First Data, struck by storms, turns a hotel into a distribution center

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First Data is one of many payments companies working to get its customers back up and running in the wake of the severe storms, but it's also a victim — its center in Sugar Land, Texas, suffered flooding, causing the Atlanta-based company to set up temporary operations at a hotel in Houston for 400 staff.

From there, First Data will distribute tens of thousands of its Clover Go mobile card acceptance devices in Hurricane Harvey's footprint in FEMA-designated zones, said Dan Charron, executive vice president of global business solutions for First Data.

"The biggest thing is to be able to accept payments and get up and running to do commerce, even if a store's infrastructure isn't working," Charron said. First Data is distributing free Clover Go mobile readers and waiving minimum monthly fees for the next six months for nonclients. It is also giving away Clover Go readers to current clients whose hardware was destroyed.

About 99% of Houston-area businesses are small businesses. Through mobile point of sale software, a business can sell online even if a brick and mortar location or its normal warehouse are flooded or inaccessible, Charron said.

First Data is also visiting businesses to do broader assessment of damage. "A good portion of Houston is up and running and looking somewhat normal, but there are still businesses that need help," Charron said. As of Sept. 8, First Data also had a team on the ground in Florida and was working on its plan for Hurricane Irma recovery.

Other payment companies responded to Harvey to get their customers back up and running. PayPal started an online drive, while banks waived ATM fees in the region. Some banks are also enabling ATMs to accept donations across the country.

Payment Alliance International has used remote software updates for most of the adjustments required for its Hurricane Harvey Digital Donations relief initiative for ATMs. In many cases, remote software enabled updates for Harvey and Irma in about a couple of hours or less.

"It's similar to a POS update. It's not always even a complete software upgrade," said Donna Embry, chief payments officer for PAI, which has about 75,000 ATMs deployed across the country, with ATMs in all 50 states.

While First Data uses mobile technology to delivery merchant services, banks are using the technology to offset branch closures and ATM operators are using it to quickly update screens to make donations easier.

"Clearly cloud-based infrastructure provides a big benefit for business continuity as it includes built-in off-site backups of all key software," said Rick Oglesby, president of AZ Payments Group. "Formerly POS systems were on-site and many required local servers. So a disaster could wipe out not just physical equipment, but also electronic records. Now, the physical equipment is far smaller, cheaper and easier to replace while the electronic records are stored off-site and typically backed up in redundant, bicoastal locations. In that sense, business recovery efforts should be a bit easier."

For First Data, the choice of its Clover Go devices is a move designed to provide the fastest assistance even to clients that used more traditional payments hardware.

"Years ago, if someone's store got waterlogged, they would need to have a new online connection and get connected in the store in order to just accept payments," Charron said. "A decade ago people didn't have smartphones. Now everyone does."

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