Thursday, March 19, 2020

Be a Thriver

The outbreak of COVID-19 has knocked us all for a loop. It seems like every day we hear of something else that’s being affected. Schools are closing, whole cities and towns are quarantined, states and municipalities are issuing states of emergency, concerts and events are seemingly all being cancelled, we’ve put the kibosh on travel plans for the foreseeable future, and shaking hands and hugging have been replaced indefinitely by elbow bumps.

Economic impacts of this pandemic will be felt for a long time. Across industries and disciplines, effects of shut-downs, travel restrictions, and general worry are zinging and stinging everywhere. Every time I look online, another friend has posted about the clients they’ve lost that day, the stores and restaurants they’ve had to shutter, conferences they can no longer attend, gigs that got cancelled, etc.

My own brick and mortar business, Uncle Marty’s Shipping Office, is just coming off a huge boon. Last Tuesday, Cornell University—our neighbor and provider of the majority of our client base—announced that students would not be asked to return to campus after spring break. Then, a few days later, moved up that timeline and asked that everyone leave immediately. So, without warning, our student move-out season (which traditionally takes about six weeks during May and June) happened immediately and in a span of about a week. It was intense! We smashed our records and pulled out all the stops to get the students’ stuff shipped and stored as efficiently as possible.

That unexpected burst in business is waning now, and we’re staring at five months of significantly reduced student population in our university-anchored city. What do we do? So many of our neighbors have already closed up for the long haul, offices have sent their workers home to do their jobs remotely, and we’re left with tough decisions to make. It was my decision to keep Uncle Marty’s open regular hours for the foreseeable future (details on the shop’s blog), as our business is classified by New York State as “essential” and therefore exempt from required staff reductions and closures. That being said, I fully understand that every business must make the right decision for their own circumstances. This was ours, and it is of course subject to change as edicts and situations change.

Whether we’re keeping normal hours in our offices or working from home, we are all dealing with this new business atmosphere of uncertainty. What do we do about that? What do we do with our time? Do we just sit on our thumbs for the next few months? Do we bemoan the fact that the world is conspiring against us? Do we take on a victim mindset and start blame-slinging? No! We look at the situation objectively. We innovate. We smile and continue to do everything we can to support our community, team, clients, and networks. We look for opportunities in the chaos. We use any down time that might be coming our way to get focused, establish more healthy habits, strengthen our faith, become re-energized, and prepared for future growth.

Years ago, our neighborhood faced a considerable challenge. If you’ve followed my coaching for a while, you’ve probably read my writings on it before, but the short version of the story is that our road was shut down for nearly two years for the construction of a big building across the street from us. It was tough. As a shipping business, we couldn’t get trucks in or out for deliveries and pickups, our clients couldn’t reach us easily to bring in their shipments and pick up their packages, and our visibility to new clients was all but extinguished by considerable construction dust.

Initially, our sales were slashed by the unexpected interruption, however by the end of it we ended up growing … and thriving. Why? Because we innovated! We didn’t fall victim to the situation, but instead used it as an opportunity to grow our network with city and campus officials to come up with solutions together; we pushed our pickup and delivery service and grew those profit centers considerably, and as a result now have a more diverse, adaptable business model.

The same wasn’t the case for many of our business neighbors. Sadly, many of them cowered and complained during those two years, some even closing for good. We tried to encourage them to innovate and adapt, even suggesting that restaurants grow their take-out and catering businesses since the weren’t getting walk-in traffic. But, change is hard for many people and some of these small businesses didn’t have the knowledge or resources to innovate; they didn’t know what platforms to use, how to get their messages out to the public, or the best course of action to take. It was a shake-out.

Now, we’re facing a shake-out again. There’s no sugarcoating the fact that this current pandemic will be the nail in the coffin for countless businesses. But, there will be survivors. And, more importantly, there will be thrivers! The thrivers will be those who look for opportunities and become problem solvers for their communities.

