THE NEXT VICTIM of the swine flu: U.S.-based small businesses.
Airlines, hotels and other tourism-focused businesses are already seeing a falloff in sales as swine flu cases continue to pop up in Mexico and parts of the U.S., says Jim Grogan, vice president of consulting product development at SunGard Availability Services, a disaster recovery firm in Wayne, Pa. The World Health Organization raised its pandemic threat level to 4 from 3 Monday, just two levels shy of a full-blown pandemic. Meanwhile, health officials at the U.S. State Department and Centers for Disease Control in the U.S warned against nonessential travel to Mexico. And the European Union urged its citizens to postpone nonessential travel to the U.S. and Mexico.
The travel industry won’t be the only one taking a hit. Even though the CDC says swine flu cannot be spread through the consumption of properly handled pork products, restaurants should be bracing for a drop in business. Public gathering spots like bars and movie theaters should also prepare to see fewer customers as the outbreak continues, says Larry L. Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management in Louisville, Ky. “People are going to be afraid to be around other people,” he says.
No matter how warranted (or unwarranted) consumer concerns are, businesses need to work toward gaining their confidence and allaying their fears, says Smith. To keep customers coming to your business during outbreaks and other scares, try these steps:
Review or set up a disaster plan
Review and update your firm’s disaster plans so that business can continue smoothly even if it takes a hit, says Grogan. Try to set aside funds for as much as two to three months of expenses if there’s a business stoppage, or if you have to pull products off the shelves or items off the menu. You may want to consider business interruption insurance which can cover financial losses, extra security or the cost to rent a temporary workspace.
Also, make sure that all essential employees have someone who can cover for them should they fall ill, and secure a secondary work site or initialize a plan for how employees might telecommute (if that’s an option). Back up computer files and house them in a secure spot away from the business.
Keep customers informed
Educate your customers so they don’t feel as if they’re being left in the dark, says Tom Becker, a crisis communications consultant at Sitrick and Company, a public relations firm in New York. Prepare employees to field customer questions and post a notice on the company web site about the quality control efforts that have been put in place.
New York City’s famed hotdog seller Papaya King has never registered any health-related complaints associated with past food outbreaks, yet dealing with public perception is often on the menu, says Dan Horan, Papaya King’s president. During past food scares, the company posted signs in each of its six locations offering details about the issue, whether or not the problem was isolated and how the company’s food was safe. Beyond educating the public, Horan says ensuring that employees can handle customer queries is vital. “We certainly have to make sure our crew of people is able to answer questions,” he says.