Quick, what are the greatest risks your travelers face? Most business travelers and travel managers worry about the big stuff: terror attacks, earthquakes, kidnappings – especially if their travelers are headed for the so-called BRIC countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China.
Think again, says Suzanne Garber, COO of travel safety and security firm International SOS. While those headline disasters, what Garber calls “CNN events,” do happen and can exact a terrible toll, they don’t occur very often.
So what are the real risks travelers to BRIC countries face? Based on millions of global travelers and their calls for help, the number one risk in Russia and India is vehicular accidents. The number one risk in Brazil and China is gastrointestinal.
Make a difference
Travel managers can make a significant difference in the kinds of problems their travelers face, Garber told Travel Market Report.
Education and travel policy that promotes lower-risk practices can make the difference between the traveler who has a productive trip in India and the traveler who comes home in a cast after being in a traffic accident there.
Travel Market Report recently sat down with Garber to hear her views and advice on the risks of travel.
How can travel managers and travel policy mitigate travel risk?
Garber: There are risks associated with every country, whether they are [more] developed or less developed. Just because you’re going to Brussels doesn’t leave you any less at risk than if you are going to certain parts of Brazil, China, India, Russia, for example.
We recommend that travelers understand and become aware of their risks.
Travel managers can implement a number of programs, not the least of which is changing some of their policies.
What kinds of policy changes can make a difference?
Garber: One that is so simple is called ‘I’m OK.’ This is particularly effective and easy to use when there is an entire telecommunications infrastructure breakdown: earthquakes – we’ve seen it in Haiti, Japan; political uprisings – we’ve seen it throughout the Middle East; events where the infrastructure has become overloaded – 9/11 or the brownout the following year across the entire eastern U.S.
You can’t reach people on a land line, you can’t reach people on a cellphone. The one thing that makes communication still possible is SMS text messaging.
Say you were in the Japan during the tsunami. You can be proactive whereby the employee texts his or her immediate supervisor just four letters, IMOK. That’s it. Or you can do it reactively, whereby the travel manager texts them four letters, RUOK, to which they must respond. If anyone is not responding IMOK, there may be an issue.
Either method lets the travel manager and the people back at headquarters know who is out there, who has responded and who might be in trouble.
Can policy address the risk of vehicular accidents?
Garber: A number of companies have vehicular policies, especially as they relate to overseas travel. Accidents happen frequently to travelers going to Europe or Australia or coming to the U.S. There is sleep deprivation from a long flight, an unfamiliar vehicle, unfamiliar driving rules.
There’s a real question of cost-effectiveness for the company, compared to sending a car with a hired driver. And there’s the driving safety issue.
Any company can put policy into place that a car rental will not be reimbursed. International SOS has a policy that if a country has a low- risk rating and public transportation is appropriate, you must take public transportation. London is a great example, or Paris or New York.
The key is enforcement. If one employee gets away with it, word is going to spread and others will try to bypass policy, too. The travel manager needs to have very strict control and be given the authority to enforce, not just enact, that policy.
How about blanket travel policies for countries where accident rates are a known problem?
Garber: It would be up to each company to look at risk ratings. Maybe for countries with a medium-high to extreme risk rating you must go with an approved driver.
You set up a vendor due diligence policy. The travel manager must ensure that providers meet certain qualifications. Those qualifications might include a safety rating, insurance, [and] maybe letters of reference. You want to look at their accident history as well.
It is similar to what many travel management companies look at when it comes to hotels or airlines. There are certain KPIs (key performance indicators) that must be met. Travel policy for transportation in-country is just a different set of KPIs.
How can policy affect health risk?
Garber: It is mostly education. The more educated people are, the more aware they become of their surroundings and the surrounding risk. Awareness is the key to everything. Not just situational awareness by the traveler, but awareness by the travel management department, human resources, security and other departments that deal with travel.
For medical, just knowing there are certain risks associated with taking a cab, there are certain risks associated with eating [certain foods]. The goal is not to create paranoia but to create awareness. There is a finesse to doing that.