The thrivers will be the restaurants who turn their serving staff into delivery staff and create quarantine menus and specials to bring flavor to those stuck at home and sick of the same old spaghetti every night. The thrivers will be the rideshare drivers who replace their evening bar-hopping business with food and grocery delivery opportunities. The thrivers will be the hotels who create too-good-to-ignore specials to re-book conferences and vacation packages for later dates, rather than just taking cancellations.

My team and I plan on being thrivers over the next few months. We don’t know what that will look like yet, but we’ve set our minds to it … and when our minds are set on something, rarely do we not achieve it.


This article was also published on the AMBC blog on March 19, 2020.


Marty Johnson is an entrepreneur, writer, and business coach. He serves as ex officio Director of Communication and Advisor to the Board for the non-profit Association of Mail & Business Centers (AMBC) and is Editor of MBC Today, AMBC's industry-leading publication. Marty owns and operates Uncle Marty's Shipping Office in Ithaca, NY, where he's also Co-Founder of the Collegetown Small Business Alliance. Please visit him at #AskUncleMarty

Friday, February 7, 2020

The MS Westerdam

“At some point you just have to let go of what you thought should happen and live in what is happening.”- Heather Hepler

You've surely been watching the news, as I have, about the novel coronavirus outbreak. Every day, it seems statistics grow considerably and more and more travel bans and quarantines are put in place in an effort to stop the spread of the epidemic. It's truly unbelievable and, as I mentioned in my previous blog post, many of us are being carefully vigilant while we watch this unfold—our thoughts and hearts with those in the midst of it.

Surely you've also seen the news about some of the cruise ships that have been affected: one moored in Japan with thousands quarantined on board, with confirmed cases of the virus therein recently tripling overnight; another one quarantined in Hong Kong with passenger symptoms being reported, likely to be stuck there for quite a while; and then there’s that third one that's sailing the South China Sea with nowhere to dock, turned away from every port in the area despite there being no reported cases of the virus on board. My parents are currently passengers on that third ship: Holland America Line’s MS Westerdam.

In their 70s and retired after many long, gritty, hardworking years, my parents are now very lucky to be able to go on cruises from time to time. This current one—a 30-night exploration of Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea—was too good of an opportunity to pass up. Neither of them had been to that part of the world before, and both were truly looking forward to the privilege.

The first week or two of the MS Westerdam's scheduled itinerary went very smoothly. They departed Singapore on January 15th and enjoyed ports in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. But, as news of the novel coronavirus outbreak got worse and worse and more cities and countries were limiting travel and authorizing quarantines, the itinerary began to change.

At first, scheduled ports in China were cancelled, and previous plans to disembark in Shanghai on February 15th had to be changed to Tokyo, including all of the passengers' hotels and flights. Holland America Line took care of all of that for its passengers who booked through their services and gave onboard credits as some consolation, even though the itinerary changes were out of their control.

Hong Kong was the midpoint of the scheduled itinerary. The original plan was to spend two days there to explore the city while the passengers just doing the first 15-night leg disembarked and the passengers only doing the second 15-night leg came aboard. As the time neared, plans changed as officials felt it was no longer wise to spend a long time in Hong Kong. They still needed to stop, but would limit it to just one day with restrictions on what could be done in the nearly-shut-down city. My parents made the best of it and enjoyed their limited time there, though of course didn't get to do the shopping they had hoped for; my dad was really looking forward to finding some sweet Chinese silk!

From Hong Kong, they were headed to the Philippines. But, the Philippines wouldn't let them in, so they turned around and spent an extra day at sea. Then, they headed to Taiwan, but were only allowed into one of their scheduled ports there. And now, after leaving Taiwan, they are stuck at sea—denied entry anywhere else they had hoped to go. The rest of the cruise has officially been cancelled, with the captain announcing the news to the passengers this morning … with deep regret.

