Asian Companies Cut Back Travel to Avoid Mystery Virus

Alarm over a deadly flu-like illness is prompting many companies in Asia to reduce or cancel business travel — and many executives have responded by wheeling and dealing through teleconferences and e-mail.

"We're using virtual or online reporting for most offices. Basically, it's business-essential travel only," said Mary V. Lam, a spokeswoman for Motorola Asia Pacific.

If the disease — severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS — keeps spreading, economic growth in the region will suffer this year, analysts said. Trillions of dollars are at stake involving Asian manufacturing sectors, which supply a broad array of goods globally.

Businesses in infected areas are already seeing scattered disruptions — and some such as airlines and hotels are experiencing sharp drops — but most are finding ways to cope.

Motorola was forced to close a factory in Singapore last week after one of its workers was diagnosed with SARS, which has killed at least 62 people worldwide, mostly in Asia.

The victim's 300 co-workers at Motorola in Singapore were ordered into quarantine and the factory was disinfected. It has since reopened and the worker has recovered, Lam said.

There have been few known instances so far of the medical crisis disrupting manufacturing operations, and the advent of modern telecommunications is likely to help ease disruptions from the curtailment of business travel.

"If you're a large bank, you can do a lot of your business on the phone and the Internet," says David O'Rear, chief economist at the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce (news - web sites). "Ten years ago, this could have had a devastating impact compared to what we may or may not suffer today."

Hong Kong's biggest bank, the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp., and other smaller banks have taken emergency measures to ensure that operations can continue even if employees contract the disease.

Standard Chartered, Hong Kong's fourth-largest bank, has been encouraging employees to avoid face-to-face meetings, said Lavina Chan, a spokeswoman for the bank.

"All mission-critical staff are working on a split-team basis so that if a number of employees in one particular department get the disease, we can still keep the business running," she said.

Throughout the region, companies have announced measures intended to minimize risk of exposure to SARS.

DBS bank in Singapore suspended all employee travel after discovering that a worker at a Hong Kong subsidiary, Dao Heng Bank, was confirmed to have SARS.

Dao Heng and other major Hong Kong banks suspended operations at branches near Amoy Gardens, an apartment complex where the government imposed a 10-day quarantine Monday after reporting about 200 cases of the disease.

Regionally, companies with operations in China were developing emergency plans.

Samsung Electronics Co., the world's largest memory chip maker, asked families of employees working in Hong Kong to return to South Korea (news - web sites), company spokesman James Chung said. LG Electronics Inc., a maker of home appliances and mobile handsets, has done the same.

"We've also urged our employees working in Shanghai, Thailand and Toronto to refrain from traveling on business for the time being," spokesman Chu Byung-Ho said.

Sun Microsystems canceled a trade show scheduled for next week in Shanghai where the company planned to sell itself to 4,000 people and 250 companies that had registered to attend. Its top executives were scheduled to speak and chief executive Scott McNeely was to appear via video.

Sun also planned a product launch, which will instead be in San Francisco next week.

"We reluctantly concluded that escalating health and travel advisories from various international authorities required us to take this action," said Mark Tolliver, Sun's chief marketing officer.

Chipmaker Intel Corp. and computer maker Hewlett-Packard each closed Hong Kong offices after employees were suspected of having SARS. HP told about 300 of its Hong Kong workers to stay home. And about 50 Intel workers there have been ordered to work from home until Monday, while 350 others have been given that option.

Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy said business travel to Asia has been scaled back, an increasingly common strategy. Microsoft, for instance, announced it was eliminating as many trips to Asia as possible.

Medical care, along with housing and education, have always been major concerns for international businesses operating in Asia, says Bob Broadfoot, managing director of the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy.

"What you've got now is an extreme situation," he said. "It's an immediate situation where individuals have to take action."