Tracking travellers can be a contentious issue, but there is growing acceptance about why it's a necessary tool to improve duty of care and mitigate potential risks to employees

Being able to locate a particular business traveller at any point in their trip is at the heart of tracking and is a cornerstone of duty of care, particularly when travelling to a location hit by a major incident, such as a terrorist attack, natural disaster or disease outbreak.

The first line of defence for any organisation is encouraging travellers to book using approved corporate tools - this means tracking should be relatively straightforward by using the itinerary booked through a TMC or other approved booking platform. If they book outside these platforms, it can be far more difficult and time-consuming to pin down their location and itinerary quickly.

"Booking via the approved channels is key as it provides greater visibility. In times of emergency or travel disruption, it's important to be able to locate and contact a traveller to ensure their safety, assist with rebooking, or warn them of certain risks or developments," says Sasha Kalb, vice president of risk, compliance and ESG, at American Express Global Business Travel (GBT).

Matthew Judge, group managing director of Anvil Group, agrees about the importance of being able to track travellers through their itineraries.

"Travel itinerary tracking is proactive and ensures you meet your duty of care obligations, as opposed to other forms of tracking," says Judge. "Live GPS or phone tracking is purely reactive and, alone, doesn't afford the fulfilment of your duty of care, as you only know where your traveller is now, rather than where they're going."

Once located, travellers can be contacted quickly through a message - typically sent through a corporate travel or security app - which allows them to quickly reply or be asked to 'check in' to confirm they are fine or, if necessary, request further assistance.

The next deeper stage of tracking revolves around monitoring individuals' locations by smartphone or another dedicated GPS device. But this approach might be deemed unnecessary and possibly intrusive, particularly in destinations generally considered to be lower risk.

James Wood, head of security solutions at International SOS, says: "The specific level of tracking and how closely an employer keeps an eye on employees depends on the level of risk the employee faces in a given travel location.

"In our experience, employees are usually grateful for a high-level of security and tracking when working in extreme environments and dangerous locations. With hybrid working patterns becoming the norm, a technology-enabled approach to supporting employees has become a key differentiator for organisations when it comes to attracting and retaining talent." 

The idea of being tracked using a GPS device is not always seen as a positive by travellers, who might think it's a way of 'snooping' on them while they are travelling and could potentially be used against them in some way.

"The question of privacy and ethics in GPS tracking comes down to a corporate's attitude to duty of care," says Chris Job, director of risk management services at Healix. "How much mitigation of the risk is enough for an organisation, and how far do they want to go to inform, prepare and protect travellers?

"There is a grey area on the use of physical GPS tracking when travellers on a business trip extend their stay into a long weekend or holiday, but these sorts of issues can be ironed out before tracking takes place."

Privacy laws in many countries can also dictate how organisations use GPS tracking, with employees often having to formally agree to this form of tracking before it can be implemented.

"The introduction of digital health passes in some areas recently has put the spotlight back on data privacy and cybersecurity," says American Express GBT's Sasha Kalb. "There is a careful balance to be struck between an employer's need to track travel and an individual's right to privacy. 

"In most jurisdictions, before an employer can make use of tracking tools, privacy law dictates that employees must individually consent to being tracked by their employers."

Shelley Mathews, general manager, sales, at CTM, adds that most organisations deem GPS or 'always on' tracking as an invasion of travellers' privacy, except in more extreme circumstances.

"Specific situations may call for it, such as journalists entering a conflict zone, or energy, resource and marine travellers travelling to remote locations," she explains. "If you make the decision to implement it, we recommend it's vital to focus on this being the best way for the company to keep travellers safe in the event of an incident or evacuate them, if necessary."

An alternative to the potentially vexing issue of physical GPS tracking is simply asking travellers to 'check in' electronically to let their organisations know that everything is ok - this can be particularly important in more high-risk destinations or following a major incident.

"Employees are accustomed to checking in via social platforms, such as Facebook, so it is more acceptable to ask travellers to check in with their organisation should an incident occur," says David Zimmer, global head of travel experience and optimisation at CWT.

Anvil's Matthew Judge stresses that the form of tracking used "should be proportionate and appropriate to the level of risk" faced by travellers.

"Check-ins may often be more appropriate than live tracking, but there will obviously be occasions where live tracking may be required," he says. "If a traveller is heading to an area with a high risk of kidnap, assault, mugging etc, then live tracking may be appropriate. If not, then checking in at various journey stages will often suffice."

One impact of the pandemic has been to raise duty of care as a larger issue with travellers themselves, but has this affected how they view tracking?

Security incidents in major European cities and a series of natural disasters had already been changing attitudes before Covid struck, says International SOS's James Wood.

"The acceptance of tracking as a core component of duty of care has been accelerated through these events, where employees looked to their employers as a primary support function," adds Wood.

CTM's Shelley Mathews says employees now have a "heightened appreciation" of the risks of travel as they begin hitting the road again.

"It's a good time to revisit what role tracking plays in business travel in your programme if you haven't already," she argues. "We're all more aware of issues around data security, so you should expect to be able to confidently answer when a traveller asks you who has access to that data and what safeguards protect it."

As with many areas of life, explaining clearly why you need to track travellers is likely to be the best way to win them over - after all, it's ultimately for their protection and safety.