My parents' emails and messages lead me to believe that Holland America Line has been nothing but gracious, apologetic, cooperative, and transparent about all of the unexpected itinerary changes and eventual cruise cancellation. The cruise line has gone out of its way to help passengers adapt plans, flights, hotels, and given onboard credit, free phone access, free Wi-Fi, and even future cruise credit to try to make up for the major hiccups on this voyage. All of those on board are monitored daily with temperatures taken and screenings performed to ensure that the ship remains free of the novel coronavirus. They have plenty of food, water, and fuel to sail until they're able to determine a final destination.

And the passengers? Well, it seems that many of them are taking it in stride. After all, there's nothing they can do. The situation is what it is, so why freak out about it? Soon enough they’re sure to find a friendly port, disembark, probably be poked, prodded, and screened up the wazoo by whatever local authorities they encounter, and then eventually fly back to their respective homes, likely to face further quarantine once on their home soil. It's not ideal, but it sure is an adventure!

There are some passengers, however, without such an attitude. Some are causing a stir, going to the media, lodging complaints, and creating as much extra strife as they can—making the stress of the situation for their fellow passengers, the ship’s crew, the cruise line officials (and surely customer service reps), and everyone’s worried families back home much worse.

And I get it. People are stressed and some may be scared. This situation is indeed very serious and measures are being taken like we’ve never seen before in a global health crisis. For some people, the unknown isn’t an easy thing to accept. Unexpected changes in plans aren't easy. Staying away longer than anticipated isn't easy. Being flexible isn't easy. But the uneasiness aside, to go out of your way to create drama in an unprecedented situation like this where staying calm is so imperative is something that I just don't understand.

Just this morning, I shared Holland's latest blog update on Facebook. Somehow, some loony person who I don't know got through to my private, personal Facebook timeline and wrote a long, ranting comment on that share. I deleted it right away, but the part I read was awful—full of negativity and blame-slinging. I have a feeling that person was just trolling around, looking for whomever showed up as sharing that blog post link, and then probably linked in from there to their private timelines just to rant, create drama, and cause a ruckus. It's so sad.

The older I get, the more it becomes clear to me how much someone's attitude can shape their life. There are people who dwell on negativity, and as a result become toxic, cause problems, and make situations worse. And then there are people who accept the things they can't change and look for silver linings. That latter personality, I'm proud to say, is found in both of my parents; I'm so very proud of the incredible humans that I’m lucky enough to call my own.

What happens next is yet to be determined. We'll keep hoping that the virus doesn't show up on the MS Westerdam and they'll soon be able to find a country who will let them dock, disembark, and return home. But, if the virus does show up on board and they have to go into quarantine, they'll comply with whatever the authorities deem is necessary.

Whatever happens, I know my parents are level-headed, strong, faithful, savvy people who know that the powers that be are doing everything they can to make this situation as palatable as possible. They have perspective, knowing very well that there are millions of people in affected areas that are in much more serious situations than having to miss a few ports on a luxury cruise vacation, or spend a few extra days at sea. They’ll get home eventually … and they'll have quite the story to tell when they do!


Marty Johnson is an entrepreneur, writer, and business coach. He serves as ex officio Director of Communication and Advisor to the Board for the non-profit Association of Mail & Business Centers (AMBC) and is Editor of MBC Today, AMBC's industry-leading publication. Marty owns and operates Uncle Marty's Shipping Office in Ithaca, NY, where he's also Co-Founder of the Collegetown Small Business Alliance. Please visit him at #AskUncleMarty


Mom and Dad got home safely after a five-week adventure. Here’s a quick recap of their trip’s final couple weeks:

Thailand eventually offered a safe haven for the MS Westerdam to dock and for its guests to disembark, so the ship sailed toward Bangkok. Upon their approach, Thailand changed its mind and, while the ship was allowed into the harbor to refuel, it was quickly then escorted out of Thai waters by a Thai navy vessel; my mom sent a picture of it outside their balcony, guns appearing to be pointed at the Westerdam (though they didn’t feel in any real threat).

