FEATURE 

Crisis, what crisis?

Reader offers are a newspaper staple, building loyalty and, hopefully, making money. Publishers have a responsibility to make sure that their readers are protected by ensuring that suppliers are reputable ... and that, when disaster strikes, action is taken to put things right. Archant Norfolk’s Philip Preston recounts their recent experiences when one of their main holiday suppliers went belly up.

By Philip Preston

It’s a fact; things go wrong. But it’s when a "crisis" erupts, you find out just how strong your brand is and how loyal your readers are. Actually, to be more precise, it’s how you handle the situation that will ensure things do not get out of hand. So this is a tale of how we successfully managed a difficult situation that sprung up last year and is still rumbling along four months later.

Each year, we send thousands of readers away on short breaks and holidays across the UK, Europe and beyond, all endorsed by the EDP and Norwich Evening News. We source the holidays from a number of travel companies and promote them under our Reader Travel brand. It is a very lucrative slice of business from which we generate over £300,000 of commission annually.

Let’s party

It was Friday 21st December 2007, and it was going to be a night to remember. Just like the scene from the recent Boots TV commercial, all the girls in the office were getting glammed up for the Archant Norfolk Marketing department Christmas party. Even the men were putting in an effort to imitate tuxedo-wearing Daniel Craig in Casino Royale, although I might add some were more convincing than others (think Roy Cropper in a dinner jacket). It was going to be a fun evening and everyone was in high spirits.

However, there was a problem about to surface that would put a damper on things. We had heard a rumour a couple of days earlier that one of our major reader holiday suppliers was in financial difficulty and that at any minute the administrators could be called in.

Just in case the worst happened, our reader travel manager, Stephanie Stearman, implemented a contingency plan immediately which, among other things, involved cancelling future insertions of any travel ads for the crestfallen holiday company’s products and planning a schedule of replacement holidays. We also asked the company for an updated list of names of our readers who were due to go on holiday over the next three months – we would have liked their full contact details too but that might have set a little alarm bell ringing.

Bad news travels fast

At about 1pm that Friday, we had it confirmed that Travelscope was in trouble and an announcement was made that the holiday company had been put into administration. The bad news started to appear on news websites, including the BBC and our own EDP24 and Eveningnews24 sites, almost immediately and we assumed that the early evening local TV news bulletins on both About Anglia and the BBC’s Look East would cover the breaking story.

The collapse of the holiday company was big news nationally because, as it was headlined on BBC.co.uk, the impact of the closure meant 'Christmas ruined' by Travelscope. The site went on to explain, "The collapse of Travelscope Holidays has led to the cancellation of up to 10,000 eagerly anticipated Christmas and New Year breaks."

About 100 of those holidaymakers were our readers. Our first priority, therefore, was to ensure that any who were already on holiday could get back safely and any who were about to set off were not left stranded at a cold, damp pick-up point wondering where the coach had got to.

Trying to get information out of the shocked staff at Travelscope was impossible. Not only had they just lost their jobs, their phones were red hot from both worried holidaymakers and national and local newspaper companies wanting to know what was going on.

However, we did manage to establish quite quickly that none of our readers were going to be stranded overseas and that arrangements had been put in place by the administrators for their flight home.

We were also reassured that all our readers would get their money back. We have always been very careful to work with holiday companies that are not only reputable and have a great value-for-money range of travel products, but also are fully ABTA and ATOL bonded so that we could at least protect our readers’ money.

Stranded in Norfolk

That afternoon, however, we were more worried about the eighty or so readers who were due to start their Christmas break that evening. We knew how many were going to be picked up by a coach at three separate locations in Norfolk during the night, we also knew their names, but we had no way of contacting them to find out if they had heard the bad news from either Travelscope staff or the administrators or seen the news bulletins.

So we called in the cavalry. Our senior newspaper sales manager, Mervyn Freeman, volunteered to miss the shenanigans of the Christmas party and spend the night travelling between the three pick-up points in Norwich, Great Yarmouth and Diss to meet anyone who might be there waiting for their transport to the airport. The first pick-up was in Norwich at 11pm and the last in Diss at 2am.

