The impact of coronavirus on the travel industry has been unprecedented but it has also brought into sharp focus an employer’s duty of care to its business travellers, writes Bev Fearis
Weeks before the majority of us had even heard the word coronavirus, travel security experts were already closely monitoring the new mystery illness emerging in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
Alerted by their intelligence people on the ground, they had begun compiling reports for their corporate clients so that by the time the UK Foreign Office had changed its travel advice and airlines were announcing plans to suspend flights, most business travellers in the affected regions were already safely home.
With safety and security procedures firmly in place, the potential threat to travellers had been identified, communicated, acted upon and largely avoided.
Armed with the right information at the right time, many companies had been able to protect their travellers, met their duty of care requirements, and had also swerved the costly and complex evacuations that would have been required once flights had been cancelled and lockdowns put in place.
“When a crisis happens, it doesn’t generally materialise out of thin air,” says Suzanne Sangiovese, Commercial and Communications Director at Riskline, a travel risk assessment and intelligence specialist. “It’s all about having the right information so you can be prepared and make decisions before you reach that critical stage
Timing is key and technology has been a big enabler. “With breaking incidents, Riskline can react and get alerts out within minutes,” adds Sangiovese.
“Depending on how a crisis pans out, our analysts will go from putting out risk alerts with short, actionable information to dedicated teams creating in-depth special reports looking at transport disruptions and travel restrictions.”
Power of the web
Of course, having access to reports from specialist risk companies like Riskline, Drum Cussac, Healix or WorldAware comes at a price, but thanks to the internet, even companies with smaller budgets can get information quickly.
“It doesn’t need to cost a huge amount. There is a lot of open source information out there,” says Lloyd Figgins, a former police officer, security advisor and group Chairman of TRIP (Travel Risk & Incident Prevention), a think-tank of travel risk experts.
“For disease outbreaks, NaTHNaC, Public Health England and the World Health Organisation are just some of the free resources online and you can often sign up for email alerts,” says Figgins.
He also recommends monitoring government travel advice issued by other countries, not just from the UK Foreign Office. With the coronavirus outbreak in China, for example, the US was quicker to implement its ban on non-essential travel than the UK.
“Don’t rely on one source,” says Figgins.
“To make informed decisions, I would recommend looking at advice coming from Australia, Canada or the US, which might be different. Factors such as politics and trade deals can influence the advice that is issued.”
“When a crisis happens, it doesn’t generally materialise out of thin air. It’s all about having the right information so you can be prepared and make decisions before you reach that critical stage”
Increasingly, a crisis can strike much closer to home, as the terror attacks in London, Manchester and Paris showed. “This is a new world,” says Capita’s Chief Information Security Officer, Sam Hart. “Sometimes it’s the UK that becomes the high risk country.”
That’s why, wherever their employees are travelling to, companies should be continually testing different scenarios and planning what they would do if a trigger event hits in order to identify gaps in the procedures. “It’s about getting people around a table to talk through the scenarios, whether that might be a flood or a terror alert or a pandemic,” says Hart.
A crisis can develop in a matter of hours, so companies need to establish evacuation procedures, know who is responsible for putting them into action, have back-up communications if mobile networks fail, establish reporting lines, understand what’s covered on their insurance and what’s not, and decide whether to secure the support of an assistance company. It’s all about pre-empting an incident rather than reacting to it.
“Waiting until an incident has occurred to create a plan can often prove too late and cause panic if people don’t know what they should be doing whilst the crisis is playing out,” says Ciara Govern, Chief Customer Officer at TripActions.
Locating your people is vital, and particularly so when a crisis comes without warning. “Traveller tracking adds another layer of peace of mind for both businesses and their travellers,” says Maggie Monteith, Director of Corporate Travel Scotland for TMC Traveleads.
Thanks to advances in mobile comm-unications, keeping tabs on travelling employees no longer requires major investment. Companies can keep track of a traveller’s current location and, often as important, know where they are due to travel to in the future.
Tracking technology is now more widely accepted among travellers. “Perhaps in the past there was some reluctance – a fear of ‘big brother’ watching – but in the last five years there’s been a shift,” says Saul Shanagher, Director of beTravelwise, a company that produces travel security training videos.
