As if the meetings and travel industries haven’t faced enough challenges over the last year, now there’s another–an increasingly serious swine flu outbreak.
As of Monday afternoon the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had confirmed 40 human cases of swine flu in the United States, the majority of them in New York City, and this morning issued a travel warning recommending that U.S. travelers avoid all nonessential travel to Mexico.
From a health standpoint, the news is worse south of the border in Mexico. While the U.S. cases have been relatively mild—no deaths have been reported—close to 2,000 suspected cases have been reported in Mexico, with a death toll approaching 150. The apparent center of the outbreak, Mexico City, has seen the cancellation of school and most public events, including concerts and even church services.
Meetings and incentives in Mexico are already feeling the effects. On Monday, Opus Solutions, an event management company in Beaverton, Ore., had one of its high-tech clients cancel a corporate event for about 50 people, which was scheduled to begin in Mexico City later this week.
“When we first heard about the outbreak on Friday, we immediately started monitoring the situation,” says Tim Neill, the technical production manager for Opus Solutions. “Even though no one was saying we shouldn’t go, we decided it was looking pretty risky, particularly when the [Mexican] authorities canceled the schools and public events.”
Sunbelt Motivation & Travel Inc. of Dallas has an incentive group scheduled to arrive in Mexico’s Riviera Maya region on May 14. “They’re very nervous, and the phone has been ringing constantly from the participants,” says Bill Boyd, CMP, CMM, CITE, and Sunbelt’s president and CEO.
Many airlines have responded to the health scare by waiving change fees for passengers looking to reschedule flights to Mexico. Neill, who was scheduled to travel on Alaskan Airlines, had no trouble getting his rebooking fees waived. And the site of his corporate event—the W Mexico City—waived the fees for the cancellation of the sleeping rooms and is working with Neill to rebook the event at a later time.
Sunbelt’s situation is more problematic. The event is scheduled to begin May 14, but the airline being used—American—has committed to waiving change fees only until May 6. And, Boyd says, the hotel being used for the incentive has already been paid in full, and “cancellation due to a medical scare is arguably not excusable in itsclause.
“Our hope is that the Mexican authorities get their arms around the outbreak and get it controlled in a very short period of time,” says Boyd. “I suspect if that does not happen, both the airlines and the hotel will loosen up with their policies as we get closer to departure day.”
In reaction to the fast-moving information around the spread of the swine flue, the Business Travel Coalition has launched a “Swine Influenza Dashboard,” where visitors can access alerts from the World Health Organization, CDC Tweets, customized news feeds on the story, and more. For more updates, visit the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ pandemicflu.gov.