S2E4: TUI's Covid journey
Updated: Apr 23
Liz Edwards, Head of Communications at TUI, tells Daisy about repatriating thousands of customers and why IT systems actually posed the biggest reputation challenge that TUI faced when Covid hit. This insight into what goes on behind the scenes at a holiday company was totally fascinating.
Some key lessons from Liz:
Put the customer at the heart of whatever you are doing. This is an oldie but a goodie. And it can mean challenging some really important assumptions. For example, customers don't care how you categorize them internally, so don't make that their problem.
Allied to this is an important reminder about transparency. Liz asks her team whether they would feel proud to explain a policy or decision on morning TV.
Sometimes what's needed is an apology, or at least an admission that things are going to get a little rocky. I think the key word for this whole episode has to be 'journey'. Take your stakeholders, both internal and external, on a journey with you and show them how you are fighting to deliver better for them.
TUI's experience shows that even the best prepared organizations get caught out when new systems come under strain. Let this be a useful reminder to look at your own org charts and think about what you would do if any one of those departments went down? Do you have a plan? The key is to do that even for the systems that don't seem mission critical right now.
Also crucial to your crisis plan is including breaks for all personnel. That means you too. How would you ensure continuity if something happened to you? How will you delegate more of your tasks swiftly so that you can concentrate on urgent triage and strategy?
Find the whole episode here:
Or read the transcript in full here:
S2E4 - TUI's Covid journey
Daisy Powell-Chandler 00:08
Welcome to Why Everybody Hates You, an audio support group for reputation professionals. If you have any responsibility for how people talk, think and feel about your organization, then you are in the right place. I'm your host - reputation coach Daisy Powell-Chandler. 2020 was a pretty wild year for all of us. And for this series, I'll be interviewing communicators from organizations that had an especially weird time of it. This week, I'm bringing you an interview with Liz Edwards, head of Communications at the holiday company Tui. I started by asking her to describe for me the moment when COVID really started to impact her team.
Liz Edwards 01:01
I was at Gatwick Airport, and I was about to get on a flight down to Palma just to go to a meeting. And my phone rang and he said, Liz, we've got confirmed Coronavirus in one of our hotels in Tenerife. This is kind of end of February. And I said "oh, okay, how's the customer sentiment?" And they said, "it's fine, you know, people are starting to understand what's going on". And I said, "Okay, are you guys okay?" And they're like, "yeah", and I was like, "OK, no problem. I'll jump on the flight". So I flew to Palmer and I got to Palma and picked up my phone. And they said, "No, you really need to come back". So I, I flew back again. And that was basically the start of 16-18 hour days for many, many weeks. And that was when it really changed, you know Coronavirus was in hotels, it was in Europe. At the same time, we started to get all these reports coming through from our ski resorts. And it was as if very quickly, what was a holding statement back at the end of January of "we're keeping it under review" was "we now need to kind of activate crisis communication plans". It was like we're in. It's time to go. This is what you plan for. And yeah, that was the start of it all really.
Daisy Powell-Chandler 02:28
It sounds extraordinary. And I am quite sure you're going to be telling stories about it for years to come. I think first of all, all of us who are listening are wondering when you had to fly back from Palma...so you just arrived, you open up your phone, the situation has changed in a couple of hours, and you have to fly back. You work for a holiday company. Is that really easy for you? Do you just say I need a flight back and someone sorts it out?
Liz Edwards 02:54
I was really lucky that I think the team had already decided that I was going to be flying back. So when I picked up the phone, they're like there is an EasyJet flight, it's leaving in 90 minutes. You're gonna be on it.
Daisy Powell-Chandler 03:09
So okay, yeah, that's serious.
Liz Edwards 03:11
I think, you know, I have the most incredible team and we do plan for this. And I think the team were absolutely able to handle it, but it was just the volume of inquiries. And it was, I think, if people can cast their minds back, we were central to 24 hour rolling news, you know, everyone was set up outside that hotel thinking oh my goodness what is going on? I mean, what was fascinating when I look back at it is yes, it was some kind of dystopian drama in terms of what was going on with hazmat suits. But then, you know, when we also were speaking to customers, their viewpoint at the time was, "well, what a load of nonsense, can I carry on going to the beach bar, and am I able to stay at the pool?". And we were going, "gosh, this is so, so strange". And at the time, Public Health England hadn't come up with any guidance. And I think that was the thing for us. We were going "do we stop flying?" And they were saying "no, there's no need to stop flying - it's fine". And we were like, "Okay, well, we still have people flying to Tenerife. So we will just put them in different hotels". And and I think that was what was so interesting, because at the time we were going off what we thought was the right thing to do, you know, and at the time, it wasn't actually classed as a pandemic by WHO. So we were like, "okay, let's work through what is the right thing to be doing."
