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Something in the Air

​LAST SPRING WAS A NIGHTMARE FOR THE business traveler. On April 14, Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano blew its glacier-covered top. Magma collided into ice in a reaction that shot tiny particles of glass and ash almost six miles up into the atmosphere over Europe. Unfortunately for air travelers, the ash cloud entered the jet stream and closed down large parts of Europe’s airspace for more than a week, with some disruptions continuing into May. Millions of travelers were stranded around the globe as approximately 108,000 flights were cancelled, according to Eurocontrol, Europe’s air traffic controller.

The damage to companies dependent on international travel was immediate. A membership survey performed by the National Business Travelers Association (NBTA) Foundation found that the crisis negatively affected 80 percent of respondents, costing the average company nearly $200,000. NBTA-affiliated companies also cancelled 5,600 scheduled meetings and 165,000 trips.

The only silver lining to this disruptive volcanic ash cloud was that every crisis presents an opportunity to learn lessons that will help companies better prepare for the next crisis. “We described this as the best test on any business continuity plan for travel that you could have,” says Paul Tilstone, chief executive officer of the U.K.-based Institute for Travel and Meetings (ITM).

One year later, business continuity experts and the travel management industry agree on the basic best practices that companies can adopt to minimize the effects of the next travel disruption, whatever its cause. Among the findings, companies should implement centralized traveler tracking, develop a flexible crisis communications infrastructure and strategy, consider emergency credit limit adjustments, and implement protocols to keep stranded employees productive.

Traveler Tracking
In a globalized marketplace where companies have anywhere from a handful to over a thousand employees traveling at any one time, it can be a challenge to know where they all are in a crisis. The first step is to make sure there is a central record of each trip. The best way to do that is to require that employees use a designated travel agency.

Smaller firms tend to let employees “just call and make their travel arrangements by themselves,” explains Anne Marie Staley, the director for business continuity planning at NYSE Euronext, Inc., and board director for DRI International, the Institute for Continuity Management.

But if staff call the airlines and hotels themselves or choose various travel agencies, the company probably won’t have a central database of employee travel reservations to refer to when an unanticipated disruption occurs. This means management will have no way of identifying which employees are traveling and where they are. That’s why NYSE Euronext urges its employees to book their vacation travel plans through the company’s travel agency. “This way we’re able to keep track of our employees,” she says.

To ensure compliance, ITM’s Tilstone recommends that companies do more than urge staff; they should implement strict human resources policies that require employees to book all travel through their travel management company. When they do not, employees should be disciplined because “the implications are potentially huge if you can’t find somebody when something happens.”

Roberta Witty, research vice president for Gartner, couldn’t agree more, and she practices what she preaches. “I can tell you here at Gartner, I do not make travel plans outside of the travel system, because I want to make sure that if I’m stuck somewhere, Gartner knows where I am,” she explains.

The ash-cloud crisis highlighted another area related to traveler tracking where travel management companies could do better, says Tilstone. “There is certainly an opportunity for…travel management companies to collaborate better between the buyers,” he says. “A good example of that would be to identify where buyers or businesses have travelers in the same location.” From there the travel management company could help its different customers stranded in the same location find one way home. The company could charter a flight, for example.

Flexible Communications 
When a crisis erupts, traveling employees will naturally look toward their company for guidance and support. To accommodate that demand, companies should have multiple ways to stay in touch with their stranded employees.

The company-issued smart phone is the most obvious means of communication for employees and company contacts. “A lot of our staff are armed with BlackBerrys and other smart phones, as most people are these days,” says Staley. “So at the very minimum, they were able to access their e-mail and send back reports and say ‘I’m okay’ or ‘I’m in the hotel.’”

Setting up social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to push out information is also an option. The value of social media during the ash-cloud disruption was apparent immediately, as travelers spontaneously relied on their social networks to help them as flights got cancelled and hotels reached capacity.

