BTN Europe presents an overview of business travel and MICE predictions for this year
The term 'tracking' is enough to make many business travellers break out in a cold sweat at the idea of having their movements followed in minute detail by their employer, and conjures up images of Big Brother-style 24-hour surveillance.
Security firm International SOS notes that “Big Brother syndrome is particularly apparent in European markets, and travellers sometimes resist sharing their location with their employer”.
But knowing the location of travellers around the world at any one moment has become a crucial part of travel management, particularly when employees are travelling to destinations affected by terrorist attacks, civil unrest, disease outbreaks, natural disasters or even weather-related travel disruptions. As well as travel management companies (TMCs), many organisations also use security firms such as International SOS, Ijet and Anvil if more specialist services are required.
Technology advances in recent years have created more opportunities for companies to track their employees and contact them when needed. Doing this is not just necessary to help with travel arrangements but also to ensure their safety and security as part of an employers’ duty-of-care obligations.
Managing director at corporate travel consultancy Advantilis Toby Guest, an experienced travel buyer, believes that mobile technology is also encouraging travellers to “take more responsibility” for supplying their location to their employer. “Although the technology provided by Ijet and International SOS has itself improved in terms of functionality and accuracy, I believe the critical factor that’s made it easier to track travellers is the travellers themselves,” he says.
“Mobile technology and social networking are now pervasive and have their own tracking embedded, in a sense. In parallel, I believe travellers are therefore able to – and more likely to – take more responsibility for their own accountability. This is partly because the mobile technology makes this easier to do so.”
The idea of tracking within business travel primarily relates – at least for now – to the ability to collate travel data and itineraries to locate travellers in a particular city, region or country rather than using GPS (Global Positioning System) technology to constantly follow an employee’s mobile device. When GPS is used, it normally just requires the traveller to ‘check-in’ once at their location, using an app or other device.
Several TMCs offer mapping-style tools that allow travel buyers to see both where their travellers are currently located and where they are planning to go. This kind of information allows buyers to quickly assess how many staff are currently in a particular location as well as those planning to travel to that area for a specific timeframe.
Wings, for example, has included a traveller tracking function as part of its new Go Data platform, which features ‘real-time’ tracking, interactive country maps and reports showing travellers by location and date, booking details and pre-trip analysis.
Traditionally, this data has come in the form of flight bookings and passenger name records (PNRs) from the global distribution systems (GDSs). But TMC systems, such as HRG’s Insight mapping tool, now have the ability to pull in data from non-GDS bookings using direct feeds into its system.
Nigel Meyer, HRG’s group technology and data services director, says: “We capture the data for flights, accommodation and rail, which is then made available to the relevant part of the client’s organisation. This is being more widely used by clients to see where their travellers are. We also have car hire data, but that only tells you where they picked the car up. We don’t track anybody from a GPS signal.”
Carlson Wagonlit Travel’s programme management director, Rob Haynes, adds that its tracking systems are designed to be “helpful and unobtrusive” and work “purely to assist in case of disruption”.
Improving the reliability of travel data is one of the main factors in successfully tracking travellers, according to Jon Richardson, risk management specialist for expenses specialist Concur, which also operates the Concur Risk Messaging tracking and communication platform. “We consolidate employee information with travel data, which gives clients not just the ability to see where their travellers are but also company assets such as offices, distribution centres and refineries in that location,” he says. “We give a risk ranking for locations from ‘one’ to ‘five’. So if somebody books a trip to a high-risk location the system will automatically alert the client. It will also send an alert if there are too many people booked on the same flight and that is outside company policy.”
Richardson adds that the best way to get reliable travel data is through TMC feeds, which provide information in a more uniform way than GDSs, where the data can be “problematic and haphazard” due to “incorrect and missing data” such as wrong mobile phone numbers for travellers.
But the biggest drawback to itinerary tracking is the bête noire of travel departments everywhere – those ‘mavericks’ who choose to book travel in a way that is not easy to pick up through management tools. “More clients are mandating the use of TMCs in order to capture the data,” says HRG’s Meyer. “There seems to be a trend for more compliance although it is difficult to measure this.”
