Melanie Gerhardt, the Head of Security and Crisis Management of the DER Touristik and the Chairwoman of the Committee on Crisis and Security Management of the German Travel Association (DRV), discusses the operation to bring stranded holidaymakers home, hygienic concepts and support from the REWE Group colleagues during the coronavirus pandemic
No matter whether a hurricane is raging in the Caribbean, a volcano is erupting in Bali or forest fires are scorching Australia – the security and crisis management staff of the DER Touristik regularly acts as the faithful partner of tourists, sales representatives and service providers. But you can certainly say that the challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic were the biggest you have ever faced.
Melanie Gerhardt: Yes, the virus has taken crisis management to a new, unimaginable level. During crisis situations we faced in the past, we knew that they were limited to a particular region and would pass at some point. This was not the case with the coronavirus. Its impact on tourism and air travel was incalculable from the very start.
When did you realise just how serious the threat posed by Covid-19 was?
Melanie Gerhardt: On New Year’s Eve 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that a new type of virus was spreading in China. I added this report to our internal news centre – and had no idea how things would proceed from there. A few days later, I understood just how dangerous this issue could become. By the beginning of February 2020, we knew that we could face challenges unlike anything we had seen before in our daily crisis management work. After a meeting in the German Federal Foreign Office, we sat down with other industry representatives and came up with some initial specific ideas regarding what might lie ahead of us. We were in an active crisis mode from that point on.
Head of Security and Crisis Management at the DER Touristik and Chairwoman of the Committee on Crisis and Security Management of the DRV
What did that mean?
Melanie Gerhardt: The DER Touristik is crisis tested and has developed very well-conceived pandemic concepts. We focus our work on preventive action. This means that we monitor the situation in holiday regions very closely and act proactively. We also maintain a close relationship with all German and international government authorities. This helped us tremendously in this very dynamic situation. We constantly had to react to ever-changing conditions, and we had to do so simultaneously on a number of levels. This was the real challenge created by this crisis.
What specific crisis management steps did you take?
Melanie Gerhardt: We expanded our permanent crisis staff at a very early stage because we knew that each of our destination regions would be affected and that we would have to bring stranded holidaymakers back home. We had about 70 actors during the most intense phases. The entire management team was involved. Areas of responsibility and processes were expanded. For instance, a product director who usually oversees purchasing became responsible for the return of all holidaymakers in his destination region. He was supported by a help team, but had to do the organisational work by himself – quickly and around the clock.
Were colleagues from other parts of the REWE Group able to assist you as well?
Melanie Gerhardt: During this phase, we saw just how valuable it is to be part of a large company alliance. This was particularly the case regarding contacts with political leaders. We really profited here from our intense discussions with public affairs colleagues at the REWE Group. Employees in Internal Auditing helped us to carry out the global return operation for stranded holidaymakers. We got more than 44,000 package-tour guests of the tour operators Dertour, ITS, Jahn Reisen, Meiers Weltreisen and Travelix safely back home.
Getting holidaymakers quickly and safely back home following unusual events is one of the typical jobs handled by crisis management at the DER Touristik. What particular challenges did you face this time?
Melanie Gerhardt: We faced three hurdles in particular: the tremendous time pressure, the extremely large number of flights that had to be organised and the wide range of requirements imposed by the countries involved in the operation. Nearly all countries halted commercial flights after 17 March. Only evacuation flights were allowed. A tour operator that arranged a full charter flight with an airline had to make sure that ground logistics functioned, that government rules were observed and that the company’s holidaymakers could get to the airport. It is not such a simple job if – as was the case in South Africa – many holidaymakers are on circular tours and did not provide the company with their mobile phone number. Or if – as was the case in New Zealand – authorities required all holidaymakers to spend 14 days in quarantine at their particular location and then present a negative coronavirus test result before they were permitted to go to the airport. This phase of the crisis showed holidaymakers just how helpful a trip organised by a tour operator can be: They did not have to arrange a thing and did not have to pay any extra costs.
The return programme was just one part of the crisis. At the same time, sales and partners had to make preparations for a possible restart. How did the DER Touristik handle this task?
Melanie Gerhardt: We quickly realised that we would be able to restart operations only if we had a very well-conceived hygienic concept for hotels and partners in place – like the one called for in the guidelines issued by the WHO and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). We devised a restart concept for every destination in close collaboration with a highly respected analytical laboratory that has worked with the REWE Group for many years. This concept included special test strategies and offers, including PCR tests at home and rapid tests in destination regions. We summarised the key points for each country in a take-care flyer that was constantly updated and provided to travel agencies. This information enabled the travel agencies’ employees to always answer the most pressing question asked by customers: Under which conditions may I travel to which area?
CEO DER Touristik Group, on the work of the security and crisis management staff and the recovery of tourist travel