Daisy Powell-Chandler 04:45
So then you activate the crisis comms plan. And those of us who've had to put together a crisis comms plan we know that can mean a huge spectrum of things. That can mean "actually we just thought one up", it can mean "you're reaching for a well worn folder", or it can mean something much more complex. What does crisis planning look like at Tui?
Liz Edwards 05:07
So, as you can imagine, we're huge business. And you know, aviation is highly regulated, same with cruising holidays. And bizarrely, we're really well versed at crises. So there is not a year that goes by when there's not some large weather catastrophe, whether it be like hurricanes or, you know, snow storms, you know, the beast from the East where no one could go anywhere. And so we're really well versed in crisis planning, and we have it from a very local level, also up to like a group, global level experience across many markets. So, you know, the crisis plan is a big document, but it's what we live and breathe. We almost slightly live our lives by crisis, we sometimes joke that we kind of love a crisis, it's when we all come together and go "great, we can solve something". And I think that stood us in really good stead to begin with, because we always have a crisis director, whenever anything is activated, there is a crisis director that is on call 24/7, 365 days a year. So there is an on-call press officer, 24/7 365. And there's always a subject matter expert. So there is a core group of people on a set rota, day in day out, but all trained to do this. And there is a very clear activation process, and you get a text message, and you get told whether it's a green, amber or red. And you just kind of go with that flow. So for us, bizarrely, yes, we knew that there was a lot of media attention, particularly once, as you say, talking about Tenerife, and we can talk about how it built and grew. And, you know, there's so many different variables within crises, which, quite frankly, it's been 52 weeks long, if not longer. But actually, it wasn't overwhelming, because we just knew what we needed to do. And it was about just putting in things that we are really well versed at either training for, preparing for, or just is very natural within our organization. So the repatriation piece, or the crisis piece, just felt like one. It was like one hotel, it was, you know, nearly 100 people in one hotel. And that was like, that's fine. That's almost always what we do.
Daisy Powell-Chandler 07:47
It's not quite business as usual, but it's something along those lines.
Liz Edwards 07:51
It's what we plan for, it is what we do, it's it's fine. I think it was the point when country by country was closing. And before we knew it, I mean, we repatriated 60,000 people from overseas over those weeks. A lot of people. So and I think, you know, there were moments. So we had 18,000 people in Spain. And there was a situation where, you know, Spain was starting to close into lockdown. And, you know, Brits still wanted to go on holidays, as if it was normal. And I think, you know, we we had a situation where we were told, "Look, you've got 48 hours, you need to get everyone out". We have a crisis management center in our head office and we were looking at literally the reams of countries, it was like ticking off countries like "right, that one's closed, Turkey is closed, Maldives are closed". And you know, everything was like ticking off these countries as they were closing. And then we thought well, even with all the aircraft that we have, how do we get 18,000 people back because that's not possible. So then it was about going in and having negotiations with, you know, ministers in Spain saying, "look, we will get everyone home, but we just need a few more days." And it's then the planning that our aviation team then had to put into place and go "how many aircraft can we get back?". So, it was fascinating. And do you know what a really strange thing is? I've always loved crisis communications and think it takes a certain kind of lunatic doesn't it to secretly love it, but there was such a positive energy around it because we knew that we could do this and we could do this really well. And the repatriation piece, we stand by - we got every single person home. It was done in a really controlled way. It sounds like it would be - it was - a mammoth task. It sounds like it would be overwhelming and fraught, but it wasn't. And I think that was, looking back, what I'm really proud of - because we just clicked into place.
Daisy Powell-Chandler 10:04
Yeah. And it sounds like you were extraordinarily well prepared for that and you just rolled out the plan, which is delightful to hear. I guess the question is, how do you extend that crisis mindset? Because as you said, for the travel industry, this pandemic is nowhere near over yet. So how do you keep that mindset that preparedness going for so long? That must be exhausting?