Next, Cambodia stepped up and offered a place to dock. The MS Westerdam safely came to port in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, on February 13th. It took a few days for Cambodian health officials to screen and clear all the passengers, and most were eventually permitted to disembark in mid-February, greeted by the Cambodian Prime Minister who flew in on a helicopter and handed out flowers and scarves to guests as they left the ship. (The scarf my parents got was eventually brought back to me as a very cool souvenir.)

From Sihanoukville, Holland American Line chartered planes to get guests to Phnom Penh. Upon arrival there, news hit that one of the former MS Westerdam passengers tested positive upon entering Malaysia, so everyone was stopped in their tracks and put under quarantine until they could be tested again.

My parents were quarantined in a beautiful suite in a five-star Phnom Penh hotel, so life wasn’t very rough. After a few days and a plethora of more tests, they were given yet another all-clear, virus-free certification and allowed to roam freely about Phnom Penh, the Cambodian people treating them as honored guests.

Armed with certificates from the Cambodian Ministry of Health, endorsed by the CDC and WHO, that they were not carriers of the novel coronavirus (now known as COVID-19), Holland American Line chartered another flight—this one through Turkish Airlines—to get a good portion of the guests in Phnom Penh to Istanbul, from there hoping to be able to fly commercially to their home countries.

Up until this point, the MS Westerdam guests had been treated exceptionally well. The CEO of Holland America, Orlando Ashford, even flew to Phnom Penh and met with the guests to encourage them; his communication and example during the crisis was exceptional—a true model of what a business leader should be. However, the Turkish Airline staff was obviously not thrilled that they had to work a flight that carried hundreds of former cruise ship passengers, because they were fully in gear—masks, gloves, etc.—and offered no service during what ended up being a 22-hour flight; guests had to help themselves to drinks and food.

And why was it a 22-hour flight? Well, after takeoff and headed toward Istanbul, it seems that Turkey changed its mind as well about allowing the passengers in. So, the flight had to make a change of course, making an abrupt 180 degree turn while over Iranian air space. Those of us watching the flight on satellite, not knowing yet that Turkey had changed its mind and instead just seeing that the plane had change course over Iran, had quite a stressful couple of hours with our imaginations running wild.

The flight was able to land in Kirachi, Pakistan, where they sat on the ground for four hours, not allowed to get up out of their seats … even to use the bathroom. Then, up and away again, finally landing in Amsterdam 22 hours after takeoff from Phnom Penh. It was quite a flight to remember!

From Amsterdam, my parents were allowed to fly commercial to Frankfurt, then from there to Philadelphia. But, their adventure wasn’t over yet, as one flight was met on the ground by flashing lights—ambulances, police cars, etc.—while they were screened once more before being permitted to enter the crowded airport.

When we knew they’d be home soon, my cousins who live near my parents went over to get their house ready, leave some groceries, and warm their home up so they wouldn’t walk into a five-week neglected space. My parents’ neighbor, not recognizing my cousins, called the police when they saw my cousins entering the house. The officer who responded got a good chuckle when he realized what the situation was; rarely do the police see robbers who enter a home with a key, carrying a toddler, then proceed to turn on all the lights, fill the fridge, and heat up a pot of spaghetti sauce on the stove.

So, my parents are home safe. They came to visit a couple of weeks ago, but now that COVID-19 has turned into a global pandemic, they’re choosing to remain safely in their home to ride it out.

And, after all of that, that one passenger who had tested positive upon entering Malaysia—causing all the rest of the passengers to be halted and plans disrupted—turned out to be negative for COVID-19 after all. Whether it was an honest mistake or a political play is unknown, but it sure did cause considerable headache—and many millions of dollars in expenses—for those affected.

