By Scott Meacham
Thousands of international travelers have been caught in the COVID-19 pandemic as it spreads. Earlier this month, my wife and I were two of those.
Our story starts in Morocco. Susan and I were on a trip we booked at the last minute because our vacation to SE Asia was cancelled due to the virus. We pivoted to Morocco because we had always wanted to go to Morocco, and they had no cases of the virus. I am fascinated by history and love to visit new places.
From the marketplace in Marrakesh, to antiquities and ancient cities, to the Sahara under the stars in a tent, it was an amazing trip. That is until a co-worker who is a frequent world traveler woke me up with a text in the middle of the night. I hope you are flying back home on Friday, he texted, because the President just announced that the U.S. is shutting down all entry from Europe starting midnight on Friday.
We were leaving Morocco on Friday, all right, but our tickets routed us through Spain with an overnight layover in Madrid. We forgot all about sleep and grabbed our phones. Having booked our original flights through American Express, we started there.
After being on hold for hours, we left our number for an American Express call-back. You guessed it; they never did. As a backup, I decided to go online and grabbed two seats on Royal Air Morac from Casablanca to Dulles at an outrageous price. I went back on hold with American Express until I was cut off. We then starting packing.
It got to be Friday morning. Just a day had passed but it seemed like a month. Our original flight to Madrid has now been cancelled. Our reservations on Royal Air Morac show up online, but the system won’t allow us to check in. The airport is three-and-a-half hours from the hotel. We have no choice but to head out. In the car we keep trying to reach someone, anyone on the phone.
Finally, in complete exasperation, I call American Express travel direct—not the online booking service. I actually reach a human. I tell her that I know it isn’t her problem, but that we were desperate and could she help. She listens. She puts me on hold, somehow reaches American Airlines directly, and gets our first reservation cancelled. There is still a problem with our flight though — our reservation has not been ticketed and we cannot check-in at the airport. We are traveling through a mountainous area. Reception is terrible. The call drops.
About 30 minutes away from the airport, the woman from American Express travel calls back. She has our flight ticketed. We reach the airport, check in, and board the Royal Air Morac flight. Morocco starts closing its borders the next day and closes them completely on Monday. Without her help, we would have been stranded for weeks if not months facing this pandemic in Morocco, trying to get back home.
Every company everywhere from large to small is grappling with unimaginable challenges. The processes and systems we depend on—from raw materials to order fulfillment, supply chain to information technology—are going to falter and break. We are facing weeks and months of work-arounds.
The human beings will be the ones to get us through. Like the woman with American Express travel who randomly received my call, took ownership, and somehow managed to get us from Casablanca back to Oklahoma when flights, airports, and whole countries were shutting travel down.
There are people like her in every company. They are the super stars. In times like these, they brightly shine.
Scott Meacham is president and CEO of i2E Inc., a nonprofit corporation that mentors many of the state’s technology-based startup companies. i2E receives state appropriations from the Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology. Contact Meacham at i2E_Comments@i2E.org