Liz Edwards 10:32
I think that was the pace and I think we've gone through, you could kind of split the crisis up in different timescales. So the initial individual crises, a singular hotel, then it's about hotels closing, and countries stopping. And that's, you know, that's very grand. But I think for us, it was the unknowns that really came through. And actually, that was twofold, really. Once we stopped operating, and everyone was going Hang on a minute, the world's closing, you know, we were talking about lock downs at this stage...and we closed on the 17th of March. So that's when flight stopped. Well obviously Boris Johnson didn't lock us down until the 23rd. So there was those days where people were told to try and stay at home if you can, and everyone was in that in between mode. That was the point when the crises really shifted for us. And that was about customers with bookings in April, May June onwards going, "Am I going to travel? It doesn't sound like I am. I want a refund. What's going on? Where is my information?" And that was at the same time as we were saying to our stores and our colleagues, "you need to lock up your store. You know, you're now furloughed, we don't know when you're coming back." We had a real complexity of systems, which is our greatest learning, because customers don't care if they were a retail broker or an online broker, they were a customer. And I think for us, that's when it shifted. Because the repatriation and that piece was our bread and butter. It was, you know, absolutely fine. But I think for us, it was that movement into customer communications, and trying to predict the future. And, you know, in crisis comms you never predict the future, you deal with facts, you deal with what is in the moment, and we were trying to preempt constantly what was going to happen next. How can we help customers? What can we say to them? And I think for us that that was the first time when it became almost quite overwhelming, because that was very new to us. It was the news topic of the moment: holiday refunds. It was absolutely everywhere. And you know, as an example, our contact center had a million calls a day trying to contact them. And because there were people who couldn't get through, they would try again, try again and try again. And it was basically buckling the system. We had to call BT and say help us stabilize our phones, we can't cope with this. And you know, 10s of 1000s of social media contacts. We had to bring loads of people off furlough, who ordinarily would maybe work in digital marketing. So it was like, who can help, who wants to come off furlough and just help us on social media just to help our customers? And I think that was the point when you go, okay, like, now we really need to shift, we need to shift from an operation to genuine reputation management. That's when it became really interesting.
Daisy Powell-Chandler 14:10
And how do you feel it went? It may well be far too early to tell but presumably along the way you get a gut feel for "yeah, we did that OK" or "we absolutely slam dunked that", or "don't feel completely comfortable about that". How do you think it went?
Liz Edwards 14:26
Yeah, gosh, I mean, I can tell you my rollercoaster of emotion. I think it's the easiest way to answer that question Daisy, because when we were in the thick of it, I remember thinking there is no right for doing wrong here because we know we cannot answer these phones quickly enough. And we know customers are getting so upset and they are nervous. They're nervous about their money. They are nervous about what's going on in their own lives, you know they may have lost jobs or be furloughed and actually the idea of having £4,000 or £5,000 from a holiday company is actually going to really help them. And I think we forget, last year there was a real...people were scared, people didn't quite know what was going on generally in life. So I think I remember the refund piece is the bit when I think, "oh, gosh, we really need to grab hold of this". And, you know, I think it really became quite powerful for us internally, because there were colleagues that were furloughed. So people like our cabin crew and our retail colleagues who are so passionate about what they do. They love taking our customers on holiday, like what a joyful thing to do. And all they could see was this kind of negativity swirling around us. And we started to actually see the impact on some, but we have a closed internal social network for our colleagues, and you could start seeing them saying, "oh, gosh, we can see so much negativity, and it doesn't make me feel proud to work here and what can we do?" And I think that was quite tough as a communication team, because you think, "right, okay, we need to make sure our colleagues know that we have this under control, we need to be far more transparent for our customers and give them an update". We came up with four pillars, and it's ironic because we still haven't made pillar four...so it was about repairing, and rebuilding, and then reassurance and then reimagining. And we were like, "I'll hope that'll take a couple of months". And we were really naive, you know, how quickly we thought this would kind of come back to some form of normal. You're right, we're just not there now. So I think that for me was the challenge because I look back now and I look at our brand metrics and, you know, our brand is by far the most trusted brand in travel. And our booking patterns are incredibly strong again. And people are coming back to us and the sentiment is so strong around the brand. But if you had told me last May when I was thinking, "my goodness, how are we going to turn this around?", I would never have believed that in six months we would have been able to do that. And that was about transparency, we had to just go out and apologize and really explain and say, "we are so sorry, we have systems that don't talk to each other. So there are some customers having a great experience and some customers that we know we're not doing a great job for at the moment. But this is what we're doing to change that". And I think the minute we had that transparency, the minute we owned it, the minute we then made not just apologies but made genuine changes, we rebuilt it systems in a matter of a few weeks, it just turned and people went "okay, this is the Tui that I know and love". But yeah, it was a roller coaster.
Daisy Powell-Chandler 17:58
It certainly sounds like it. If you were doing it again...I almost don't want to put you back through that, even in an imaginary world...if you were to do it again, what would you change? What would you do differently?
