or bookkeepers—to assess whether you need those services during this time.
Before you adapt your communications, you need to get informed. Do you need to acquire the knowledge of an epidemiologist? No. But you need to familiarize yourself and stay updated on the situation as it pertains to your business and your clients’ travel.
This might mean understanding the cancellation/ rebooking policy of the suppliers inside and out for clients who are about to travel. It means staying updated on how Jamaica (or any destination) is responding to COVID-19 because that’s where your current clients are traveling.
Before you recreate your messaging, just make sure you have ample information. Offering a knee-jerk reaction will do more harm than good. Now is the time to reach into your stores of information in your Trapper Keeper to figure out how to get your client to an embassy/out of quarantine/ repatriated back to the States.
Quickly Adapt Your Automated Communications
Your clients are getting bombarded with information. While you want to keep them informed, you don’t want to add to the noise.
Furthermore, you want your messaging to clients to be personable, on-brand, professional and informed. Below are some great examples of how travel agencies adapted some automated communications during the pandemic:
1. Automatic email replies:
If you don’t have one, create one. Why? Because you can impart general information about how your agency is responding to all clients who are attempting to reach out to you.
Here’s a great example of an automated reply from travel advisor Scott Penney during COVID-19
As you know, the travel industry is currently dealing with an unprecedented situation due to the COVID-19 virus which has impacted the entire world. Many of our tour suppliers are offering flexible change policies on bookings and in fact many are suspending operations.
I understand that as my clients you have many questions and concerns and rightfully so. Please know that I have each of you on my radar and I’m working diligently to handle the required changes and or cancellations to your booking.
Right now, the demand is extremely high with wait times—sometimes exceeding 4 or 5 hours to speak with our tour suppliers and this is going to take time. When possible, we are using online and email communication. I have had to prioritize files in order of scheduled departure time to ensure every client is given the proper and due attention to their needs.
As one of my valued clients, I sincerely appreciate and value your business and support as we work thought this together. Travel will eventually get back to normal as the world deals with COVID-19 and once it does, we expect travel will become more exciting than ever and I look forward to being here for you.
There is so much to love about this automated reply. Here’s what it accomplishes:
- It acknowledges the present situation in a way that’s compassionate but not fear-inducing
- It offers an overview of how suppliers are responding to the situation to support travelers to reschedule rather than cancel
- It’s client-centered acknowledging their fear and concerns without fueling them.
- It offers options including rescheduling and cancelling
- It’s not pushing sales, it’s promoting client support
- It explains their approach on how they’re able to reply to clients and mentions how they are prioritizing their communications with travelers
- It expresses gratitude for the client’s business and extends a hand for future collaboration
2. Social media posts:
Your social media may not be automated, regardless you’re going to need to revamp your entire social media strategy (you will have in place, since you’re prepared!).
Social media is another great way to get your message out to your clients so they know that you’re not going radio silent if there’s lag time before you reach out to them individually.
After you suspend scheduled social posts, ensure that you're creating posts that are responsive to the situation and meaningful/ helpful to your clients.
If you have the time and resources, ask them what help they need and engage them. If you don’t have time to engage with them on social DON’T do this. You don’t want to ask a question on a Facebook then go radio silent for hours/days because you’re on the phone all day with suppliers. Play to your strengths. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel . . . just reinvent a few social media posts :)
Here’s an example of Golden Plain's Cruise & Travel Instagram post that addresses support for their travelers (post content followed by image):
COVID-19 is having a major impact on many people’s travel arrangements. You can rest assured that as your personal travel advisors, we are doing as much as we possibly can to assist our clients regarding travel plans by working through everyone’s bookings based on departure date and touching base with the information as we have it that day.
This is one of the many benefits when booking with a reputable travel agent. Unfortunately, many are finding out the hard way some of the negatives of having booked their trip online.
We are with you all the way, through the good and the bad
If Only . . . Partners shared a call for support of travel professionals on their Twitter account (post content followed by image):
Our global travel community needs your help. Restrictions have devastating effects on your local travel agent, your favourite hotel, but also communities around the world that rely on tourism to survive. So keep that holiday to look forward to later in the year and #savetourism
What’s the message you’re sharing on social? Let us know in the comments!
3. Ongoing Communications:
One of the things I loved about Scott’s email above is that he laid out priorities in communicating with clients with the most urgent needs. You’ll also want to prioritize client communications based on how critically they need support and where they’re at in the travel/booking/planning process.
Next you want to be sure you’re giving them targeted and helpful information. For example, for clients traveling who need to get home, you will connect with them and provide them the resources to reroute them home.
For clients who are about to travel, you’re going to contact them with information about the supplier’s cancellation and rebooking policies and help walk them through their options—from cancelling, rebooking, to rerouting (not at option during a pandemic, but is an option if there’s an area-specific act of nature).
With your handy dandy CRM or travel itinerary builder, you’ll easily be able to tell where your clients are at in the travel/booking/planning stage and respond to them accordingly.
4. Other Communications:
A lot of work goes into blog posts, newsletters, or email blasts (seriously, can I get an amen?!) and it’d be sad for all that work to go to waste. But don’t fear. It doesn’t have to.
Review these communications for content and tone. Segment your client listserv so it’s only going out as is appropriate to whom it’s appropriate for.
