Movers face up to coronavirus crisis

Moving and relocation businesses around the world have felt the impact of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic from its early stages.

Movers and customers operating in, out of, or through the Asia-Pacific region experienced significant delays in customs clearance and deliveries, while companies took action to protect their staff and reassure customers.

In mainland China, Asian Tigers suspended its operations in Wuhan for the foreseeable future and introduced masks and regular temperature checks for all operations and office staff who would have direct contact with customers. It also issued a moratorium on using external contrators for the time being. 

While the Asian Tiger China’s other offices and warehouses had returned to work by early March, the company said in a statement that, due to staff being unable to return to work as the result of road and public transport closures, the business would be working at only ‘a small percentage of our usual operational capacity’ for some time.

The Chinese lockdown has produced other challenges for movers, said the company, including the fact that ‘many complexes and apartment building are currently not allowing outside workers and vehicles to enter’. 

Due to its lower capacity and stricter security and hygiene controls, the company introduced an ‘Emergency Pandemic Surcharge’, which would apply to all jobs until the situation returned to normal. ‘The scale and impact of this disaster is unprecedented in our industry and special force majeure circumstances must apply,’ it said.

Asian Tigers China said it had been contacted by many expats who had left China during the new year holidays but who now wanted their goods packed and shipped overseas without physically returning to the country; and issued instructions to those who wanted to do this.

Hong Kong

Asian Tigers’ Hong Kong CEO Rob Chipman told FIDI Focus that the local market was reeling from the dual effect of the coronavirus and recent political unrest in the country.

‘Outbound business is extraordinarily busy for this time of the year. Our surveyors are all out, and all our packing crews are fully booked,’ he said, while ‘inbound business has dried to a trickle.’

Third country moves controlled by the Hong Kong-based business was had also fallen significantly, he added.

‘Early on – because we were much closer to the source than almost anyone – we took steps to try and protect our business that other countries are only now coming to grips with,’ he said. ‘In mid-January we started having many of our employees work from home.’ The company also issued masks and hand sanitisers for staff and put large dispensers in office locations to encourage use, and minimised situations that require employees to gather in a single area.

‘The biggest menace we face is if the virus gets into our operations area,’ he said. ‘In administration, there is enough overlap to allow one person to cover for another to an extent. But if packers become sick, because they work in close proximity, the virus would spread rapidly, then our business would be devastated,’ he said.

Other effects on the region, said Chipman, have included increased volatility in the price of ocean freight, which was ‘making pricing difficult and in many cases, hammering our margins – so while business is up, our margins and profits have not kept pace’. As many airlines have cancelled flights, it has also been increasingly difficult to secure freight slots, he said, while increased inspections were leading to delays.  

Long term, Chipman said he believed the crisis would lead to a continued trend for permanent moves out of the region.

Europe

Moving businesses across the world were affected as restrictions on movement and travel began to be implemented in most regions.

The Italian Association of Movers (AITI) issued a statement clarifying that removals were still possible in most parts of the country and that goods were still able to enter and leave affected areas, despite nationwide constraints on the movement of people and limits on commercial activities. However, drivers were now required to fill out a form and provide specific documentation when entering them.

Rome-based Bliss Corporation issued a statement that it had implemented government directives to safeguard staff, suppliers and customers, and introduced flexible working and hygiene precautions. ‘We will still be able to pack/deliver shipments in any part of the country and give you all the support needed as per our best quality standard,’ it said.  

In the US, the military placed a moratorium on all moves, leading to the IAM and AMSA jointly requesting a US$186 million bailout to help moving businesses survive. Russia ordered ships arriving from specific affected regions to be disinfected.

Industry support

FIDI has created an industry overview page on COVID-19, with information and links about the outbreak relevant to Affiliates:

FEDEMAC’s crisis response webpage is also being updated daily to provide information and guidance to members. This includes a live and interactive map of Europe with the latest restrictions in place, as provided by its national association members; and advice on limiting liabilities resulting from cancellations.

IAM’s coronavirus page can be accessed here.

Meanwhile, SIRVA, Intouch Relocations and moving tech business Move4U were among the many organisations issuing updates and advice about the impact on the business.

As FIDI Focus went to press, Secretary General Jesse van Sas said the organisation was keeping in close contact with its Affiliates about the COVID-19 crisis and he expected further restrictions to be placed on the industry. ‘It is impossible to assess the full impact as the situation is still developing. But it is safe to say that moves will come to a stop in certain parts of the world, as happened in China,’ he said.  

‘Limitations on human interaction will be the first reason for that because letting crews into people’s homes is not compliant with the recommendations of authorities.  Secondly, there is a growing impact on international travel, so it is unlikely that people will physically move for the moment – as they may be faced with an empty house and nowhere to go. Many countries are now almost imposing house arrest on their citizens, so the number of crew members available is going down fast, while those left are less inclined to visit customers. 

Van Sas predicted complete move moratoriums would be introduced for most countries in West Europe and in the US, and that there would be business casualties if the crisis broadened.

‘Our move business is already under a lot of pressure and if this situation pans out wider and for three months or more, there will surely be victims in the move industry,’ he said. He added that the huge backlog after the crisis ends could save many companies, although if this occurs during summer months, resources will be a challenge.

‘For now, liquidity will be the key to survival,’ he said.

There have been some positive signs with no new cases reported in China and some progress made on treatment and a vaccine for COVID-19.  

FIDI added that its Affiliates had been incredibly positive in their reaction to the challenges posed in the early stages of the outbreak and supportive about the decision to postpone the FIDI Conference in Osaka (see below).

FIDI is calling for updates from its Affiliates – please email them to: fidi@fidi.org

2020 FIDI Conference postponed to 2021

FIDI has rescheduled its 2020 conference in Osaka, Japan, to next year, after taking the hard decision to cancel the event due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The event will now take place from Thursday 22 April to Sunday 25 April, 2021.

In a statement on March 6, announcing the postponement, FIDI said: ‘In light of a possible generalised lockdown and real concerns for the health of our Affiliates, the FIDI Board has taken the decision to postpone the 2020 FIDI Conference, scheduled in Osaka, to next year.

‘This difficult decision was not made lightly, as it has far-reaching consequences for FIDI as an organisation, our membership and all who were looking forward to an exceptional event.’

According to head office staff, Affiliates’ response to the announcement had been incredibly positive and supportive.

On the same day, OMNI announced that they were also postponing their conference, due to take place in Kyoto just before the FIDI event. The European Relocation Association conference, due to take place on May 8 in Seville, was also postponed to March 2021.

The FIDI Academy MiM seminar, which was planned for Barcelona at the end of March, will now take place from Monday 21 to Friday 26 September, 2020.

For more information about the effects of the crisis on FIDI events, please contact the FIDI Global Alliance office at fidi@fidi.org