Liz Edwards 18:15
I think the biggest thing for me, is I think I would be really kind to myself. I think that there were hours that we had to work and they were pretty crazy. But by doing those numbers of hours and constant days and working through bank holidays and weekends, ultimately that isn't going to help you because you then become so tired and you become so overwhelmed and you need those incredible people around you to go "actually, I'm going to pick this up for you now". You recover and take a breath, because actually, just after those few hours, you then have that fresh perspective of "Oh, okay. Actually, we can go and do this differently". So it was actually one of my senior managers, Sophia, who said, "right, let's set out a framework. You're so in the thick of being in the crises, meetings and leading it, let's go away and work out how we're going to plan this through". And I think that ultimately really helped me. Be kind to yourself, take that time, take a step back, take a breath and trust the processes that you have because they do work. Those frameworks work.
Daisy Powell-Chandler 19:40
As you said, though, we are still not at the end of this. There's still quite a lot of reimagining to do for the holiday industry in order to get back up and running. How are you planning for that? How are you working with your team to keep them going during this long slog and to prepare for what's next?
Liz Edwards 20:02
Yeah, I think that there's been a couple of things. I think the first thing is work-life balance. I think we're an outgoing team, we loved spending time with each other, we like being in each other's company. So when you put us into a crises, and then you take us away from our natural environment of being around each other, I think that for us was quite interesting in terms of working through that virtual working. But it's actually been a massive revelation for me in terms of, you do have that time back. Quiet time where you can work through things, you have a better work life balance. And that was that whole piece. And someone said to me you've got to remember, work from home but you don't have to live at work. And I think, for me, that was something that I've definitely taken forward and making sure that the team, and our wider colleague community and to look after internal communications, that's become absolutely central to everything we do now is getting that balance back, getting that pride back. I would say, the thing that it really also taught me, the thing I was really proud of, is we had good Media Relations previously, and great relationships. But my goodness, our travel editors lived through this with us. And there were points when I spoke to some of them more often than I did friends and family. And I think that for me, it makes you remember that you need to go back to your bread and butter. And that bread and butter of great comms, great relationships, really good well thought through plans. That's what we'll always take forward with us now. I think it's the basics, I think all those things that you thought you'd planned for, you just have those basics in place. Now, that will take us forward. And, as for the reimagine piece, just you know, keep inspiring people with great holidays, and put your customer first, put your customer first before anything else and be honest with them, take them on the journey with you. And they will, they will forgive you a lot. If you put them first, and you kind of keep them updated with what is happening.
Daisy Powell-Chandler 22:21
Hmm. That sounds like a brilliant mantra for pretty much every industry there. How is that going to work this year? You've got a long way to take customers from stuck inside their houses for months on end with no relief in sight, to being able to go to another place potentially, with a large group of people and be able to relax and enjoy a holiday, which involves a certain giving up of control after a very controlled year. How is Tui thinking about what it might need to do to get people into the holiday spirit? After all of that?
Liz Edwards 22:58
I think that we've seen a huge pent up demand because people have probably had quite enough of their own four walls. And, you know, we are really seeing the trend of people wanting to travel, multi generational trips, people are looking for longer, people think why do I just want a week away when I can have two or three weeks away? And some people are even thinking about like, awful phrase, but 'workations', you know, actually saying I've been remote working so why don't I allow myself a bit longer? And then I can work also from from being away? I think you're right that we have such a journey still to go on. There are a myriad of complexities ahead of us. You know, as we're talking today, the earliest we're going to travel is the 17th of May. So we don't know...there's lots of conversations about vaccine passports or vaccine certificates or digital travel apps. You know, there's lots of terminology being thrown away. The importance of vaccination. You know, we're already seeing some cruise companies come out and say, vaccine only cruises are possible. We're seeing some countries saying, you know, we'll welcome you back if you have a vaccine. You will have others that will say Oh, it's fine, you can test and you know...so there is a lot of complexity. And I think one thing that we learned last year...so we stopped flying in the March, we opened up in the July, but it was a flip flopping. It was very complex for most people in terms of some people were booking holidays and then they would be away and then suddenly quarantine would be imposed on them when they returned.That's a lot of customers to think about when they're traveling and it's our job to really try and explain that in a very clear concise way, because it is complex. And sometimes you need the travel company to say, we understand that is complex, but this is everything that we've put together on our websites to help guide you through. And I think that was quite interesting for me, whilst we are a communications team, the minute the crisis hit, customer communications, web update, everything came within our sphere of responsibility, and it still has remained there. Because ultimately, we just need to make sure that customers understand the whole customer journey still, and that's not a normal need. Within our department, it's been a huge learning and that's what we need to do. This year, it's all about reassurance. We are a holiday company, if we have to cancel you, you will have a refund. And it will happen within 14 days, which is our legal requirement. But also, if you can't, for whatever reason, travel, you can move your holiday, or we'll look after you. It's about that whole piece of reassurance for our people. And I forget I'm in the industry, and even some of my closest friends are going, "Oh, please remind me, do you think it's going to be Greece? Or do you think I'm more likely to book Turkey? And I'm thinking about June, do you think that's a good thing to do? Am I better to wait until July?" I work in travel, I don't have a crystal ball. I really don't know. So I think that's really important for us to say that to our customers - we'll help you, we'll guide you, but we honestly don't know.
