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Troubleshooting: Mission impossible

TMCs and travel buyers spill the beans on the seemingly unsolvable situations they’ve had to deal with

Cancelled flights because of extreme weather are not the only negative events travel managers and TMCs have to contend with. Crises can range from lost, withheld or stolen passports to travellers getting locked out of the hotel they were staying in – or thought they were. These types of emergency take place all over the world. Keeping travellers calm and feeling that everything is under control (even when that is debatable) is the travel manager’s job.

Those dealing with the situation not only have to remain calm and focused, they need to know what to do, when and how; and if they don’t know, they need to know who does. This may involve contacting the TMC’s branch or partner in the country concerned, an embassy or even a fixer. Not that an embassy is always the answer. One Ukrainian woman with a British passport was travelling in Ukraine on behalf of her company and had her passport withheld when trying to leave the country because a member of her family had used her name to borrow money and had not repaid it. The embassy would not help until the following week because it was a bank holiday weekend and she was not in danger. It took three weeks and the intervention of the organisation’s Ukrainian office to get her passport returned.

Thorough cultural knowledge and understanding are also essential. It helps to negotiate with bureaucracy and gives insight into when money needs to change hands – and how to do it may be crucial to the process and, therefore, the outcome.

While moving mountains to ensure the fastest and most appropriate response, travel managers and their teams also have to stay in constant touch with the travellers at the centre of the storm, plus their families and/or partners. The counselling role is as important as the administration and negotiation. Missions impossible raise multitasking to an art form. 

As Denise Fraser, director and general manager of Cresta World Travel, says of a client caught in the chaos surrounding the bombing at Brussels Zaventem airport: “We had lots of tools at our fingertips to locate him and get him out of there, but it was more about reassuring him, guiding him through the chaos and getting him out of the airport and away from the city without too much stress. The human factor was more important than anything else.”

Travel managers and TMCs, it seems, have to be swans at all times: calm and serene on top, while paddling furiously underneath. Here, our experts share their mission impossible case studies.

NAME: Travel buyer for an aerospace manufacturer
DATE: April 2010
MISSION: My biggest mission was during the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland, which sent out a huge ash cloud over northern Europe. For about a week the most impossible tasks were getting hold of suppliers – airlines, hotels, cars, ferries, travel agents, anything; it was every man for himself. People were all over the place.

One man flew from Manchester to Hamburg on the day the ash cloud spread. He was wearing a suit and had a laptop and wallet with him. When he got to Hamburg, he quickly realised it was going to be impossible to fly home. He phoned me at various times for advice. I was getting a lot of phone calls from stranded travellers, but this guy was one of the hardest hit because everybody else at least had a suitcase with them.

He spent a night in Hamburg then got a train to a port in the Netherlands, which took him most of Friday into Saturday. Meanwhile, we were trying to book him on a ferry, which was proving fruitless. He needed some cash but his credit card was eaten by an ATM. When he got to the ferry terminal, he phoned me with the ferry agent next to him so that we could pay for his ticket.

He arrived in Hull on Sunday night and had to wait until Monday morning for a train from Hull back to Manchester; I can’t remember how he paid for that. While on the train, his laptop was stolen. He eventually arrived home, near Chester, at lunchtime on Monday with no credit card, no laptop, in just the suit he’d been wearing for five days. He phoned me on Monday afternoon to thank me for my help. The worst thing was that it was his son’s graduation on the Monday morning, and he had missed it.
STATUS: Mission accomplished (well, almost!)

NAME: Colin Pereira, founder, HP Risk Management
DATE: December 2016
MISSION: Filmmaker Phil Cox and friend, producer and translator Daoud Hari, both working for Channel 4, crossed from Chad into Northern Sudan to make a film about Darfur and headed for the Jebel Marra mountains. But the government knew they were there, had put a price on their heads and had alerted the Rapid Security Force militia.

After 16 days, they were intercepted by the militia and kidnapped for several days over Christmas before being handed to Sudanese government officials, who beat and tortured them and transferred them to a prison in Khartoum.

Phil Cox had hidden a camera memory card “on his person”, which Channel 4 later made a film about. Our security advisor worked with Channel 4’s crisis management team, security assets on the ground and politicians from the British and American governments.

In the end, US secretary of state John Kerry was involved in securing their release. Our security advisor organised a pick-up for them at Heathrow. The Sudanese government denies any torture or mistreatment and says they illegally crossed the border, which they did; it was illegal because the Sudanese government would never have let them in.
STATUS: Mission accomplished

NAME: Lucy Goldston, specialist consultant, Corporate Traveller’s production, sport and creative division
DATE: April 2018
MISSION: A 40-piece orchestra was travelling to Warsaw from different starting points in Europe and with a number of instruments. Around ten violins, cellos and trombones needed to be booked with seats as they couldn’t travel in the hold and the seats had to be booked as “Ms Cello Gordon”, etc. I had to phone each airline personally to explain what was required so that the airline knew that the seat was being booked for a musical instrument before making the booking in the GDS. Staff at some of the airlines had never dealt with a situation like this before, so it was all new to them. If possible, the instrument was booked into a seat next to the musician, if not and there was no adjacent seat available, then instruments were seated nearby. All the work paid off and everyone got to Warsaw on schedule with their musical instruments.
STATUS: Mission accomplished

NAME: Sonja Hamman, director global strategic partners and yield, Wings Travel Management
DATE: January 2015
MISSION: We had a situation where a hotel in Lagos suddenly decided to close for “renovations”. We had clients in the energy sector who had checked into the hotel that morning, gone out to a meeting, only to find that when they returned to the hotel, the security gate was locked and a sign on the gate stated it was under renovation. The guards advised them that all guests had been transferred to a nearby property, but all their baggage and personal belongings were locked inside the hotel, and security would not allow the guests back in. In fact, the staff had decided to strike, so the hotel owners, on impulse, brought the planned hotel renovation forward and closed the building immediately. Our client contacted Wings’ local team leader who immediately went to the hotel in person. She persuaded the management to let her in and assist her in retrieving our clients’ bags, which she delivered to them at the hotel they had been moved to.
STATUS: Mission accomplished

NAME: Denise Fraser, director and general manager, Cresta World Travel
DATE: March 2016
MISSION: We have the news on in the office all the time and we get alerts, so we knew about the bombing at Brussels Zaventem Airport and the team went on to the Cresta traveller tracking tool to see who was involved.

We had a client who was landing as the bomb went off, so he landed right into the chaos. We knew before he did. We had his number, so the team rang him and told him what had happened. They calmed him down; he was very distressed but at least he had a friendly voice at the end of the line. They didn’t know if there were other bombs.

As he didn’t have any checked bags, we decided to get him out of the airport, but a bomb had gone off at one of the metro stations as well.

Using our contacts, we got a car to him quickly and, at the same time, another member of the team was informing his PA and people at the company that he was safe and what we were doing. We got through to his family as well; there was a lot of ringing around and reassuring, to keep everyone informed.

We took him to a different hotel outside the city centre and his PA rearranged his meetings. He stayed overnight out of the city and our business travel manager, Sam, gave him her personal number and said she’d be on call all night should he need anything.

The next day, it was all hands on deck and we liaised with him and his PA to get him back to the UK either on Eurostar or a flight from Berlin’s Schonefeld. That was difficult because everyone who would have used Zaventem airport was using Schonefeld. We got him back and booked a car to take him home; he was fine. Our tracking tools really helped; it was a mix of personal service and technology.
STATUS: Mission accomplished

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