The last few months have been nothing short of topsy-turvy. And the next few are sure to be just as wild.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Novel Coronavirus: Keep Your Team Safe

The novel coronavirus outbreak is no joke. Every day, statistics are expanding and more cities, countries, and populations are being affected. Should we be panicked?
This news hits closer to home for some more than others. At my shipping business, I have a very large international student client base, and for the past couple of weeks have been steadily shipping boxes of masks, gloves, and other medical supplies to their friends and families in affected areas; their stories both warm and break my heart. 
My parents have been on a cruise for a few weeks now. Their 30-day trip aboard the MS Westerdam left from Singapore mid-January and was slated to finish in Shanghai mid-February. That itinerary, of course, has been affected and they will no longer be hitting any ports in China, instead hoping to end in Tokyo. Because of stops they've already made to places that are now experiencing lock-downs, even though there are no suspected cases on their vessel, they're being blocked from entering some other ports and had to cancel stops in the Philippines and other areas. Despite a few outliers--the dramatic, attention-seeking, make-the-situation-worse people on board who are causing a stink because plans changed and flights had to be adjusted--my parents and the vast majority of the passengers are very happy with the cruise line's care, caution, and compensation regarding the unexpected route changes. Each passenger has their temperature taken daily and, as my mom says, "There are much worse places to be stuck!" 
I am in no way trying to draw a comparison to my parents' non-drama of having some ports changed on a plush, month-long cruise, or the possible quarantine or delays they may face in getting back home, to the trials that people on the ground in affected areas are facing. There are whole cities--millions of people--completely blockaded in an effort to contain this thing. It's unprecedented! The reason we're shipping so many masks is because there's such a profound shortage in the most desperate areas. As a result, those who have family and friends in other countries are asking them to ship supplies in that are otherwise unavailable. There's such a run on supplies in my city that, the last time I heard, all of the big box stores were sold out of masks; even Amazon is/was sold out too, to my understanding.
There are now suspected cases in my community, though nothing is confirmed yet and no warnings have been issued. Nevertheless, we're preparing ... just in case. 
I felt it pertinent to share some of my lay suggestions with you, which are similar to practices you may use in your own home, office, or retail store during flu season, keeping in mind that I am a non-medical small business owner simply trying my best to make sure my team stays level-headed and protected if indeed our city becomes affected.
  • Wash your hands often. Studies consistently show this is one of the simplest, yet best forms of defense.
  • Wipe door handles with disinfectant often. Don’t forget the bathroom door(s), cabinet pulls, drawer pulls, and especially the front door(s)–both sides.
  • Wipe keyboards, mice, phones, tools, printer buttons, pay station key pads, cart handles, and other oft-touched things with disinfectant often.
  • Replace pens that both clients and you use often. You can keep a bag of clean, disinfected pens, and also a bag of used pens that can be disinfected later for reuse.
  • Keep an emergency kit with masks and gloves on hand, just in case.
  • Closely monitor and comply fully with whatever your local authorities advise.

So, panic? Not yet. But surely stay wisely cautious. Stay informed so you can educate your team and your clients. I suggest listening to the special edition episode of Science Vs. on this topic, as it gives a good overview of what we know so far, acknowledging that this is all still very new and information breaking daily. That episode is available here:

It's also important to be cautious of prejudices that may result from misinformation or ignorant generalization. You'd think that we humans would have learned this lesson by now, but our history shows over and over again that a situation like this can cause phobias against entire groups of people, simply because their group was the one initially affected. Be careful of that, protecting your empathy and intelligence just as much as you're protecting your bodies. Continue to treat everyone with respect and compassion, doing what you can to help those in need.
This article is an adaption of one written for the AMBC blog on February 5, 2020.
Marty Johnson is an entrepreneur, writer, and business coach. He serves as ex officio Director of Communication and Advisor to the Board for the non-profit Association of Mail & Business Centers (AMBC) and is Editor of MBC Today, AMBC's industry-leading publication. Marty owns and operates Uncle Marty's Shipping Office in Ithaca, NY, where he's also Co-Founder of the Collegetown Small Business Alliance. Please visit him at #AskUncleMarty