Witty spoke of numerous incidents in which company employees used their personal Facebook accounts to find alternative sleeping arrangements when the ash cloud stranded them in foreign locations and they were unable to find a hotel. With social networking sites, sometimes finding a place to crash in a strange city is as easy as writing a post on your wall asking if any friends know someone nearby who can be a good Samaritan.

Staley, however, advises companies that use social media to ensure that they control the information posted on these accounts so that misinformation doesn’t spread and make stranded employees’ situations even more nightmarish. She calls this a “modified social network” where people can leave comments but not create posts in an effort to eliminate hearsay information. “You have to have a central person monitoring this,” she says.

Another novel solution NYSE Euronext has implemented is providing employees with a contingency Web site—similar to an extranet—that allows them to access up-to-date information and guidance during a disruption. The information provided through that site is coordinated and updated by Staley’s business continuity team with input from other departments. The Web site comes with a simple e-mail system and forum that allows users to communicate with each other, their managers, and their departments; leave public and private messages; and look up any employee’s contact information.

Companies that have multiple ways to contact travelers may also want to set a policy that tells employees not to flood the company’s phone lines in a crisis, says Tilstone. If a company can track its stranded employees as well as communicate with them, there’s no reason for panicked travelers to clog up company phone lines, which might be needed for other business operations, including the efforts to rescue the stranded employees. Also, if stranded travelers are getting updates, they won’t need to call through unofficial channels and reach out to their colleagues back home, who may not have all the facts or who may need to concentrate on other tasks.

Credit Limits
Another complication exposed by the ash cloud was business traveler’s credit limits. A business traveler’s credit limit is generally determined by what companies consider reasonable during a business trip. The ash-cloud crisis demonstrated that companies need to be able to increase business travelers’ credit limits quickly during a crisis to provide their employees flexibility, especially since some service providers increased their prices as demand soared.

An ITM survey conducted of its members as the crisis subsided found that many hotels and many transportation providers—such as chauffeurs, trains, and boats—increased their prices when the huge numbers of stranded travelers were all in need of their services.

Another card-related matter companies should consider is easing payment-card purchase restrictions for a limited time during an emergency. Many companies tell their credit card providers to decline certain purchases—like clothes—to protect them against fraud. In one instance reported by ITM, a business traveler tried to purchase extra underwear with his card and the transaction was denied.

“This is one of those things you just don’t think about in a corporate travel environment until, excuse the phrase, the s**t hits the fan,” Tilstone observes.

Displaced Productivity
After companies address the immediate needs of stranded employees, they should consider how those employees can remain productive while stuck in limbo.

The most obvious solution is ensuring that employees have the tools necessary to do their job. “You have to arm them with the right equipment, so they should have a BlackBerry, a laptop, or some portable device,” says Witty. For senior executives, Witty recommends finding them a physical location in which to work, such as a hotel or office rental space with multiple communication options.

Companies with multiple offices around the globe should plan to have displaced employees clock in at another office when the unexpected occurs. Fortunately for Staley, who had some employees stranded for six weeks, this option was available.

Another smart move is establishing capability for videoconferencing with clients and colleagues instead of traveling. In a Gartner report, coauthored by Witty, the firm commented that many companies will look back at the ash-cloud crisis and kick themselves for not using video before Eyjafjallajokull erupted. According to a poll Gartner conducted a year ago, videoconferencing users told the firm that 15 percent of the time, the technology eliminates the need for some staff to travel.

While the ash-cloud crisis unearthed new vulnerabilities that companies should plan for, its primary lesson was to highlight the value of planning ahead, because there will always be a next time. Last year, it was a volcano that hadn’t erupted since 1821; this year, it’s social unrest in the Middle East. Next year, it could be a terrorist attack. The only certainty is that something will create havoc for business travelers.

“Business continuity is a well-defined practice that few people practice well,” says Witty. Those who do, however, have the satisfaction of knowing they are protecting their people and their business.