Crisis/travel - TUI flies in face of ash cloud storm

Campaign: Volcanic Ash Crisis

Ash crisis: TUI UK
Ash crisis: TUI UK

Client: TUI UK
PR team: In-house
Timescale: 15-24 April 2010
Budget: Resourced internally

At about 10am on 14 April, the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland erupted. By 16 April almost all of the UK airspace was closed thanks to the ensuing cloud of ash. When flight restrictions were imposed, TUI UK, incorporating Thomson, First Choice and Thomson Airways, had 70,000 customers overseas.

Objectives

- To use the media to communicate with customers, and their friends and families back home

- To generate positive awareness of and feelings about the company and its brands

- To show the benefits of the package holiday and why it is still relevant in today's fragmented marketplace

- To lobby the Government to take action both in managing the crisis and in awarding compensation to those affected.

Strategy and plan

The PR team felt the volcanic ash crisis was a massive opportunity to highlight TUI and show the world the benefits of the package holiday via communications activity.

However, from a PR perspective, it was essential that TUI UK's household name brands such as Thomson, First Choice, Thomson Airways and Island Cruises be name-checked in all news coverage rather than the parent company, whose name is little known to the general public. The PR team set up a 24-hour rota throughout the crisis. As the situation was evolving continuously, it was essential that all communication channels and interested parties be regularly updated as quickly as possible.

The key messages were: that Thomson/First Choice was leading the travel industry during this disruption while other operators/airlines were following; customers were in safe hands with tour operators, which took complete responsibility, unlike low-cost airlines; Thomson/First Choice provided accommodation for customers overseas during the disruption, free of charge; and Thomson/First Choice provided alternative means of transport to get customers home as soon as possible using ferries, cruises and coaches.

Relevant updates were displayed on TUI's web sites and issued to media and responses were provided to media requests. Key stories were sold in as they arose, and the PR team arranged access to spokespeople. Online communication was vital - at one point, updates were being loaded on to the web sites every two hours, even throughout the night.

Measurement and evaluation

The PR team generated more than 800 pieces of editorial coverage across broadcast, print and online media.

Results

The company organised 235 repatriation flights and booked more than 100,000 hotel rooms for stranded customers. More than 5,000 customers were brought back by cruise ships and ferries. Since going live, the travel alert page on Thomson has had 311,798 visitors. The company has also received positive feedback from customers and many emailed or telephoned the media with positive comments.

SECOND OPINION - Debbie Hindle, Managing director, bgb

I was in Dubai when the ash cloud coverage hit the headlines again. In the corner of my hotel room, BBC World News beamed an interview with TUI comms chief Christian Cull. He was calm, reassuring, credible and laughed off impossible-to-answer financial questions with aplomb. It was just one example of a powerful campaign that must have reached every person in Britain and that would have been impossible for TUI to deliver just two years ago.

In 2008 you could count the number of people in the Thomson press office on one hand. After the merger with First Choice there was a quiet cultural revolution within the business -focusing obsessively on customer service and making sure the bigger comms team had its role to play.

The results are clear. TUI is more confident, more nimble and braver than in the past. It allowed media into the office to see its operational hub in action. TUI's spokespeople were more socially engaged than before - using Twitter to talk to flight-only customers and respond as issues arose, updating the website every couple of hours. Its spokespeople talked about not only what TUI was doing but the value of package holidays. Adverts and marketing all supported the same campaign.

What else would I do? Perhaps create more news resources such as a video piece from the MD or resort staff on YouTube, or a TUI news broadcast report from resorts, fed out to sites and blogs.

This campaign is impressive and much needed. And it is not over yet.

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