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Almost 20 years ago after the terrible tragedy of the 9/11 terrorist attack, a scary new situation had to be dealt with by a young Winnipeg company whose business immediately came to a halt.
The company, Scootaround, provides wheelchair and mobility services across North America with strong ties to airlines and the hotel industry.
"When travel shut down after 9/11 and the phones stopped ringing that was a terrifying time for a young company," said Kerry Renaud, managing director at Winnipeg-based Scootaround Inc. and Whill North America. (Scootaround merged with Whill, a Japanese wheelchair manufacturer, last year).
Renaud said that experience has served the company well in the current situation.
The COVID-19 shutdown has been far more damaging to the travel industry and more profoundly disruptive to Scootaround’s business than 9/11 was, but the company is far better prepared to deal with it and to properly plan for business resumption.
"Those days were more intimidating than this latest disruption," Renaud said.
It helps that they are not bootstrapping the company anymore and that it has committed support from sophisticated investors. And it also helps that the brand has become established to the extent that its customers are now confident they’ll get a level of quality of service that for each of those customer is essential.
Scootaround rents mobility devices — close to 7,000 of them in 2,500 locations throughout North America — mostly to the travelling public. As well, it has long-standing relationships with a number of international airlines to provide servicing of mobility devices that get damaged — a relatively common occurrence — for those disabled travellers who choose to travel with their own devices. Last year the company provided equipment at 500 events.
The travel shutdown is certainly a challenge for Scootaround and its parent company who, combined, have had to lay off or furlough more than 50 per cent of its 400 employees, about 50 of whom are based in Winnipeg.
But in addition to the financial wherewithal to weather this setback — Renaud said he figures it won't be until the end of 2022 before the company gets back to its pre-COVID level of revenue — it also has the understanding of its market to be confident that the business will come back.
So that means rather than panic, the company can plan in detail how to ramp up, right down to when each individual will be called back.
"We are absolutely staying in business," he said. "The advantage we have is that we have been through this before."
Its business model has grown into something unique. Although it has local competition in many markets, there is no other company with the scale and scope that it has to be able to redeploy equipment and the ability to scale up and scale down.
It has also grown alongside the growth in mobility that its customer base has experienced. Renaud does not believe the current crisis will cause its customers to stop travelling any more than it has stopped the rest of the travelling public.
"When we started this we recognized that there was going to be a need then and well into the future. That part won’t change as long as people require mobility assistance in whatever form," he said.
But it is likely that those customers will seek even greater certainty and comfort in dealing with a trusted service provider. Unlike other travel companies Renaud said Scootaround made a decision early on to not dicker with customers, but to provide complete refunds.
"We kept most of our marketing team and call centres in place," he said.
Scootaround’s client list is packed with repeat customers and new ones will be back to use the company’s services again. He believes that in the near future travellers will seek out services that can provide levels of reliability and safety and maybe not take that for granted as they might once have.
To that end, Renaud believes there may be a resurgence of the travel agent who will be able provide that extra assurance to the traveller that their accommodations will be safe from a public health point of view.
Scootaround intends to be that service provider for those in need of mobility devices just as soon as they start getting mobile again.
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.
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