Transcript of Get Ready Report Podcast, episode 31

Travel safety: Preparing for emergencies before and during your trip

This is the American Public Health Association’s Get Ready Report, coming to you from Washington D.C. Today’s episode, “Travel Safety,” interviews Mike MacNair, president and CEO of MacNair Travel Management. He is interviewed by Get Ready team member, Lavanya Gupta.

Can you start off by telling us a little about what your position as president and CEO of MacNair Travel Management is?

Well, I run a company of over 55 travel professionals that serve companies and individuals around the United States, and some in North America.

Wonderful, we will just get started with our questions and our first question is: What are ways you suggest families to prepare themselves for health and weather emergencies before traveling?

Well, I think the first place to start is to ask about their potential destination before you go. So, what are the potential health and weather threats before you go? And match that with your expectations on your trip. If it’s for business, you’re kind of being pushed there anyways, but if you have a selection, you may consider one place or another based on the health and weather threats that the destination provides.
Once you do book it, I think it’s really important to stay in contact with the suppliers that you booked it with, whether it’s the airline, the tour operators, the cruise line — whatever that may be. You want to stay in contact with them up until your departure so they can communicate to you any health and weather threats or more importantly, you can reach out to them maybe 60 or 90 days before you go to ask them specific questions about what may be coming down the pipe and what you should prepare for. And then in some instances, the suppliers will provide you with a way to get connected with them, like an app or other tools, that will allow them to broadcast out to you messages or changes or delays. A lot of times the airlines have apps that allow you to be notified of a change.

My company, my travel management company, we have an app that we use for our customers to notify them of any changes or delays or issues of threat. And then obviously, you want to check the weather conditions of your destination before you go — pack accordingly, prepare accordingly. And then, there’s some other tips that we sometimes recommend to other people, like the CDC has the traveler’s health page with health issues worldwide. If it is a bit of a challenging destination, you can maybe look there to see if there is anything to be prepared for.

And you should also research what to do in case of a health emergency with your insurance company — you should reach out to your insurance company and tell them where you’re going and ask them what you should do if something happens, then you have some good information for you. And then, you probably should put together a bit of an emergency kit and pack a few things before you go.

That’s some great advice, Mike. So, in terms of the emergency kit, are there any kinds of baseline items that you suggest that travelers carry with them?

Absolutely! I always like to bring a flashlight. I have one of those flashlights that I bring with me that you can put on your head, so that (if) power goes out you, can operate things with your hands free. But any kind of flashlight will do. I always squirrel away some extra cash. I always make sure I bring the right credit cards in advance. In some instances, you’ve got to call the credit companies and let them know that you’re traveling to a foreign destination because not all of them will work all the time in foreign destinations.

You want to bring some spare batteries and chargers with you to make sure you are all powered up. I always bring some snacks, especially you know how some of the planes have been grounded on the tarmac for an extended period of time — a power bar, an energy bar may get you through. A lot of times in first and business class, they’ll give you a small toiletry kit for the flight. I always keep those and I bring those with me in my carry-on bag just in case I’m delayed for an extended period of time. A hand sanitizer, (and) depending on if you’re going to a third-world country, you may want to bring some water purification tablets.
I like to kind of know what sort of over-the-counter drugs I take or may want to take: So maybe some over-the-counter drugs for stomach ailments or allergies or congestion and things like that. I suggest that you have your medications that you take on a regular base with you and you have some stored in a bag as a backup in two different places. And (that) you have copies of insurance and medical documents, just in case. And you know, a lot of our customers take with them our emergency service and contact information so they can contact us from the road and we can help or bail them out.

That’s great. You mentioned a few instances of things that you might want to consider bringing when you’re traveling internationally, in terms of water purification kits and also alerting your credit card company. But is there anything else you’d like to mention in terms of any extra steps that travelers can take if they are going abroad?

