Time and time again, we’ve seen how a crisis affecting business travelers can break out anytime, anywhere. That’s why partnering with a travel management company (TMC) with people on the ground in any part of the world who are always ready to assist impacted travelers is critical.
American Express Global Business Travel (Amex GBT) operates one of the world’s largest travel agency networks, with a presence in nearly 140 locations worldwide. In countries where we do not have a proprietary presence, we work with our Travel Partner Network (TPN), an alliance of partners in approximately 100 countries that share our commitment to offer the highest standard of service even when – no, especially when – an emergency arises.
It could be an earthquake, a geopolitical event, or another unplanned disruption. Over and over, we’ve been able to support clients during potentially unsafe situations because of this global network with local connections and expertise – including, most recently, helping companies get their employees and employees’ families to safety during the Russia-Ukraine war.
To learn more about how Amex GBT and TPN worked together to pull off this feat, we spoke with Tessa Mowat, vice president of TPN, and James Griffin, vice president of risk and compliance and previously regional and transformation director of TPN.
Q. Leading up to the invasion in Ukraine, what was Amex GBT doing to prepare?
Tessa: We have an excellent TPN partner in Ukraine, Obriy, that services our global and multinational clients with a footprint there. When the invasion happened, we were prepared. For six weeks leading up to it, we recognized that an invasion was a possibility, so we worked with Obriy, other partners, and other proprietary offices in the region to determine a robust business continuity plan.
James: The business continuity plan focused on how we would provide services for our clients in and around Ukraine in the event of an invasion. Essentially, we focused on how we could enable travelers to continue booking travel in the event our Ukraine partner was forced to suspend servicing. We spent weeks making sure there were alternative servicing arrangements, considering everything from the necessary language capabilities to the telephone numbers clients and travelers would call or the online tools they would use.
We were also focused on securing hotel rooms and vehicles in the event clients needed to evacuate their people. Even weeks in advance of the invasion, some clients were already moving their people west away from Kyiv and other hubs in central/eastern Ukraine.
Q. What happened after the invasion?
Tessa: When the invasion happened, we kept in close contact with Obriy to make sure its team was safe and to understand what support was needed to get team members and our clients’ travelers to safety. When Russian troops began approaching Kyiv, Obriy continued to support clients as best as it could and we made sure servicing was supported by our TPN travel partner in Bulgaria, Premier Tours. When it was no longer safe for Obriy to continue operations in Kyiv, all support for its teams and Amex GBT clients was managed by Premier Tours and our proprietary operation in Poland. Additional support came from our partners in Romania and Malta.
Q. How did Amex GBT and TPN help clients’ employees who were stuck in Ukraine?
Tessa: There was a lot of repatriation and bespoke solutioning that we were required to do for our clients – with some clients asking for mass charters to get to the Polish border.
It was a very complex process. It wasn’t business travel as we know it, servicing single traveler itineraries. It was the traveler plus their families, plus in some cases, their cats and dogs. It became very much like a humanitarian organization effort.
James: We quickly realized that supporting our clients really extended beyond just their employees – to their spouses, children, and extended family. We were receiving support requests from all over the board.
Because the airspace over Ukraine closed at the time of the invasion, there was no air traffic in and out. Quickly, transportation became limited to rail or vehicle. Furthermore, the ability to secure hotel or transportation reservations within Ukraine became severely limited due to high demand and financial system limitations (e.g., hotels no longer accepted reservations with a credit card, instead requiring hard currency cash on hand).
While the ability to support client travelers in the country became ever more difficult, we continued to focus on supporting clients as their travelers moved across borders, helping them secure transportation and hotels in cities in neighboring countries. In some instances, we had somebody waiting at the border to pick up a client traveler or family and get them to Warsaw or other destinations. We also helped with repatriation efforts so that travelers could return to their home countries.
Q. How was it working with the TPN partner in Ukraine?
Tessa: Their commitment to our clients was and continues to be extraordinary. Their country was being invaded and their safety was at risk, yet they were making sure that they were supporting Amex GBT clients, getting them out, and getting them to safety. Their resilience and commitment was unbelievable. There were cross-functional teams across the partner and proprietary locations supporting our business continuity plans, a true collaboration and team effort in a highly complex and dynamic environment.
James: It was amazing. I’d stay connected with our colleagues in Ukraine, many of whom were seeking shelter in their basements. Often late into their evenings, they would be working to support clients seeking travel advice or to find hotel blocks – anything they could do to help our clients’ travelers and their families.
Really, it was an extraordinary effort by the travel counselors in Ukraine and also Poland, Bulgaria, Romania – really globally – working around the clock to help travelers fleeing the terrors of war.
I think many of our Amex GBT and partner traveler counselors were heroes to a lot of travelers. They’d receive calls from client employees or their family members who were scared and exhausted, looking for information on the closest border crossings, what modes of transportation were available, where they could find rooms, etc. They were getting calls from travelers as soon as they crossed the border, looking for support to find a ride and lodging. In this incredibly sensitive time, our travel counselors responded with the utmost empathy while comforting and supporting them.
Q. How about the situation in Russia? Did the war impact services there?
Tessa: As everything was playing out in Ukraine, we were concurrently dealing with airspace bans as well as the levying of new sanctions by the US, UK, and EU, in particular, against Russia, which impacted much of the region’s mass transit, including air travel. We worked with our TPN partner in Russia, ATH, to make sure it was able to support our clients in meeting their own legal and regulatory compliance requirements related to sanctions impacting air carriers, hotels, rail, and ground transportation. Banks also were under sanctions, which created problems with receiving payments from clients.
Q. How were you able to coordinate the support you delivered to clients?
Tessa: We have a structure within Amex GBT, the Incident Management Response (IMR) program. When the IMR was activated, we had calls daily to talk about the different elements and moving pieces. Many stakeholders were involved. Our General Counsel’s Office and Risk and Compliance colleagues were instrumental in helping with sanctions directives and communication support. Many other critical stakeholder groups were represented in the IMR-supported efforts to allow us to be nimble and react to the constantly changing requirements.
Q. How does an IMR get activated?
James: Essentially, when there’s any type of global event or potential incident on the horizon, we as a team convene to consider possible impacts and begin operationalizing our response.
In the instance of Ukraine, because it was in the news that Russian troops were massing on the border and that continued to ramp up, our response team was engaged well in advance. As Tessa noted, we were working with our TPN partner in Ukraine weeks before the invasion happened to lay out a business continuity and communications plan in the event of an attack.
Q. How does the IRM team prepare year-round?
James: Amex GBT’s IMR program is quite structured and rigorous. We conduct periodic trainings and exercises to make sure that all of Amex GBT’s IMR team members globally understand the program’s framework and its processes. Having the right team members who can make the right, quick decisions as well as preparing throughout the year allows Amex GBT to respond quickly and nimbly to any type of event.
Q. Why is it important for companies to choose a TMC with a strong global presence?
Tessa: These geopolitical events bring to the forefront the strength of our TPN network and of having that on-the-ground capability – not just being on the ground but also having a deep understanding of the location and its dynamics.
Our work and investment in crisis management resonate with our clients. They want a TMC they can trust that will support them in times of need, going above and beyond every time to make sure their travelers are safe. This situation and Amex GBT’s response is one example of many where we’ve come together with our partners to deliver on this client promise.
Each and every situation is different, and we take learning from one event to the next to continue strengthening our response and business continuity program.