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What does swine flu mean for the travel industry?

Diane Clarkson [Posted by Diane Clarkson]

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If you watch CNBC, you may be uncertain about how to interpret the potential economic impact of swine flu. One side of the argument is that the pandemic could reverse the gains the economy has hinted at over recent weeks. The other side of the argument is that swine flu is a non-reoccurring event and is unlikely to have any meaningful impact.


 


At this point, most analysis around the impact on the travel industry has been related to falling stock prices.  For good reason: travel stocks have tumbled. Major <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />US airlines lost $5 billion in value in just 10 minutes of trading today.  The views of travelers are lesser known, with travel companies reporting relatively low numbers of customer inquiries.


 


The are a number of concerning indicators right now:  increasing reports of the illness, the possibility of the news (or the media‘s coverage) igniting traveler panic, the number of countries advising against non-essential travel to the US.


 


Swine flu could be devastating to the travel industry or it could unfold and fade away. Only hindsight will tell.


 


So what should travel ebusiness professionals do right now?


 

  • Put effective health precautions in place for your employees and customers. For example, some hotels and airlines (including Marriott and US Airways) have introduced heightened cleaning and sanitization procedures.
  • Have appropriate travel policies in place, allowing travelers to change travel plans without penalty.
  • Inform and reassure travelers. At the time of writing this piece, several major travel companies do not have any mention of the flu on their homepages. In contrast, many companies are addressing the situation head-on. For example, Orbitz is providing travelers with information on airlines that will waive change fees and outlines the CDC’s tips on how to reduce the risk of infection.
  • Follow travelers’ sentiments. What are your customers saying on Twitter, Facebook, blogs?
  • Monitor your customers’ behavior. How many cancellations have you had? How many inquiries are coming in through your customer service channels? This is the truest reflection of how important swine flu is today to your business.

 


This is also the time to update your crisis planning. Know what the chain of responsibility looks like, what are your contingency plans and you will manage PR.   This is a window of opportunity to plan.