Yes, there are a couple of extra things to add there. I always have two copies of my passport. I leave one of them home with somebody and squirrel away a copy of the other someplace safe. So if I lose my passport, I can at least bring a copy of it to somewhere and get the process rolling.

You may want to carry some extra currency of that destination with you. I mentioned some medicines and back up medicines, you know, making sure you have quite a quantity there in case you can’t get what you need. Again, you’ve got to check your medical insurance coverage of where you’re going and they may recommend some places you go if you get hurt and what places to stay away from. Sometimes our customers buy medical evacuation insurance from us, too, so you’d want the details of that. Sometimes the places you’re going to are difficult to deal with, so it’s better to have somebody evacuate you from that location versus being served medically there.

I always recommend you check all the required vaccinations for that destination. There are travel doctors all over the world that know what shots to give you and what pills that you should take or bring with you. I just went to Kenya, with taking different medications and all, and even the requirements for Tanzania and Kenya, which are side by side, were different. So (you want) somebody who knows that and all of those items. And then you should be familiar with the local laws and rules and weather and medical processes. A lot of the big companies who have a lot of travelers abroad, we use a risk mitigation company. And as soon as they found out a traveler is going to a destination, they get a whole briefing with all of it. And it’s good information to know, because if it can happens at home — whether it’s breaking your arm and getting robbed — it can happen abroad. You need to know what to do in case that does happen.

Sure. As we just began the summer season here, I’d expect that you find that more families are making plans for traveling. What do you consider some of the more eminent threats for travelers right now?

Well, the biggest thing affecting travelers right now is weather. And I believe the travel system, the airline and other sources, have gotten better at notifying us that there’s an issue in their destination and have communicated to us.

I just speak from the standpoint of a president of a travel agency what waivers are in place because of weather issues. And what I mean by waivers is if there’s flooding — and there’s a lot of flooding right now that’s just happening in the Midwest for example — they may say, “If you’re flying to this destination, we’d rather you stayed home; we’ll let you change your ticket to fly another day. Don’t bother coming because we don’t want you in the middle of this.”

On an ongoing basis, we’re handling weather-related issues, hoping to keep people from traveling at all, but in certain instances, managing their changes when they do travel. Tornadoes and things like that have been popular recently. And then internationally, you know you’ve got your riots, you’ve got your political riots, you’ve got riots during elections, you’ve got maybe some unhappiness with the government that inspires a riot during the national holiday. I mean look at Brazil — just recently there were riots in the capital of Brazil over some unhappiness with the government. Some of it has been security scares, not necessarily instances, so they think something might happen and they have news that something may happen and it turns travel plans upside down. So, we’re monitoring those and we have to help people change with those.
And then in certain instances, we just try to keep people from sticking out in certain places, watching what they dress like and noting the local customs so they don’t stick in case any of these things happen. And then there are the surprise issues. You know the sequester triggered planes being grounded all over the country. It’s a never-ending set of surprises that are in front of the traveler, and they need to be in contact with their suppliers and the weather before they go to know what may happen. And they need to have some system to handle the changes when they do happen.

That’s great. So our next question is , how do risks of emergency change based on your mode of travel? So whether it’s by car, airplane, crew ship, or maybe a commercial bus?

Well, there’s different ways that weather affects those different modes of travel. So for example, if you’re on a cruise ship, there are ocean-related items or water-related items that are different from trying to go over a storm when you’re in an airplane, for example. Some of those instances, the quality of security related to those items. So obviously, there isn’t any major security for you getting on a bus somewhere versus getting on a plane. So, the quality of security in those different places is different and the types of accidents that can occur would differ. Being in a bus accident is different from a plane sliding off a tarmac or even getting into a car accident yourself and having to deal with that. And so it differs in those different ways.

Sure, that’s a great response. Our next question is just in relation to social media, which has definitely become a lot more popular now in terms of communication and sharing of news and other forms of media. So, how could travelers use social media to better prepare for their trips?

