As the new strain of swine flu put the health authorities around the world on alert over the past two weeks, many corporations around the country reacted quickly to the threat by canceling meetings and putting restrictions on travel to Mexico and, in some cases, to other parts of the world.

At Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A. Inc., Torrance, Calif., a task force that included travel, legal, and risk-management experts convened quickly after the outbreak, said Toyota’s Louann Cashill, CMP, CMM, meeting services manager. As a result, travel was prohibited to Mexico unless the employee had approval from a company officer. In addition, the task force recommended that travel to other international destinations be limited.

Toyota had several small dealer incentives planned for Mexico in the coming weeks. Cashill reports that all have been canceled and are being rebooked in Mexico at the same properties in the fall.

Toyota is not alone in its cancellations. The National Business Travel Association published findings yesterday from a survey of 113 travel managers on the H1N1 flu’s impact on business travel. Some 61 percent of respondents said their travelers are canceling trips to Mexico. The impact on the bottom line varied widely. About a third of the respondents estimated that changes, cancellations, and loss of business have cost their companies less than $500, while 16 percent estimated the losses to be greater than $50,000.

United Incentives has seen two cancellations as a result of the flu outbreak. The programs were scheduled for next January but the client immediately rebooked to other destinations because it was just coming up on its peak selling season and needed to have a motivating reward in place. “The decision was based on the fact that the incentive had created too much uncertainty and reluctance by winners to actively participate,” said Jeff Broudy, executive vice president and COO at the Philadelphia-based incentive house. “Other Mexican programs are holding firm at the moment since they are further out on the time horizon when most of this should improve.”

Lucy Eisele, CITE, owner of Integrity Incentives, Big Lake, Minn., also has a client in an incentive promotion dilemma. The program is planned for Cabo San Lucas next spring. “Of course this whole thing will have passed by then. The problem is they feel they can’t market or promote it at this time—the promotion was supposed to have started by now. So in their opinion they should be able to exercise force majeure, but they can’t. It’s making me crazy.” Mary MacGregor, vice president, account development, at BCD Meetings & Incentives, Minneapolis, reports that at least two clients have developed travel policies related to the outbreak. One has issued a no-travel policy and the other a no-travel-to-Mexico policy. Four client programs have been postponed or relocated: Cancun, Mexico, (terminated, not rebooking in 2009); Los Cabos, Mexico, (terminated, may rebook in fall 2009); Panama (scheduled for May, moved to August); Lanai, Hawaii (terminated, rebooking later this year).

In other travel news related to the flu outbreak, all major cruise lines with Mexican ports of call rerouted their ships last week after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called for U.S. travelers to avoid all nonessential travel to Mexico. Carnival Cruise Lines, Holland America Lines, Princess Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Royal Caribbean Cruises, including its Celebrity Cruise brand, have temporarily adjusted their itineraries.

Meanwhile, the Convention Industry Council yesterday tried to inject a dose of calm regarding the H1N1 virus, pointing out that the World Health Organization does not recommend restricting travel. “Limiting travel and imposing travel restrictions would have very little effect on stopping the virus from spreading, but would be highly disruptive to the global community,” said a WHO statement released last Friday. Karen Kotowski, CAE, CMP, chief operating officer for CIC, based in Alexandria, Va., said, “What we don’t need is yet another reason to cancel meetings based on panic and media speculation.”