12 December 2022, etc.venues Monument, London
Business Travel Show Europe, presented by The BTN
21 November, London Hilton Metropole
The opening ceremony of the hugely successful Commonwealth Games in Glasgow will be remembered for a variety reasons. Who could forget the 40 Scottie dogs that led athletes around the pitch at Celtic Park, the giant dancing Tunnock’s teacakes and cans of Irn-Bru, or Susan Boyle fluffing the opening lines to ‘Mull of Kintyre’?
However, all the tartan razzmatazz was arguably eclipsed by a single Glasgow kiss. No, not the notorious cranial greeting for which the city was once renowned. Instead, John Barrowman – a gay Scots-born, US-raised actor – planted a smacker on the lips of another male performer, live on TV. The scripted smooch reinforced Glasgow’s reputation for diversity and tolerance, while at the same time delivered a stunning rebuke of anti-gay laws found in 42 of the 53 competing nations.
Support for the Doctor Who and Torchwood star’s public display of affection was in stark contrast to the atmosphere at the Sochi Winter Olympics earlier in the year.
Prior to the games, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s government passed legislation outlawing “gay propaganda”, and athletes and visitors to Sochi were warned that flouting these laws could make them subject to high financial penalties. Many saw the law as amounting to a de facto ban on any outward demonstration of homosexuality. Moscow’s master of machismo was accused of stoking anti-gay fervour across the country.
Security experts say the Sochi games highlighted the vulnerability of travellers from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community on an international platform for the first time. Reports of anti-gay attacks and discrimination are now far more likely to receive airtime and column inches in Western media.
A recent global study into the risks faced by LGBT business travellers was carried out by specialist security firm iJet, and produced some alarming results for travel managers. Of the 198 countries analysed, 19 were deemed to pose an extreme risk, 71 a high risk and 62 a moderate risk. The worst offenders came from a number of emerging markets and business travel destinations in Africa and the Middle East.
The topic has also arisen at a pivotal moment in the evolution of travel risk management (TRM) practice. Deteriorating geo-political stability and the increased threat of terror attacks over the last six months has forced the return of travel security and risk mitigation to the boardroom. Charles Brossman, senior director of global travel risk management for FCM Travel Solutions, says TRM in an LGBT context has, until now, been massively under-represented. “It’s timely, and discussions about it are both worthy and necessary,” he says.
Furthermore, many TRM programmes are reaching new levels of maturity. The spread of mobile devices has led to the evolution of personalised and consumerised travel habits, and those changes are now being factored into travel risk planning. And as British and Irish companies grow their businesses internationally and strive to beat the competition into new and emerging markets, which include some of the world’s less culturally progressive nations, the issue has become increasingly relevant. Why give out blanket advice to everyone when you could tailor the message to individuals?
Steven Burghardt, executive vice-president of business development for Europ Assistance, says personalising advice comes from good internal consulting. “Businesses should be aware that employees fall into different categories,” he says. “It’s important, therefore, to target certain areas. Staff might come from the LGBT community or vulnerable religious groups. There are even ex-military staff who are reluctant to listen to security advice. In all these cases, targeted messaging is effective.”
However, pushing out bespoke information is not easy. A balance between company obligation and respecting privacy has to be found. “Some people are reluctant to disclose information about sexuality or religion,” he says.
“Travel managers should want to support these groups, but maybe in a more general sense at first. Security is, ultimately, an individual’s responsibility,” he adds.
On the same page is Bruce Mcindoe, chief executive of iJet. He says information on LGBT risks should be provided when a booking is made to a high-risk country. “If they’re interested in more support, business travellers should be able to put themselves forward,” he says. “Employers are not trying to single out anyone. The challenge is going beyond general information and into specifics.”
Sheelagh Mahoney, head of intercultural training and global leadership development at Farnham Castle Intercultural Training, says businesses must invest time to understand overseas markets into which they are sending staff. “Travellers asked to go to high-risk destinations need to have more than just a rough guide to interacting with local culture. It is a serious matter. If you don’t, you’re setting yourself up to fail. It could be a simple faux pas that doesn’t have a political or business impact, or something more serious.”
Mahoney says this type of preparation is increasingly built into TRM programmes as business leaders realise that neglecting the issue could negatively impact profits and their corporate reputation.
iJet’s Mcindoe says part of the risk faced by LGBT business travellers working abroad stems, ironically, from progress made in Western culture. His company’s research found that homosexuality and public displays of affection were regarded as normal and acceptable in countries like the UK, France, Italy, Germany and Spain. “Freedom, respect and recognition have become the status quo in the West. A gay man has the freedom to do what he wants. It’s just normal life. However, if he then travels on business to Ethiopia, it’s crucial he understands cultural differences,” he says.
Mcindoe says in the last 15 years he has seen harassment cases and periods of regional tension, but has not had to deal with anyone’s incarceration. There is, however, no room for complacency. “Being detained and questioned by the authorities is a frightening experience,” he says. “In our experience these things usually occur in social surroundings or demonstrations, such as gay bar districts or Pride marches.”
FCM’s Brossman – himself a member of the LGBT community – says many travel managers are shocked when they realise the number of countries that have century-old laws that criminalise homosexuality. “Making information available about these risks relative to where employees are going is vital. I think employers and employees understand they both have duty of care responsibilities,” he says.
“The company is responsible for staff from the moment they leave to go on a trip to the moment they come home, even when it’s after office hours. That applies to everyone, no matter what their sexuality or religious leaning. On the flipside, employees need to remember they are representing their employers and that they have an obligation to act responsibly and avoid doing things that are likely to upset local authorities,” Brossman adds.
The iJet TRM study lists a surprisingly long list of countries that have some level of prejudice and discrimination embedded in society. Not all are as extreme as Iran and Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality can be punishable by death, or life imprisonment with no right to parole. But even in great swathes of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, where the culture is not too dissimilar to Western Europe, there is overt intolerance.
Cheaper air travel and commerce have made the world a much smaller place. It is no wonder, therefore, that the risk to LGBT business travellers is on the rise as more and more people are sent to these destinations to make sales and run offices, although Brossman is quick to emphasise that the challenge is not exclusive to the LGBT community, and that the principle of adapting to local culture is important for everyone.
“Having awareness of whether you’re in a high- or moderate-risk environment will dictate how you behave, how you dress, if you smoke or if you generally draw attention to yourself,” he says. “In some countries they don’t notice; in others your behaviour is closely scrutinised.”
Over the last two decades, Brossman says he has seen great changes in corporate TRM, but believes there is a long way to go. Raising awareness is of the utmost importance. Making resources, information and emergency hotlines available are fundamental to safety for all travellers so they don’t feel they’re on their own while on the road. “It’s simply part of a holistic TRM programme,” he concludes.