Well, obviously you want to friend the suppliers that you’re using and the destination that you’re using…any sites related to your destination or to suppliers that you’re using and start to monitor the communication from those areas and maybe shout out some questions related to health and weather and security issues.
You know, it may be the local news stations have some information, too, from those destinations…so just stay connected with that destination before you go and try to capture some information and get a sense of what is going on in that destination as quickly as possible.

For some example, there’s been a lot of bad press about Mexico and kidnapping, but it’s not the whole country. So you know it can make you feel better that you know everything’s all peachy in Cancun, which is one state of Mexico, while there’s another state where bad things are happening. It kind of gives you a perspective of the size of the country and where bad things are happening and where all good things are happening. Along the same lines, I have a favorite site — I don’t necessarily deal with social media — but Trip Advisor is a great site to connect with the suppliers that you’re going to be booking and then you can ask some specific questions of those that have been to those destinations and they’ll respond to you.

That’s great. Does MacNair Travel engage in any sort of social media, be it Twitter or Facebook or Flickr or anything like that?

We have a pretty active Facebook page and we’re connected to our corporate clients through LinkedIn. And we do have a system that tweets a message when we post something on Facebook.

That’s great. It just seems like such an important platform to be on. And it is really essential to be connected with any kinds of partners or clients or any type of media in general. So that’s great.
Our final question is, could you give us a case in which emergency preparedness protected your customers? I guess in this case, you could give an example of them being prepared for an emergency and how that helped them or perhaps your agency offered advice about emergency preparedness or was prepared for an emergency and was able to disseminate information to your customers in a very quick way?

Well, I’ll tell you that: I’ll give you a general answer and then specific instance. The general answer is that we have a tool called the Sabre travel emergency console and that console monitors supplier issues.
So maybe an airline is grounding some aircraft or is having a strike — down to weather issues, down to political issues — and it advises us what’s going on in the world. And then from that information, it allows us to sort the reservations we have of people in those different places that may be affected. And what we do is disseminate them to our agents, who then go transaction by transaction and look for the affected people and begin to triage and help and support them. So, we do this all the time and it has to happen every day for a wide range of reasons.

And while most of that is getting people from flooded areas or rebooking somebody who’s going to a place where there’s going to be serious thunderstorms, we have everything as much as a customer who had an employee in Libya when a war broke out there. And we reached out to her and she actually got back to us telling us she was under heavy gun fire and she needed us to help her and get her dog get evacuated. She was unable to get to the airport terminal and unable to enter the airport terminal and one of our agents helped that employee out in Libya over the course of a couple of days checking off and looking into the different options and opportunities to get her to what ended up being a neighborhood she was at right outside the U.S. embassy there to a ferry that was being charted by the U.S. government. And we got her and the dog back from that location and obviously our agent and that traveler are friends forever.

I would imagine. That’s a pretty compelling story there and really goes to show how important of role traveler agencies can play when it comes to emergency preparedness. That’s pretty remarkable.

I’ll give you another personal story. I was flying back from a Caribbean destination over Christmas holidays with my family and we got into Miami. And I have purchased this hammock and the hammock was the last thing off the plane and by the time we got all of our belongings and got them rechecked-in and headed over towards the gate and it was about 10 minutes before our flight was about to leave and there was no way we would be able to make it. The woman wouldn’t allow us to get back into the terminal. She pointed us back over to the rebooking area, we went over to the rebooking area, and planes are very full now. There’s just not a lot room to re-accommodate people on other flights.

I spoke to my team and I knew what my options were to get home and they were limited and they were going to have to be the next day. But when I get off to the front desk, the options that the airline gave were not acceptable at all, nowhere close to creative that my team gave me, so I shared with her the creative option that my team had given that I wanted and she insisted that she couldn’t do that. And I got a manager over and we taught that agent how to handle emergency and rebooking a little bit better. I got home the next day in a reasonable fashion but if I was left to fend on my own with the supplier, I would have been there probably a day or two with my family and young children. So it’s good to have support in these instances and it’s good consideration in having a travel partner.

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