Often it will be a TMC that provides tracking solutions, using GDS booking data, but crucially this will only work if travellers book through authorised channels and within the corporate travel policy.
“You are always going to get some mavericks,” says Gary Povey, Senior Vice President Global Sales for Reed and Mackay. “That’s when you need to encourage use of a corporate card so you bring in that detail.”
Identifying who is responsible for sending alerts to travellers is key. Chris Vince, Director of Operations for Click Travel explains: “We’ll talk to our clients during implementation to establish who it is that needs to get our reports in an emergency, or who will take responsibility for running searches. Of course, an emergency will often happen in the middle of the night so it’s essential to know who to contact out of office hours.” This could be someone in HR, the procurement team, senior management, or in a larger company, a dedicated safety compliance team.
Importantly, communication needs to be facilitated both ways. Not only should companies be able to locate and alert their employees, travellers should also be able to mark themselves as safe.
Dr Mark Parrish, Regional Medical Director for International SOS, says many companies encourage their people to check in regularly. “Some enforce it,” he says.
Travellers should also know who to contact, where to go for help in an emergency and be provided with safety and security information ahead of their business trip. “Travellers should know which locations will provide the best quality of medical care, for example, or where they’re least likely to face language issues,” says Dr Parrish.
Do your homework
The key is to deal with any concerns and risks before the traveller leaves home. “It could be something as simple as knowing which direction the traffic will come before they step out of the airport,” explains Matt Arundel, MD for MASC Executive.
“Or in a high risk destination, it might be receiving a photograph of the driver and the model and registration number of the car picking them up on arrival.”
While it’s the big events that hit the head-lines, a traveller has a much higher chance of getting diarrhoea or having their wallet stolen than being caught up in a major emergency.
“It’s all about giving travellers awareness of day to day risks – whether to drink the water, whether they need to organise a meet and greet,” says Shanagher. These common risks are covered by beTravelwise in its basic safety videos, which can be customised with a company’s branding, messaging, and emergency contact details.
Figgins at the TRIP think-tank agrees it’s important to prepare travellers for the more common everyday risks. “It might be knowing which Friday is pay day in a certain country, so you know when the locals might go out drinking after work and be more likely to drive home over the limit making the roads more dangerous, or telling a traveller where the nearest clinic is that’s been approved by their insurance company,” he explains.
“Look at advice coming from Australia, the US or Canada, which might be different to the UK’s. Factors such as politics and trade deals can influence the advice that is issued”
But while specialist companies can help provide safety and security training, advice, intelligence, tracking solutions and emergency assistance, the ultimate responsibility for a business traveller’s safety lies firmly at their employer’s door.
Duty of care, intensified by the arrival in 2007 of the Corporate Manslaughter Act, has brought a sharper focus on traveller safety and a recognition that failing to put the right procedures in place lays a company open to litigation and reputational damage. Finding a balance between the needs of the business and protecting traveller safety is becoming increasingly difficult, particularly when it’s harder to identify the high risk destinations.
“The best way for businesses to deal with this is to be completely honest and trans-parent with people about the environments they’re travelling to, to demonstrate to the traveller that there are well-thought-out procedures in place and to get informed consent from the traveller that they are happy to go,” says Figgins.
Wellbeing in focus
But it’s not just a case of corporates protecting themselves against litigation. According to the experts, there is now a genuine concern for traveller wellbeing, particularly with regards to their wellbeing and mental health in particular.
“We are now seeing some serious movement towards greater awareness, education and support for travellers’ mental and physical wellbeing,” says Capita’s security chief Sam Hart.
“We are now seeing some serious movement towards greater awareness, education and support for business travellers’ mental and physical wellbeing”
Dr Parrish at International SOS has also witnessed this trend. “When we mentioned mental health to our clients five years ago it would have gone over their heads, but now they are much more aware.”
As a result, he says many companies are putting better support and screening in place for travellers after they’ve returned from a trip, particularly if they’ve been to remote and high-risk regions. It follows the successful results of post-deployment mental health checks by the military. “This is a big advance,” he says.