How to Stay Safe

Ensuring travellers are safe is at the top of most buyers’ lists at the moment. Felicity Cousins finds a successful security policy is everyone’s responsibility… In recent months travel managers and buyers will have had very little sleep, as countries across the globe have been experiencing numerous political uprisings as well as the full, destructive forces of nature.

Along with the devastating impact on these countries and their people, our newspapers have been filled with stories of travellers trying to get home safely. For travel managers, having a policy in place that can get employees home has been pushed to the top of the agenda.

However, research by the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) highlights that a little over half (58 per cent) of senior management surveyed have plans in place to cater for unexpected disruptions. And a further 16 per cent didn’t know whether or not their company had crisis plans in place that they should be following.

According to Tony Sofianos, chief executive officer of Wings Travel Management,  getting from point A to point B is no longer a simple matter of timing and budget – safety and security issues require nimble communication and information management. But world events do inevitably affect travel plans.

Sofianos says: “We have noticed a decline in corporate bookings to countries that have been affected by extreme weather and political unrest. Travel to North Africa, especially Libya, is non-existent and even though corporate travel to the Middle East and other parts of North Africa is on the rise, many travellers are doubtful.”

Chris Reynolds, senior partner in 3Sixty Global and a former travel manager for Siemens, told the ITM annual conference this April that the travel industry was still unprepared for crisis situations. “We are not preparing for the unexpected in the way we should be,” he said, highlighting the Icelandic volcanic ash situation a year ago as the prime example of the industry being caught out. “We thought we had traveller tracking in place, but we did not have travellers’ telephone numbers or their email addresses in their profiles. People started making their own decisions and we lost visibility – we did not know where they were. We had lost control.”

Redfern Travel’s joint chief executive officer, Neil Hopwood, agrees, saying that with the recent Christchurch earthquake the company had people in the city but they weren’t able to contact them directly as not everyone had given their mobile numbers.

Nigel Meyers, HRG’s director of technology and data, says phone data is a concern for travel management companies (TMCs). “We dictate the process to make sure a mobile number gets filled in, but we can’t dictate the traveller puts in the right number,” he says.

TMCs argue that using their services means you can track your travellers as they complete each part of their trip. However, the data TMCs collect is limited, and if a traveller goes off-policy or does not check into where he or she is supposed to be, they can no longer be traced.

Redfern’s Hopwood says: “When 7/7 happened, one of our clients had five people who were supposed to be in London on that day. We tracked four of them but the fifth person wasn’t where he was supposed to be – in fact, he was in Manchester. If someone changes their plans and it comes through us, and the change is made on the system, then we can track it – but if they go off piste, then we can’t.”

A potential game changer in this situation is advances in mobile technology. Smartphones have global positioning system (GPS) capability, which could enable a company to track their employees down to the very spot where they are standing – but who wants to be watched that closely?

HRG’s Meyers says: “Mobile technology is now readily available but cost is an inhibiting factor – and then there is the invasion of privacy. Such services are available to companies, but we are not seeing the uptake.”

The other issue is that while TMCs may initially collect data from a traveller’s progress on a trip, to keep the data stored may be in conflict with the security policy of a client.Hopwood, however, stresses that despite these potential drawbacks, traveller tracking was invaluable when the ash cloud crisis struck last year. “There was no way, with the volumes we deal with, we would have managed without it,” he says. “With the data, we could predict when people were flying, then check weather reports and pull people out.”

Karen Brock, solutions manager at meetings, events and communications agency Grass Roots, says working together with travel bookers and managers and their travel policies is key to the safety of travellers. “We work in conjunction with a client’s travel policy and theirs are often much stricter than ours [Grass Roots deals with a lot of companies in the oil and gas industries] but some companies don’t have anything in place, so they work with our policy. Maybe nothing has happened to that company so they have never had to think about it.”

