While all businesses have been affected by the pandemic to some degree, the impact was felt early in the travel industry.
And it quickly became clear that the ramifications for the sector would be significant and long lasting.
In these unique circumstances, the role of comms teams in keeping scattered and isolated workforces informed has been thrown into the spotlight like never before.
Among those at the forefront of this seismic change is Clare Lucraft, VP Internal Communications at American Express Global Business Travel. She has handled many high-profile crises in her 27-year comms career, but readily admits nothing compares to this.
AB spoke to Clare about her experiences over the last few frantic months.
How is 2020 going for you?
It’s been more challenging than anything I’ve ever experienced. We joke it’s me, but my husband assures me Covid-19 is not my fault. But I do have a track record of turning up in businesses that sail into choppy waters! I was at Cadbury during salmonella. I was at WorldCom during the dotcom bubble burst. I was director of internal comms at the BBC during the Savile crisis.
Tell us a little about your company
We are the world’s leading business partner for managed travel. We have about 18,000 employees and provide service in nearly 140 countries. We’re a truly global organisation with corporate headquarters in London and New York, and a commercial arm of client managers and salespeople, but the biggest bulk of our employees is travel counsellors. They’re the people with headsets and booking screens, looking after business travellers and meeting and events for our clients, which include many of the world’s leading companies.
How has business been affected by Covid-19?
Most travel ceased, to all intents and purposes. You’re talking about revenue generation pretty much stopping across the sector.
When travel got grounded, there was a period of time where our workforce was very busy as travel restrictions came into place with rebooking, repatriation and cancellations. We also have a large meeting and events division, and big meetings and events got stood down.
Then very quickly everything just stopped. I can’t imagine, other than hospitality and certain areas of retail, any sector more impacted.
How did you react when you realised the extent of what was happening?
I can pinpoint the day. It was March 17, just before formal lockdown in the UK. The government advice was to work from home if you can, but I did go into the city for a meeting because I thought “I’m not locking myself down until I absolutely have to”. I was slightly in denial.
On my way home, I came out of the Tube and the streets were empty. It felt like a scene from an apocalyptic movie, or maybe that’s how I was emotionally feeling, because it just was so worrying. I popped into the supermarket and the shelves were empty; I couldn’t get bread or pasta for my family and that upset me. I started to cry and shake. It was such a strong feeling. I’ll never forget it.
In contrast, exactly one month earlier I had been helping run the senior leadership team meeting in Orlando, and my biggest worry in life was the size of the tab at the bar. I mean, seriously!
What has the crisis meant for the comms team?
Like many businesses, we had to make a very swift transition to everyone working virtually and then reduced hours or furloughs. The part we’re playing is getting relevant communications to colleagues: making sure there’s a repository of information online and sharing articles like how to work virtually, travel policy updates and global updates from the CEO.
We quickly set up online Covid-19 resources and a drumbeat of communication. Our CEO has a fortnightly call with the senior leadership team to tell them where we’re at, and those leaders are then equipped with a deck they can cascade to their teams. We also got into a regular rhythm of video updates from our CEO; he records them at home and those go straight to colleagues.
We built that online resource very quickly, and it expanded into something called Stay Connected and the emphasis switched to support and community. We accumulated content around mental wellbeing, staying fit and healthy, working in a virtual team, and how to think about your finances. We did the same for leaders and built a series of training programmes. We’ve taken time to find and share ‘hero stories’ where our people have stepped up to help their communities and our clients.
We also set up a monthly employee poll: a pulse. We do a couple of sentiment questions – “How confident you are in our business response to Covid-19? How proud are you to work for the organisation?” – and practical questions like “Do you have enough information?” That’s been very useful.
Of course, now our focus is how to support the business and our employees as lockdowns ease and we help get the world moving again.
Have any positives come out of it all?
This situation does allow you to get a lot done in a short space of time. Just take our new comms app: normally that would have taken weeks of consultation and talking to people, but instead we stood it up in 24 hours. You just go: “That’s it, we’re doing it”. It allows you a swiftness and clarity of action, which is enjoyable and energising.
That sounds like an interesting innovation.
Because people were furloughed and wouldn’t have their laptop or work device turned on, we needed another channel. We’re in the meetings and events business, so we already had a meetings app and we customised it. Over 5,000 users – more than a third of the business – were on it within a couple of weeks. It’s designed for anyone who’s not on the intranet to get support through things like wellbeing guides, advice on how to access the employee assistance programme, suggestions and volunteering stories. People are very much using it like a Facebook page –particularly those on furlough – as a way to stay connected and to share. It’s genuinely nice.
And how have you dealt with lockdown from a personal standpoint?
Like many people, I have had my ups and downs. My children struggled as their mother was in the house but not actually present, as I was initially doing 14-hour days upstairs with my laptop, running out for five minutes at a time to grab food or coffee and run back. My elderly mother is also on her own and a worry. I don’t know what I would have done if my husband hadn’t been here.
Being a working parent based at home during such an intensive and stressful patch of work was a bit of a double whammy, but it got easier. I would characterise the experience as busy and challenging, like other internal communicators but with the added dynamic of being in a sector that’s managing structural change.
The house hasn’t been cleaned properly for 12 weeks and is looking a bit of a bombsite. In the absence of the 40 hours a week of childcare called school, we went through that phase where you try to home-educate and then give up. As long as they’re not screaming or killing each other that is the level of our ambition, for our own mental wellbeing. It has been a perfect storm, but we’re still going.