Here’s a few ideas on how you can repurpose/revise some of your content :
- Reframe messaging: You may be able to use the same content, but with a slightly altered intro or message. So if you were about to send a massive blast about traveling to Caribbean during spring break, you might reframe it by saying, “I know that your travel dreams don’t stop, even when the economy is at a standstill. Here’s what destination I’m dreaming about now.”
- Reschedule messaging: If you think it’s in terrible taste to send out a picture of a beautiful beach when you know everyone’s going to be stranded at home for days/weeks/months with a screaming toddler, then save it for a later time.
- Revise Your Content before You Post It: Even if a crisis is behind us, it’s not going to be business and usual. So if you were just about to hit “publish” on the Top 10 Reasons to Visit the Dolomites right when the pandemic hit, not only do you want to save it for later, but you’ll also want to revise the post when you do publish it. It could read “Top 10 Dolomite Sights I’m Most Excited to See When I Support Italy’s Tourism Recovery.”
Did someone say “recovery?” Dang. I hope we get there soon.
Phase 3: Recover
When everything is over, you’ll probably want to take a 3-week nap. But before you fall into any blissful slumber, take the time to review your response while it’s fresh in your mind.
You can use your growing pains as a tool to make sure your response is more seamless next time. Remember that it’s not about beating yourself up for what you didn’t wrong. It’s a matter of refining your methods.
Here’s a few steps to consider for the recovery phase:
Assess Your Response & Modify Your Plan
When it’s all over—when there’s no more aftershock from the initial impact—it’s time to review your plan.
Why would you want to relive a terrible event? Because taking a hard honest look at how you responded to a crisis will make you stronger if you ever encounter another one in the future. Businesses who are willing to own up to their mistakes and missteps and take thoughtful and critical action to improve their responses are the ones that are going to survive.
Ask yourself these questions:
- What information did we need that we didn’t have?
- What steps in our response plan were outdated or missing?
- How did clients respond to our communications?
- What did we learn from our communication strategy in terms of:
- What tools and resources might help make this process more smooth in the future?
- What tools and resources and steps seemed redundant?
- What tasks were not delegated? When was responsibility confusing?
- What relationships do we need to establish to make this process more seamless in the future?
- What tools, if any, did we need that we didn’t have available to us?
- Did our waivers and terms & conditions address this disaster?
- Which industry relationships were the most supportive to our agency? Which let us down?
Next. You know what to do. Go back to prepare, and implement these changes.
Your clients stuck with you and understand your value more than ever before. Drop them another note—even if it’s just a mass email to express your appreciation (or your call) for their continued support.
Review your Contracts and Insurance Policies
When you’re on the other side of a disaster, be extra attentive to any updates in contracts or policies with partners, insurers, and/or suppliers. Here’s a few tips:
- Reassess your insurance: Ask your insurance agent how your policy has changed, if at all, and if any new exclusions will apply to your coverage.
- Reassess your supplier and partner relationships: Did your suppliers and partners support your agency through the crisis? Were there suppliers or partners whose actions more closely reflected your mission and purpose for starting a travel business?
1. Community Support:
It’s hard enough to find community support when/if you work at home, but during a disaster the need to connect is even greater. HAR has a resource to help you find ways to connect with your peers here on the site and in HAR's 7 Day Setup Facebook group for new agents and the Travel Agent Think Tank for those with over a year experience.
2. Financial Support:
If your agency seems to be hanging by a thread, there may be financial support you can tap into to help recover financial. The Small Business Administration (SBA) offers an “Disaster Loan Assistance.” At the time of writing this (March 23rd) are states were declared to have disasters with coronavirus-COVID-19.
At the time of writing this, it’s unknown as to what federal funding/reprieve may be available to travel agents (if any). As developments change, we will provide links to more resources in the article. Here's a running list:
- SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL): The Small Business Administration (SBA) has a link dedicated to loans for small businesses (<500 employees) impacted by COVID-19. At the time of publication, every state was declared a disaster area in response to the pandemic.
- SBA Paycheck Protection Program (PPP): Implemented April 3rd, 2020, SBA's PPP program is designed to provide low interest loans (1%) to incentivize small employers1 to keep their workers on payroll. Interested applicants can apply through participating lenders. Funds are limited and are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. So apply now!
- ASTA’s webinar on the CARES Act: The CARES act enabled independent contractor (IC) travel agents to apply for unemployment, even though they wouldn't other qualify. Watch ASTA's March 30th presentation on the CARE Act and how it might support your agency.
Complete Crisis Management Checklist
Here's our handy summary. Go ahead and copy, steal, share, repurpose as it's helpful to your business.
In Closing—You Can Do It.
The travel industry was first hit by COVID-19 pandemic, and our hope is that it will be one of the first industries to recover too. We don’t mean this in a “kumbaya, everything will be fine” sort of optimism.
We have this hope because the travel industry has a historical track record of coming out swinging when tough times hit—large-scale industry disruptions, natural disasters, recessions, publicity nightmares and now a pandemic.
Sure, having a plan in place will strengthen your business, but it’s also what’s best for your client and their safety while traveling. Your responsiveness and resilience is also what separates you from giant Online Travel Agencies that are unable to offer any meaningful immediate support to travelers.
Having a plan in place is what’s best for your clients. What’s best for your clients is ultimately best for your business.
One of the things that makes smaller businesses resilient is their ability to quickly implement changes and adapt to the surrounding times. What other resources can help support your business? We want to hear from you on Facebook, in the comments below or Hello@HostAgencyReviews.com
- <500 employees, including independent contractors and self-employed ↩