Good thing the setting was so perfect.
As tablecloths fluttered in the warm Panama breeze, some of the 220 guests mingled while others were fitted with Maui Jim sunglasses, a special giveaway for the welcome dinner. The four-piece band wrapped up their last set, and the National Sales and Marketing Manager took the stage.
“Welcome to paradise!” he said to the cheering crowd gathered at the InterContinental Playa Bonita Resort & Spa. “Wouldn’t it be great to stay here forever?”
The group was made up of top performers from the parts and service division of an automobile manufacturer. They had arrived that morning from all across Canada, ready to enjoy a four-night incentive program that was light on business. Activities included a Gamboa Rainforest Survivor Adventure with a tour of Monkey Island and a tram activity, a partial Panama Canal transit tour, plus a canopy adventure, river tubing, golf, spa and shopping excursions.
Planning had started months ago thanks to our Program Manager Sameth (Sam), who was onsite along with one of our Business Development coordinators and three Trip Directors. All of our programs have a strong staff presence because we’re big on customer service, and we know more is more in the event of emergencies…
“The morning after the welcome dinner I was boarding the group onto coaches that would take us to the Gamboa Rainforest,” Sam recalls, “when all of a sudden our Business Development coordinator came running over and pulled me aside. He said, ‘I just got a call from the office. Our airline has gone bankrupt.’”
Bankrupt? How could this happen? And so suddenly? How would they get the group home?
Sam pushed the rush of questions aside. She had a program to run and she knew our air department back at the office would be working on it. If anyone could solve this problem–they could.
“The busses were literally leaving so I boarded and off we went, into the heart of the rainforest.”
After arriving and dispatching the group to the various elements of the day’s activities, Sam excused herself to contact the office. “We really were in the rainforest, so both cell reception and Internet were awful!” After several frustrating attempts she finally reached one of our in-house air department personnel, who confirmed the bad news.
“The airline took no responsibility and provided no assistance whatsoever but our air department didn’t miss a beat, they immediately started working on a mass exit plan.”
Now it was time to brief the National Sales and Marketing Manager, who agreed that it would be best to tell the group once they were back at the hotel.
The group, still excited from the rainforest tour, were gathered in the lobby. “You remember last night, how I joked that it would be nice to stay here forever?” he asked, surveying the assembled crowd. “Well, we have some news…”
A few hours later our air department confirmed that the only option was to make individual bookings for each of the 220 guests. “We used whichever airlines had space. It was only a few days away, and as you can imagine, seats were limited.” Sam and the team set up a communications lounge so people could call and email loved ones and co-workers.
“Overall, the majority of the group took it well. They understood we were working tirelessly, uncovering every option.”
Sam became the point person for our air department. “We triaged the guests,” she explains. “Those who had to get home for commitments that couldn’t be missed were booked first and so on. I relayed the information from our air department to the guests to get their approval to ticket.”
In many cases flights were not direct or even one-stop (especially since they were from across Canada); several required overnight accommodations. “Unless the flight was straightforward, meaning similar to the original booking, we dug up all possible options and discussed them with each guest to loop them in at every appropriate stage.”
Meanwhile, guests continued to enjoy the program as planned and every day they checked in with our impromptu communications centre for any new flight details. For trickier flights Sam brought guests to our onsite office so she could work with them more directly to ensure their needs were met.
In the end, everyone left Panama on the originally scheduled departure day.
When Sam thinks back on that program it’s less about the problem, and more about the solution. “What I think of most was how effective our communications strategy was. We didn’t leave participants in the dark, we constantly kept them up-to-date on developments and we engaged their feedback. At the same time we did our best to reduce the burden so they could continue to enjoy the program.” And they did.