GCs & the pandemic: James Russell-Jones, Secret Escapes

James Russell-Jones, 27 April 2021

The travel industry is used to crises - but the pandemic was on another level. How did Secret Escapes’ legal team go above and beyond to keep the business going during this unprecedented challenge?

James Russell-Jones is the Head of Legal at Secret Escapes. This is a chapter from our eBook 'GCs & the pandemic: how legal responded'.

Do you remember when you first heard the word ‘coronavirus’?

I was being hosted for lunch at a law firm. One of the partners mentioned it, and I remember feeling unarmed in the discussion - I didn’t know what it meant at the time. In January, mentions of COVID came into the work world and since then I heard about it more often. The incident with Princess Cruises in Japan was the first instance where we heard of the virus hitting the travel industry. And after that, the situation unraveled rapidly.

When things started to escalate before the first lockdown, what were your initial concerns and priorities as a GC?

Our initial priority involved creating an emergency policy so teams knew how to react to the ever-evolving pandemic. This was raised to me by our CEO in February when it was much closer to us and had started to affect some of Secret Escapes’ bookings.

We started to receive an influx of questions from all areas of the business: what should we do with these customers who are caught in the midst of quarantines while on holiday? What should we do with this upcoming sale to Venice? How should we treat this cluster of bookings that’s due to travel to the rugby next week?

So, I went away and wrote down the policy for what we should do about our upcoming bookings and how we should handle any other places that might get affected at the time. Creating the policy was the first port of call; writing down all those given circumstances in an easy-to-read table and sending that out to the whole team to confirm our approach, how they should proceed, and what the contingencies were.

“Being in the travel industry means being prepared for any number of crises and the surge of cancellations that happen as a result. But this was a truly unique challenge, on a global scale”

Writing a new policy based on a ‘Black Swan’ event sounds like a mammoth task. How did you approach it?

It was such a grey area for that exact reason. The travel industry has a cycle of crises that happen every year - hurricanes, air traffic control strikes, insolvent airlines, terrorist attacks … being in the travel industry means being prepared for any number of crises and the surge of cancellations that happen as a result.

But this was a truly unique challenge, on a global scale. Each country had different border restrictions that changed constantly. Writing a policy to address a ‘Black Swan’ event like this involved trying to think of every possible circumstance and addressing situations customers and businesses might face. On paper it’s fairly straightforward - but in reality, there are nuances.

What were the different elements you had to consider?

For the website, it was a case of figuring out which destinations we could keep selling safely, and which destinations we had to pull. We also had to think through the range of other circumstances that other customers might face in the future, which was the tricky task.

We were seeing people get stuck in hotels due to quarantines. We saw people getting ill, either abroad or before they traveled. We’d seen situations where the country prevents people leaving, or the country of entry prevents entry, or people getting quarantined on arrival or on return. There was such a huge variety of circumstances and we needed to address all of them. Back then, we still thought it was a contained problem.

And then day by day, week by week, it turned from one concentrated problem into several crises revolving around the main crisis.

“One of our key metrics in our daily stand ups became: how many customers are still in resorts and are there any blockers to getting them home?”

What was the point where you realised this was a global problem?

The virus had expanded beyond Northern Italy, and countries had started to ban entry. The most concerning story was Vietnam, which overnight imposed quarantine on entry while we had customers in the air flying to the country. My role went from creating the policy to coordinating the whole project, which was quite a leap. It then became a task of making sure there was clear communication across the whole business.

Another huge priority for us was getting everyone home. We had thousands of customers scattered all over the world and just finding out where they were and whether they had traveled was a huge task. One of our key metrics in our daily stand-ups became: how many customers are still in resorts and are there any blockers to getting them home?

How did you balance long-term strategy work with short-term ‘survival mode’ tasks?

We weren’t thinking about long-term goals at all, at that stage. Everyone had pivoted towards dealing with COVID, and that was our sole priority. Sales teams retrained to be customer support agents so we could address the sheer volume of requests coming in. Having to retrain teams so we could deal with the requests was a huge undertaking. Everyone just focused on the short term at that point.

And when did those priorities shift back to a mix of both long and short-term?

Around April or May, we started to think about the relaunch alongside the response. This required changing our business model, looking at payment terms with our suppliers to make sure we were less exposed in our cash position.

We were thinking about offering refundable rates to customers to draw more people in when they had the opportunity to travel. So all of that required our support on the contracts and to offer insights around regulatory changes.

Did you have to make changes in terms of how you worked as a legal team, both with each other and with the business?

The biggest change was around the levels of integration between legal and the wider business. We already work really closely with all of our teams, but being integrated into their teams for months and months on end was a real positive. Legal became a useful daily resource, and perceptions of legal changed - we’re not the classic hurdle teams need to overcome in order to get work done, we’re not the cost center we’re sometimes assumed to be. I think it was a nice opportunity to show that we were key enablers of the business.

How did your priorities differ from what you’d planned to be doing in 2020?

We dropped all our 2020 priorities in March that year, but one of the priorities that was accelerated by the crisis was implementing a task management platform, so legal could be smarter about how we work. The project would help us get a better insight into the types of legal requests that teams were making and how quickly we’ll be fielding them.

We had started trialling it in early 2020, and then the pandemic hit, and the number of legal requests spiked from tens to hundreds - the three-person legal team dealt with 1500 requests over the course of six months. We took a decision early on to accelerate the rollout of task management and it was a real lifesaver - we would’ve drowned under requests if we tried to handle the surge via email and spreadsheets.

"Something we’ve implemented that I hope will stay in the long term is flexibility around cancellations and amendments to bookings, which is a big positive for customers and hopefully a longer term trend"

How did task management scale, internally and externally?

We gave access to the entire customer services team and onboarded about seven different law firms in seven different countries, so they also had access to this platform. Should we need to escalate issues, we could go via the platform straight to them. We had a fee arrangement set up behind the scenes with them.

This allowed us to track all the requests coming in, we had a chat feature for correspondence, if we needed to escalate to lawyers they could see what was going on. And then we hired a paralegal in to triage the requests. With all of these hundreds of things coming in, they could then decide where to allocate it to an internal or external team based on some predetermined thresholds. So that was actually the real success of 2020.

How do you think the travel industry will change, post-pandemic?

As and when we’re allowed to return to some version of normal, domestic travel will have a massive resurgence. Last to open up again would be long-haul international travel, especially some of the island nations that will be a lot more cautious to reopening to tourists. Reopening of borders triggers a wave of questions and uncertainties around quarantines, vaccines, entry requirements, and so on. That’s going to be a lot of work to stay on top of.

Something we’ve implemented that I hope will stay in the long term is flexibility around cancellations and amendments to bookings, which is a big positive for customers and hopefully a longer term trend. There are also likely to be changes to the way in which the financial protection you have when you make a package booking is provided. There are times where that has been shown to be imperfect in the last year or so.

And how do you see legal’s role in being ready for the bounceback?

Legal’s role will involve prioritizing the revenue-generating work and putting sales and media teams at the front of the queue. Legal will also have to stay abreast of the increased pace of regulatory change in various countries - it will be important for the business to adapt to new models of regulation. We’ll also be focusing on risk management to help the business prepare for the next crisis using all the lessons we’ve learnt from the pandemic.

James Russell-Jones is the Head of Legal at Secret Escapes. This is a chapter from our eBook 'GCs & the pandemic: how legal responded'. Download to hear from legal leaders at Hopin, Stripe, Revolut, and more, on a year like no other.

Topics: Legal operations

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