Redfern’s Hopwood says keeping to travel policy remains important but, increasingly, companies are willing to go outside policy when disruptions occur. “I think in certain circumstances travel managers should allow this,” he says. “We did have some clients caught up in the ash cloud crisis and the only way to get them home was way in excess of their travel policy. We took them on continental rail and got them to a ferry, which all took a couple of days. It was outside of policy and it was more expensive but, in the end, it was pointless keeping them out for a week.”

So, it would seem that if travellers stay within policy for the majority of the time, then policy can be broken when it needs to be. But instead of trying to get people back from crisis situations, why send them at all? There’s always the argument that some trips can be avoided altogether, replacing them with video-conferencing, for example, but Grass Roots’ Brock says if a destination or venue is researched properly then there is no need to panic.

“We have a fairly robust system in place for every event,” Brock says. “For every venue we use we have a health and safety checklist so we can know the situation when we go on site”

Wings’ Sofianos agrees: “Despite the events that have taken place around the world, travel should not be avoided. However, travellers do need to be mindful of the risks associated with the countries they are travelling to.”

Sometimes diligent research results in turning away business. Grass Roots was recently asked to source a venue for an event in Uganda for the automotive industry, but British Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) reports were negative and another agency won the Uganda business. If there are reports of possible dangers in a country where an event is about to take place, then it’s a case of monitoring the situation and making sure you have your travellers’ details to keep them up-to-date of any sudden changes.

Brock says of the recent nuclear leaks in Japan: “We didn’t have any clients out there at the time, but a group had a event planned in China. We had crisis plans in place [as there had been reports of radiation reaching China]. It was a case of talking to everyone and checking with the FCO. No-one was saying not to go, so it was just whether [our client] wanted to take the risk. Ultimately, it was seen as pulling people out for no good reason – the event is halfway through now and has been fine.”

TMCs can collect data with every transaction and booking and, while some of it cannot be used for security purposes, there is a positive side: data shows where people are travelling, the types of services they are using and, as electronic payments and transfers become faster and use other platforms, such as mobile phones, travel managers will be able to collect the data and apply it to travel and expense policies.

Meyer says: “We can collect information about where they book trains, planes and cars, and it can be used for travel management as well as to comply with policy. This is very much at the core of what we are doing.”

Hopwood adds: “Clients can get management information if you want to do a carbon report or monitor total spend – it is not all about the security.”Whether travel managers use a TMC or a separate security company, the benefits of data collection are clear. Hopwood concludes: “The simple fact is that if travel managers use a TMC or a managed solution, then they can rest easy that if anything happens, they can always fall back on it. If you don’t have something in place and some people use direct bookings, you can’t pull all that information together – how are you going to control that? The major reason people want [this service] is to show duty of care, and companies want to have the comfort that they can know where their employees are – that is vital.”

Tips for managing the unexpected

Tracking tools: Look at tracking tools as an effective way of monitoring travellers to verify their safety. Ensure employees are using approved travel channels so they can be located in times of emergency.

Communications: Use smartphone apps and text messaging for timely alerts and added convenience.

Back-up: Be sure to have an alternative communication plan-of-action through the use of websites and social media channels.

Awareness: Encourage travellers to learn what to do to better handle a crisis situation, and heighten awareness through increased training – this will save time and money in the longer term.

On-the-go travel solutions: Offer travellers the option of a travel-portal solution. Travellers will learn to rely on this central location for all travel-related information, resulting in productivity gains and improvements to policy compliance.

Safety net: Collaborating across business units is crucial to successfully supporting all the needs of both travellers and the company.

Contingency cover: Understand and regularly review contingency plans, and the alignment of those plans with your travel service provider.

Virtual meetings: Telepresence and teleconferencing are becoming increasingly popular and accessible, and are proving to be a viable option when on the road.

Positive ROI: Ensuring travellers feel safe and protected will help increase productivity levels.

Be social: Create dialogue with your peers through online forums and discussion boards to learn about and share the experiences of others.

Debrief: Talk to your travellers and let their experience inform your travel policy. For example, were some suppliers more accommodating than others? Help identify gaps in the plan.