March 27, 2020

A critical challenge in tourism industry: How to reach a traveler in a disaster zone?

In the tourism industry, a disaster is the toughest test for the customer experience. How to reach potentially affected customers? Not one, or some, but all.

If communication fails, it may put customers in danger, or at least annoy them. Anyway, it will hurt the brand.

When I travel, I appreciate knowing if there is a disaster nearby. I want to be informed if a hurricane is approaching, a volcanic eruption or a strike complicates my flight, or if there has been a terrorist attack. I also want to know how to react and to be able to express whether I’m OK or need help.

So, what does this require from a travel agency? It’s complicated, but the most crucial thing is to reach the customers. They must get essential information at the right time and the right place. If the message does not reach the targets or is delayed, it’s useless.

Amadeus is a leading Global Distribution System and technology partner for the global travel industry. When they started to use Bookit’s messaging solution, one key issue was reaching customers when internet connectivity is lost. That happens in most disasters, like when a tsunami hit Japan in 2011 or a hurricane destroyed connections in Miami in 2017.

In cases like this, email or mobile applications are unreliable. Besides, even if networks were fully functional, people are often reluctant to install apps or use roaming during their trips.

A working solution must be robust and very easy to use. It must be created for comprehensive continuity management and customer dialogue.

Smart messaging that reaches everyone

Our solution is based on smart messaging technology. It functions in all mobile phones by all vendors, all operating systems and with all mobile operators globally.

Superficially, the solution looks extremely simple, and it functions like a normal SMS. But under the hood there’s plenty of sophisticated technology and innovations at work to secure communications, authenticate users, and encrypt messages and stored data.

We test connections 24/7/365 to ensure reachability. We’ve got a proven track record of reaching travelers reliably and very fast in 220 countries. We can even do intelligent routing, when telecommunications channels are overloaded and there are several mobile base stations destroyed.

Ari Ilonen, the head of customer experience of SMT, American Express Global Business Travel in Finland, says they have experienced several major incidents. After the terrorist attacks in Barcelona, it took only ten minutes for SMT to get response from every customer currently in the city.

“With Bookit’s solution we are able to contact our customers efficiently. They receive timely information in a brief and informative format. We’ve got hundreds or thousands of travelers every day, and we use the messaging solution five to ten times a month, which is a significant amount.”

Investing in critical communications is beneficial not only in disasters but in daily situations in tourism businesses. It’s all about managing continuity on a daily basis.

The tsunami experience

So, what happened in 2011 when a massive earthquake and huge tsunami hit Japan? In the affected area, internet connections failed, telephone landlines went off, mobile base stations were damaged, most operator networks were down and normal text messaging did not work.

That morning, when driving to the office, I heard the shocking news from Japan. In a press event, the Finnish foreign minister and a counsellor of his ministry told that they were unable to reach Finnish citizens in the affected area because the connections were cut.

Since there was no time to lose, I tested our iSMS® connections within minutes. I had a real-time interactive dialogue with a friend based in Tokyo. I found out that we had the only working solution in the worst hit area!

Next thing I recall is when I was in the crisis center of the ministry of foreign affairs, surrounded by counsellors and ministers, and sending crisis messages to Japan.

In just 5 seconds after pushing the send button, the first answer “A”, indicating “Yes, I am OK” arrived. After that, the answers kept coming. We knew who were in the disaster area and who were not, who needed help, if there were family members or other Finnish citizens with them, and what their status was.

In one day, we reached all Finnish citizens in Japan, except for one. The next day came, and still no answer. Counsellors were preparing for the worst and a press conference was about to start. Then it happened. Reply message “B” arrived, indicating “I am OK, but I need help!”. It was followed by a description what kind of assistance was needed. This person had woken up in a hospital, and turned on the phone. The first message was from us!

I can hardly describe the feeling, when we found out that the last missing person was alive and safe! Eventually, Finland was the only country that reached all its citizens in Japan. Not some, but all.

For me, to be able to help companies take care of their travellers around the world makes me feel that I have the best job ever.

November 14, 2017