Daisy Powell-Chandler 26:41
No. And I think the power of saying that and being as you you said earlier, being very honest and upfront with people, apologizing when you need to, admitting the the gaps in your knowledge, is really powerful for a big company to do because it lets people know that they can trust you to tell them the limits of your knowledge. And I think that is really important.
Liz Edwards 27:03
I think it has to be doesn't it? Because the minute people start throwing out statements, as fact...we know that you only ever communicate facts when they are absolutely known. Every holding statement we've ever done. You know, it's the absolute basics of what we do. And at the moment, we are not living in a world where we have any facts. You know, I say all the time and press call me all the time and say, Liz, what do you think? And I keep saying the only certainty is uncertainty. But honestly, the only certainty I have right now is we just don't know.
Daisy Powell-Chandler 27:43
This has been utterly fascinating. You've made me well up a few times, I'm really excited for you. And it sounds like it's been an absolutely battering year for your team. So I hope this year goes much more smoothly from here on out. If you had any tips to offer to our listeners about what this has taught you as a communicator and what your key tenets have been, as you've gone through all of this, what what would you offer to them?
Liz Edwards 28:14
That is such a great question. I would say that the first thing is put your customer at the heart of everything you do. And when you are looking at new policies, and I regularly make our team do this, before you go ahead and implement them, ask yourself, would you feel proud to talk about these on breakfast TV if you had to? And if they are not proud to talk about the policy that you're about to put in place, and that it's not good enough, you need to make it better, you need to put a clamp down on the center.
Daisy Powell-Chandler 28:51
Liz Edwards 28:53
Because it's so simple. And it doesn't matter whether that's an internal policy or...if you're willing to stand up and not just defend it, but be proud of it, then you know that the customers absolutely at the heart of that decision. So I think that for me is always what I wanted to...I've always worked very much with big brands in my career and if you do not put your customer first, someone else will, and they will just go elsewhere. So that's me. And also people really value transparency. So make that the cornerstone of every kind of communications plan that you put together. And sometimes you know, there are those that are too sorry, and no one should be apologizing for everything. But when things haven't gone right, own it. And when things could be a little bit lumpy and bumpy, just tell people because people forgive you when they know that they're on the journey with you. I think they're the ones that have stood me well for however many years.
Daisy Powell-Chandler 30:14
That's everything from us. A big thank you to my guest, Liz Edwards, head of Communications at Tui. This insight into what's been going on behind the scenes at Tui was totally fascinating for me. The key lessons I draw from it are to put the customer at the heart of whatever you are doing. This is an oldie but a goodie. And it can mean challenging some really important assumptions. For example, customers don't care how you categorize them internally, so don't make that their problem. Allied to this is an important reminder about transparency and I love Liz's test of whether you would feel proud to explain a policy or decision on morning TV. Transparency isn't just about governance, it isn't all audit trails and doing what is expected. At its best, transparency is the sunlight that leads us to make better decisions. And sometimes what's needed is an apology, or at least an admission that things are going to get a little rocky. I think the key word for this whole episode has to be 'journey'. Take your stakeholders, both internal and external, on a journey with you and show them how you are fighting to deliver better for them. Finally, some useful reflections on crisis planning. Tui's experience shows that even the best prepared organizations get caught out when new systems come under strain. Let this be a useful reminder to look at your own org charts and think about what you would do if any one of those departments went down? Do you have a plan? The key is to do that even for the systems that don't seem mission critical right now. Also crucial to your crisis plan is including breaks for all personnel. That means you too. How would you ensure continuity if something happened to you? How will you delegate more of your tasks swiftly so that you can concentrate on urgent triage and strategy? If you've enjoyed this episode, I hope you'll join me in two weeks time when I'll be speaking to Victoria McKenzie-Gould, Director of Corporate Communications at Marks and Spencer, about the role of ethics and purpose in decision making. To make that easier, please do find us at whyeverybodyhatesyou.co.uk and click 'subscribe' on your favorite podcasting app. I would also be really grateful if you could leave us a review if you get the chance. Or just tell your friends, as reviews help new listeners to find the show. Thank you for listening to Why Everybody Hates You. And remember, you are not alone.