With Europe becoming embroiled in rows over border controls, high-profile terrorist attacks and global medical crises, a robust risk management policy is more important than ever
Even a superficial scan of the headlines these days brings fresh reminders of risk, whether it’s shocking terror attacks, fresh border controls across Europe, the Zika virus in the Americas or yet more global economic turmoil.
2016 looks set to be one of the riskiest years ever. When companies ban trips to Istanbul or Paris, or there are questions over corporate hospitality tickets for the Rio Olympics due to the Zika virus, you realise we’re in a new era of responsible travel management. “People are calling for information on destinations they wouldn’t necessarily have called about previously,” says Rob Walker, head of travel security information at security assistance company, International SOS.
In the aftermath of two sets of French attacks and bombings in Istanbul, corporations have began reviewing their security measures for travel to supposedly safer, developed-world destinations, which includes organising contingency planning and duty-of-care measures.
“We now think this year is a riskier year for travel,” states Nick Doyle, head of security risk management at security consultants, Kroll. “We are seeing an increase in companies wanting more risk assessments for locations they are sending employees.”
Yet the C-suite decision-makers know full well that in a perilous, yet globalised economy, it’s impossible to gain a business advantage if you’re too risk-averse. The fact is, the jewels of economic growth are still gleaming in some of the more troublesome, frontier destinations.
“It is true to say that within the high-risk travel sector that we primarily operate in, bookings for business travel are certainly more robust,” explains Max Hess, intelligence analyst at risk mitigation firm Ake.
Advantage Travel Partnership corporate director Ken McLeod believes business travel is “most resistant” to travel risk, rather than economic and investment risks. “The executive will go to where the business is – difficult, dangerous or otherwise,” he says. “If business is to be had, then the businessmen will pack their bags.”
But it is the ease of travel that is likely to change in 2016. It doesn’t help that the migrant and refugee crisis in Europe threatens to undermine the principle of free movement in the Schengen Area.
Hess says this is because business travel continues to become politicised. “The recent cancellation of US visa waivers for those who have travelled to Iraq, Iran, Sudan or Syria in the past five years is a good example of this,” he says.
Company security departments are starting to play an even bigger role in mitigating risk, as chief operating officer at Wings Travel Management, Paul East, explains. “Through their intelligence and advice they can gauge potential issues but, as we have seen over the past months, unfortunately even the best intelligence in the world doesn’t mitigate all security threats,” he says.
Terrorist attacks have heightened sensitivities to threats, forcing companies to think more about compliance. In the light of recent developments some buyers have enhanced their risk management plans even further, especially to high-alert destinations.
Adam Knights, managing director for ATPI in the UK, explains that one major retailer as a result of the Paris attacks mandated their travel completely. “This company was known for having a relatively fluid policy for its employees in terms of with whom and how they booked – now this isn’t the case,” says Knights.
So what are the risks of catching the Zika virus in Recife, or getting kidnapped in Cairo, or carjacked in Tunisia? The challenge for travel buyers is gauging, grading and reacting to threat levels. The short-term reaction is to ban all travel to those risky destinations. But in the medium- to longer-term this isn’t good for the corporation’s bottom line.
Hillgate Travel’s director of marketing Warren Dix says businesses are putting more scrutiny on non-essential trips. “Companies are definitely questioning more non-critical travel and more approval processes are in place to restrict trips to high risk countries now,” says Dix.
The power of local knowledge
Local contacts, researchers, networks and on-the-ground reports are also increasingly coming to the fore (see Case Study). They are able to offer more nuanced advice that are specific to each trip and don’t offer up just blanket advice. A buyer in the media sector says: “Having booked a television shoot in Egypt last year for BBC World News, I found local fixers invaluable to qualifying risk on the ground.”
There are also reports of a number of corporations changing their buying patterns in the wake of risk reports, particularly in respect of accommodation. “We are seeing roughly three times the amount of calls where people specifically request advice on where to stay,” explains Walker from International SOS.
Some are moving away from preferred international chains and are seeking local accommodation through contacts on the ground. This follows a number of attacks on western chains in Mali and Burkina Faso.
Yet others in the trade aren’t convinced of this strategy, arguing that staying in a local hotel means that foreigners are more likely to stick out. “People feel more at home in common-themed hotels,” says McLeod. “You know what you are going to get, and you feel as though you are being looked after by like-minded people. I don’t see fundamental changes at present.”
In 2016 one of the main conclusions is that we’re all going to have to adapt to being in a new, riskier environment when it comes to buying business travel, where the only constant will be change.
- Advocate the right risk culture – become adept at dealing with more volatile situations.
- Be smarter – know how to use security reports, risk data and local knowledge.
- Adopt a more forward looking approach – we need to do business, so we must travel.
- Adapt to being in a new environment where the only constant is change.
Case study: Coffee crops, code words and cops
When the moment, a digital agency based in the West Country, booked travel to Honduras to film a series of online documentaries about coffee growing and gangs, they knew it would be tricky.
Filming the emotive back-stories over a period of 12 months was one of the most high-risk projects the company has ever done. “We did a lot of the usual due-diligence with travel and security, which involved extensive liaising with people on the ground,” explains The Moment’s travel booker.
“You cannot beat local knowledge. We even had code words for the team to use when they called in twice a day, so we would know if they had been kidnapped.
“The biggest fright was when a group of masked men jumped out of a vehicle right near the filming team. A few seconds later they realised it was an undercover police team – but it certainly made them jump...”