Mervyn is a big, beefy newspaper sales veteran, also a special constable, and from a distance on a dark evening he could look a bit intimidating. But he is as gentle as a lamb and will do anything for anybody. Nonetheless, we gave him a big torch, an EDP branded fleece and a personally signed letter from the editor to hand out to each stranded holidaymaker.

It turned out that most people had got the news, but there were a handful of readers at each of the first two pick-up points who, although devastated by the cancellation of their eagerly awaited Christmas break, were very grateful that we had bothered to be there for them.

None more so than Mrs Elliot, who was the only holidaymaker starting her journey from Diss. Mervyn managed to get there before her, but by the time he had given her the news, her taxi had left so he gave her a lift home. A couple of weeks later we got this letter.

"Dear Sir, I am sorry I have taken so long to say "thank you" to the gentleman who had the unenviable job of coming out to Diss Bus Park in the very early hours of Saturday morning to tell me that Travelscope had gone into administration. I was grateful for his consideration and kindness in taking me and my suitcase back home. He had, I suspect, a long night ahead of him in not very nice weather."

This only goes to prove that if handled correctly, some good things can come out of bad. No doubt by now, Mrs Elliot has told all her friends how wonderful those nice people at the EDP are. Conversely, had we not bothered and abandoned our readers to fend for themselves late at night in Norwich, Great Yarmouth and Diss, our reputation could have taken a knock. Research carried out in 1999, discovered that, on average, an unhappy customer will tell ten people about their experience. In turn, these ten people will each tell a further five people, meaning that a total of fifty people will have heard about their bad experience. A sobering thought, so it is worth going the extra mile (apologies for the bad pun) to try to turn a dissatisfied customer into an advocate, like Mrs Elliot.

The calm after the storm

Stephanie Stearman and her team managed the immediate crisis very effectively. And, despite it being the day after the night before, she had trained staff in the office on Saturday 22nd December to answer any readers’ worries about the cancellation of their holiday. We were able to provide them with details on how to obtain a full refund through ABTA.

Our newspapers and websites were constantly updated over the next few days, not only with the latest news from the administrators, but also we were able to add a local, human touch with stories of how the collapse of Travelscope had affected local people.

Even though a great number of our readers were affected, and every one of them had put their trust in our brands when they booked their reader holiday, we had no angry phone calls or written complaints. All in all, the EDP and Norwich Evening News came out of the whole saga smelling faintly of roses.

Since Christmas, we have been busy trying to secure other holiday products to offer our readers. The whole affair could have put people off buying their next holiday through the EDP and Norwich Evening News, but that has not proven to be the case. Our reputation appears to be intact.

The Travelscope contract represented about 30% of our annual reader travel turnover and was a significant loss of revenue to recover, particularly as many of the holidays in their portfolio were cruises and long-haul. However, we are currently on track to get 70% of the shortfall back by the end of the year. This is down to Stephanie and her team being proactive with our reader holiday suppliers and working in partnership with our newspaper editors.

A lesson in crisis management

Being a daily rail commuter of some 20 years’ service, I think Network Rail could take a leaf out of Stephanie’s book on how to treat customers in a crisis. Having created chaos across the rail network at Christmas when engineering works overran (how unusual), they made the same mistake at Easter causing another wave of cancellations and delays on the London to Norwich line on the first day back to work.

Their PR machine went into overdrive and claimed that the trouble this time was not that the work overran, but that an unrelated problem occurred when they switched the power back on. My own take on this was that they were not only incompetent but they were being a tad economical with the truth. I don’t think this has done much for their reputation. As for Terminal 5 …

And finally

Incidentally, the Travelscope saga rumbles on, as in early April the cruise ship Van Gough, which was allowed to sail on its 90 day round the world cruise in January by the administrators, was impounded in Funchal near the end of its voyage.

Among the 460 passengers on board were a number of EDP readers. Were they upset? Apparently not; they were being well cared for and entertained and were enjoying an unplanned extension to their holiday in sunny Madiera, while the rest of us froze. Crisis, what crisis?