The Chinese New Year is one of the busiest travel periods in China. Couple that with a sudden lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak and you get mass travel chaos. But BCD Travel saw it as an extraordinary challenge—and poured energy and creativity into helping customers and employees reach their destinations against the odds. Jonathan Kao, Managing Director, Greater China for BCD Travel, tells us how the story unfolded.
On January 23, one day before the Spring Festival holidays, China imposed a gradual lockdown on Wuhan and other cities in the province of Hubei. The unexpected decision was inevitable, even though this is a busy time with 300 million people across China on the move. The Chinese government prolonged the holiday period to avoid a sudden rush back from holidays and large crowds, e.g., at offices, in subways or on planes and trains.
It also meant a sudden reorganization for companies who wanted to remain active. “The alternative was to close down the office,” said Jonathan Kao, “but we couldn’t abandon our customers on the eve of Chinese New Year, one of our busiest travel periods.”
This can’t have been an easy decision, given the working conditions. Can you elaborate on that?
Jonathan: “It was chaotic. Airlines weren’t adequately prepared for the aftermath when the outbreak started to gain traction. Clients were panicking. Without clear and sufficient information from our partners, it was challenging to deal with the calls and enquiries coming through. We simply couldn’t provide our customers with accurate and up-to-date information—train and flight availabilities were continuously changing. And the sheer volume of changes and refund requests caused the airline systems and global distribution systems to go down.”
“Airlines all have different policies dealing with changes and refunds, adding to the complexity. Most airlines require a specific refund code to waive the refund fee. But as this code didn’t exist at the start of the pandemic, the whole refund process was manual. We also needed to process refunds quickly, as the refund fee waiver rules could change any time. This proved to be important as airlines began to stop offering cash refunds, replacing them with vouchers.”
“To top it off, due to the holiday period, we had only a skeleton team on duty for the first week or so. When cities started their lockdown, it further complicated our operations. More than 100 of our approximately 400 BCD China employees were unable to return in time and most didn’t have their computers with them at that point.”
It was chaotic. Airlines weren’t prepared. Clients were panicking. Without clear and sufficient information from our partners, it was challenging to deal with the calls and enquiries coming through.”
How did you solve that problem for home and remote workers?
Jonathan: “Our lean IT team worked through the holiday to make sure we got our teams operationally ready for remote working as soon as possible. For some, this meant distributing new computers, setting up an internet connection at their residence and making sure we had the additional bandwidth from our provider. Employees filled out a survey using the WeChat app to provide information about their circumstances. That helped us to gauge the overall situation and support our staff appropriately.”
How did you keep employees safe within your offices?
Jonathan: “We immediately implemented a combination of measures and protocols that we still maintain today:
- Wearing masks is compulsory, and we provide these to our employees
- We conduct three temperature checks per day.
- We provide sanitizers and hand soap.
- We have increased the frequency of cleaning, and we’re using industrial grade cleaners.
- Employees who start displaying COVID-19 symptoms are immediately isolated in a different office and sent to the doctor to be tested.
- Employees who fall sick are sent home as precautionary measures. We give them ample time for recovery and after a doctor’s assessment, they can return to work.
- Employees are reminded daily to practice good hygiene and that they shouldn’t turn up for work if they feel unwell.
- Employees will need to make a travel declaration and practice self-isolation upon return from their trip to minimise contact with other employees.”
Your clients felt very little, if any, disruption in service. How did you manage that?
Jonathan: “Although some of our clients’ expat employees were out of China and decided to stay in their home countries, we had many more who wished to travel back to China. We were able to help them in February and March when there were still many international flights available. And even in April, we were able to help one of our client’s senior executives and his family leave India before its lockdown. Overall, we processed over 60,000 air ticket refunds in just one month and provided support to almost 200 client companies.”
Overall, we processed over 60,000 air ticket refunds in just one month and provided support to almost 200 client companies.”
What do you think attributed to your success of having zero infections in your offices, while providing an optimal service to your customers?
Jonathan: “From the very start, we communicated very clearly via WeChat and set expectations. We held daily briefings with our BCD China taskforce to discuss and handle various ongoing and new issues, and to deal with all the changes that were happening. We constantly stayed in touch with all employees, providing support and helping them understand the gravity of the situation. This also contributed to our general ‘social consciousness’ goal: ensuring employees do their part to keep everyone safe.”
“As to keeping up the productivity, this required creativity and willingness to try out new things. We moved many of our internal processes online due to the quarantine and office closures. Many meetings, trainings, client discussions had to be moved to online virtual meeting rooms, in our case mostly through Microsoft Teams. We were afraid it would be impossible to have large, online meetings with over 30 people at the same time, but it worked!”
From the very start, we communicated very clearly via WeChat and set expectations. We constantly stayed in touch with all employees.”
How are things now?
Jonathan: “Life in general is getting back to ‘normal’ to a certain degree. Restaurants and coffee shops in Shanghai are once again getting livelier, and we’re seeing commuter traffic jams again. Air travel is slowly recovering, at least on the domestic front: we’re seeing 30% growth in domestic transactions week over week. International travel still remains weak, with a very limited number of flights, mostly due to various travel restrictions in different countries.”
What have you learned from this experience?
Jonathan: “We have learned so many valuable lessons, like the importance of communication in a time like this—especially with limited social contact. We also appreciate the value of international solidarity. In the early days, when COVID-19 was confined to China, many colleagues reached out to me to provide support. We received face masks, for instance, from our Japanese colleagues when we couldn’t find any for sale in China. When the situation was under control in China and the virus started spreading out, we returned the favor.”
“Another valuable lesson: it’s important to continually update and discuss our business continuity plan. Everyone needs to know their roles and responsibilities when disaster strikes. Fortunately, our team went through many rehearsals and this paid off.”
“We’ve learned to look at the positives and take this opportunity to show our added value. As a TMC, we have provided support and information to our clients that have really made a difference. Our WeChat accounts had over a record 43,000 unique views, which illustrates how much our clients rely on us to provide timely and accurate information, especially now.”
We received face masks from our Japanese colleagues when we couldn’t find any for sale in China. When the situation was under control in China and the virus started spreading out, we returned the favor.”
How do you think business travel will change when this is all over?
Jonathan: “I think after all this, companies will reconsider their priorities when looking to partner with a TMC. But it will take time for the world to fully recover. I think that some business travel will move online into virtual environments. Collaboration forms will evolve and become the new future. On a higher level, different industries may reconsider the geographical distribution of their global supply chains and office locations—whatever makes the most sense post-COVID-19. This in turn will drive the pattern of corporate travel. Maybe we will see more domestic travel and less international? We’ll have to wait and see.”