“Within three days we brought back all our German guests from the Canary Islands.”
– Ulrich Heuer, TUI Germany Crisis Manager
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Mr Heuer, the last few weeks have been absolutely extraordinary and the (travelling) world has turned upside down. How did you experience this situation?
I have been a crisis manager at TUI Germany for 25 years, of which I was Head of the Crisis Team for twelve years. So I really have experienced many unforeseen events, but I have never seen anything like this in my entire career. When I first heard about a new type of virus from China at the end of last year, I was immediately alerted. I'm almost a little neurotic about news like this. At first I was almost alone with thoughts of a possible pandemic. Sure, there were telephone conferences at Group level with the other Group organizers, but the content of these conferences was more related to China, South Korea or Thailand. But when the first cases appeared in Italy on the third weekend in February, it was clear that we were heading for something big. But I didn't expect it to be so dynamic.
You initially tried to rebook holidaymakers to other destinations, why?
We started up our crisis centre on 24th February. In the beginning, there were instructions from the Federal Foreign Office not to travel to certain areas any more or guidelines on self-quarantine on entry for special regions. That was still "business as usual" for us. We experience something like this several times a year. In the Corona crisis, however, we had 64 of these events within five weeks. The regulations became stricter and stricter and new countries were added on a daily basis. In the beginning we considered rebooking. From the Canary Islands to the Caribbean, for example. We wanted to offer our guests something and make it possible for them to travel with us. But the frequency of the changed safety instructions was immensely high. As more and more countries generally did not allow holidaymakers from Germany to enter the country, we did not even have time to think about alternatives.
What made it all so challenging?
The biggest challenge was that successively more and more countries demanded that all holidaymakers leave the country within a very short time. And we are not talking about two or three countries here, but really all the major holiday destinations. I've never experienced that before, the pressure was incredibly high. For some countries it logistically was not possible to react so fast, because the planes were planned for other routes and we do not have unlimited aircrafts at our disposal. We had to constantly change priorities and reschedule them again and again. That was quite incredible, considering that we had over 70,000 German guests travelling worldwide. By comparison, when the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted in Iceland in 2010, we had 30,000 guests.
How long did it take to get the guests back from the countries?
Together with TUI fly Germany we started to only bring guests home and not bringing any new guests into the destinations. To put it into perspective: the longest crisis our crisis centre had ever had to deal with for a repatriation lasted eight days. That was Hurricane Irma in 2017. During the Corona crisis, we were in crisis mode for five weeks. In total it took four to five weeks until we had brought back all our guests who were spread all over the world.
How did you motivate yourself during this time?
I know that I can always rely on my team. We've dealt with a lot of crisis situations before. Our specialists, for example in flight dispatch and our 24/7 emergency control center, have organized aircrafts within a very short time. Within three days, for example, we brought all our German guests back from the Canary Islands, one of the most popular winter destinations. It was enormous what our team here and also our colleagues on site achieved. In destinations like New Zealand the situation was more difficult. But there, we managed to find all the guests too. That's why it is so important to us that holidaymakers give their mobile phone number when booking so that we can reach them in situations like these.
How did you experience the guests during this time?
Our guests were increasingly worried by the dynamic situation and inquired information about their return travel options. We were also approached by colleagues whose children were abroad for Work & Travel. But there were also many guests, for example on some Maldives islands, who did not want to leave prematurely because the tourist life there continued as normal. We informed our guests again and again about the new developments and adjusted our plans constantly. It was important to prioritize and get those guests back, who were in countries where the authorities had ordered a short-term departure.
That sounds stressful. Were there also positive moments in the last few weeks?
I find the cohesion that we have felt during these times remarkable. Many guests have praised our colleagues on site for their service. Travel agencies got together and sent us care packages with sweets for the crisis team. Our colleagues in the headquarters also supported us wherever they could – it was great and kept us going in these challenging times.
So what happens now?
By the time the German Foreign Office issued the worldwide travel warning on 16 March, it was clear that we had to pull the plug and pause our business. Another thing that I have never experienced before. We have now set up task forces to deal with the restarting of the business and, for example, to gather all available information on our travel destinations in order to get a feel for when things might start again. You don't bring up holiday destinations within 24 hours. Our airline's planes have to be ready again, tour guides have to be scheduled and hotel partners have to be talked to about when they can open again. As soon as we are allowed to travel again, we will be ready to offer our guests the most beautiful time of the year again. We all want a bit of normality back and holidays are simply part of it.
“As soon as we are allowed to travel again, we will be ready to offer our guests the most beautiful time of the year again. We all want a bit of normality and vacation is just part of it.”
What are you most looking forward to when you have overcome this crisis?
I'm going to sleep in for a really long time. And I really want to travel again. Preferably on a deserted beach, where I can enjoy peace and quiet after all the trouble.