The next logical stage to improve traveller tracking, says Click Travel managing director Simon McLean, is through GPS on their mobile devices – which could then be combined with itinerary data. “This would enable us to track them in between itinerary points, such as in the car on the way to the airport,” says McLean. “But we’ve got an emotional hurdle to get over before that becomes a reality. People are generally still wary of that level of tracking.”
Charles Brossman is senior director of global travel risk management at FCM. He says: “Using GPS tracking can help a company when communications may be a challenge and a traveller may be hundreds of kilometres away from where they arrived just days before. Such technology can be implemented in many different ways, based upon policy or company culture, such as on-request only, or daily check-in, or check-in only when travelling to specific destinations.”
Using GPS is not the only the option for improving tracking – American Express Global Business Travel has introduced a new ‘card swipe’ service in the US, which integrates travellers’ use of their Amex corporate cards with their itineraries to pinpoint their locations in an emergency. The TMC plans to extend this service to other countries “in the future”.
Adam Knights, group sales director at ATPI, points out that having a company-wide tracking system for travellers could cause confidentiality issues if a firm’s top executives are shown to be going on the same flight. “If you have four people going on the same flight including the CEO and CFO, then staff might start asking: ‘Where are they going?’” explains Knights. “If you do it in a block way, that’s probably fine for 99 per cent of employees. But you might want to ‘red-ring’ a group of people and do it separately for them. This is something I’ve flagged up to customers that they have rarely considered.”
If technology is making the process of tracking travellers easier, what about getting in contact with them in the case of emergency, or even disruption?
The most widely used ways of contacting travellers remain the humble email and SMS text message, although some TMCs and travel suppliers offer apps, such as Amadeus Mobile Messenger, where companies can push notifications and messages to their travellers asking them to respond – emails and SMS messages can also be sent directly from this app.
HRG’s Meyer says that its staff will contact travellers by email, text or phone during weather-related disruptions, but for security incidents, “that moves into the hands of somebody else”, typically the client’s own security director or an assistance company.
International SOS sends alerts through its Assistance App to travellers, who can use a ‘location check-in’ button that enables them to use GPS to send their exact location to their company. They can also phone the nearest ISOS assistance centre using a ‘one-click’ dial facility for advice and support.
But Concur’s Richardson feels that security and assistance companies have not kept up with the advance of new mobile technology in how they alert travellers: “Technology is not a core focus for these companies – they’re not using new ways to contact people such as a mobile push apps or text-to-voice messages where people can type a text and it will ring a phone.” He adds that companies should pay extra to ensure they are only sending ‘priority’ text messages that are more likely to get through to the traveller’s phone than standard SMS messages, in case a network is overloaded due to a major incident.
For those travelling to remote areas without mobile network or wifi coverage, companies often provide satellite phones for travelling staff to use, such as Smartling devices, which can send emergency messages to a response centre via commercial satellites.
Even the fanciest of smartphone apps need a mobile network or wifi signal to operate, so what happens when these are not available due to a network failure or deliberate shutdown?
The answer it seems is to rely on ‘old’ technology such as land-based phone lines. Indeed, International SOS says that when it had to get some travellers out of Egypt during one of the country’s crises, the “swiftest way” to get in touch with them was by using landlines and fax machines. Concur’s Richardson adds: “In a major incident, the network can get overloaded or even shut down completely, which happened during the Arab Spring.
If the network is overloaded, priority SMS messages should still get through as there are multiple gateways as part of the networks. Text-to-voice messages may work as well.
“But if the whole communications network is shut down, we can’t get through because we don’t have a magic wand. That’s when the plans of security directors and business continuity managers come into the play. You may have to go really low-tech and use landlines – you should have details of the hotels and you can phone them.”
Toby Guest adds that the failure of telecom networks during some incidents illustrates the unique selling points of the services offered by the security specialists. “More sensitive businesses, such as finance, will pay for full repatriation services and not just tracking,” he says. “Tracking is all well and good in locating staff and ensuring they are safe and well at time of contact, but it’s what happens afterwards that really counts – keeping them safe and getting them either home or to a safe alternative.
“Increasing global tensions and a new mobile and global threat from terrorist organisations – and what appear to be increasingly unpredictable natural events – mean that tracking travellers is not just easier, it’s also more of a necessity under duty-of-care.