Stranded NY'ers return with their volcano tales
How Big Apple business folk made it back, made do or made a bundle during the Eyjafjallajökull flight blackout.
Iceland's volcano eruption brought a shocking number of industries to a grinding halt. But for people used to living by the New York minute, that kind of inertia never sticks. Far from staring at TV screens, plenty of New Yorkers sprung into action.
Perhaps it's because New Yorkers are used to living with a certain level of daily chaos, or maybe it's our habit of treating everything like an emergency.
From control rooms in Queens to boutique hotels in Jersey City to all-night conference rooms in midtown, a behind-the-scenes army of professionals have been pulling strings, pedaling influence and pushing the envelope for more than a week—quite successfully.
Blood, sweat and tears
Quick International Courier handles shipping for life-sciences and pharmaceutical trials. Unfortunately, frozen samples of human tissue, blood, and other biologics don't last long in warehouses.
“We had 22 frozen shipments from [the country of] Georgia headed for the U.K. that got held up in Turkey,” explained Marie Vigliarolo, vice president of marketing for the courier company.
From its command center in Jamaica, Queens, Quick dispatched agents to intercept shipments and haggle with customs officials to salvage millions of dollars worth of research. “We had to stop the shipments in Turkey, re-ice the frozen ones and re-issue documents to fly it to a lab in the U.S.,” she said.
They also arranged special drivers to run shipments from Poland, Hungary, Austria, the Czech Republic and Russia to the U.K. “We're used to operating in contingency mode,” Ms. Vigliarolo said, “but this was certainly above and beyond the norm.”
What to do with 2,000 stranded execs
Ovation Corporate Travel, which handles most of New York's biggest banks, investment managers and law firms, had 2,000 New York executives either stuck in Europe or stuck here.
“When you have deals cooking, they've got to get to those meetings,” said Michael Steiner, executive vice president of Ovation.
There was the chief executive of a major New York bank, stuck in Paris with his annual shareholder meeting just days away, whom they discreetly put on an overnight train to Barcelona for an early morning flight out.
Mr. Steiner also chartered a plane from Newark Liberty International to London's Luton Airport for 160 hedge fund, private equity, investment banking executives and lawyers who “absolutely needed” to get to the U.K.--for the bargain price of $1,700 per ticket.
He kept his Manhattan travel center staffed until 1:00 a.m. or 2:00 a.m. with about 100 of his 450 employees, he said. In all, they moved about two dozen execs by rail from Northern Europe through Spain for flights home.
Once flights resumed, Mr. Steiner miraculously secured business class seats on all the first flights and was able to nix the charter. “A couple of times a year when you need to move mountains, we can make things happen using clout and leverage and our relationships,” he explained.
When opportunity knocks…
Jarl Haugedal runs a small boutique hotel called NYC-JC that operates more like a series of about 70 apartments in brownstones and high-rises in Jersey City. About half the units were vacant the morning of the volcano eruption.
Not for long, however. “When I saw it on the news, I figured I should go out to the airport and see,” said Mr. Haugedal, who used to work as a concierge at Marriott and the Four Seasons.
He grabbed two staffers, a stack of room-rate cards and headed to Newark airport. The cops let him park his van illegally, he said, and he ran inside. While airlines were calling hotels within a two-hour radius trying to find availability, “Our available apartments filled up within the first half-hour,” he said.
Mr. Haugedal's been making two airport runs a day since the day of the eruption—one to Newark and one to John F. Kennedy International—to walk through ticket lines and hand out cards. His hotel has been fully booked every night. “It turned out to be a great business decision,” Mr. Haugedal said of his guerilla efforts.
Wanted: Temporary sanity
Temporary office services became permanent saviors for some of the stranded. With 18 locations in Manhattan offering flexible office space and services, Regus had a 75% increase in video conference bookings since the volcanic disruption, said Melissa Goerke, the operations director for midtown.
There was the British CEO traveling without a laptop, trying to work out of his hotel room. “We got him into one of our day offices for the weekend, and even had an ‘admin' on hand in case he's one of those guys used to having an assistant,” Ms. Goerke said.
During any given week, a number of Regus' 70 or so day-offices are available, but last week they were jam-packed. “It was a completely unexpected situation,” she said of the rush of clients. “Our own CEO was trying to get space for a video conference here in New York, and we had to tell him, ‘Sorry, we're booked!'”
Food for thought. (Once it gets here.)
Perhaps far less critical then biomedical shipments—though local French chefs may beg to differ—is the disruption of air shipments of gourmet foodstuffs from Europe. D'Artagnan's, the Newark-based purveyor of specialty cured meats, foie gras, pâté and truffles, usually receives daily shipments of fresh items for delivery to the city's top-flight restaurants. Until the volcano struck.
The most affected products, according to public relations director Lily Hodge, were mushrooms and white asparagus from Turkey, France and Holland. Wild blue foot and morels quickly became scarce. “When you're dealing with a product that is seasonal and only in the wild, you're out of luck,” she said. “That's when the creativity of the chef really comes in.”
She knows several restaurants were simply out of mushrooms because sales of dried morels shot up—highly unusual for this time of year. “Nobody wants to let the customer down, but if we say we can't get it, they know there's a reason.”
Dealing with the fact that you're not always needed
For all of the histrionics surrounding key executives and their need to be somewhere, many discovered that their businesses actually function quite well without them.
Slava Rubin, CEO of IndieGoGo, a Web platform that allows people to raise money for a cause or a project, was in Oxford last week for the Skoll World Forum for Social Entrepreneurship. “I was at this leadership conference, where everybody there is used to controlling their own schedules and generally being in control of everything,” Mr. Rubin recalled. Little did they know they'd be stuck there for five more days.
Mr. Rubin didn't just have a company to run; he had a major charity event to plan. It was his fifth annual benefit to raise awareness for a rare form of cancer that killed his father. The charity gala, called Music Against Myeloma, was scheduled for April 22, and Mr. Rubin's plan was to come back and, as always, take care of the last week of planning. “I'm super-hands on, probably to a fault,” he said.
Suddenly he was faced with the chance of missing the event entirely. Forced against his nature to delegate tasks, all he could do was just that—delegate—and wait anxiously by the computer.
“I didn't think that as many people cared about the event as much as I did,” he said. It turns out, they did. He even managed to land a flight home just in time for the benefit, which went off without a hitch. “I have an incredible team,” Mr. Rubin said.
Story originally published in http://www.crainsnewyork.com/ by Hilary Potkewitz
Crain’s New York Business