When travelling for business, we most often focus on our trip’s objective while inadvertently taking many other factors for granted. Sophie Harwood reminds us that preparing for the worst, and most importantly for the little things, is what guarantees a safer and securer business travel.
I recently wrote an article entitled “When business travel goes wrong” that described five travel mishaps I had experienced and listed four lessons learned from each of them. Whilst researching today’s article I looked back on those twenty pieces of advice and was surprised to discover that only three of them related to post-incident actions; the other seventeen are all things that should be done in preparation.
We rarely set off on a car journey without knowing that we have an inflated spare tyre and the tools to change the wheel, or at least the number for a break-down call-out service, even though we infrequently get punctures. Just so with travel, often nothing happens but we still get insurance and we should pay more attention to our preparation, especially for business travel when it can often be overlooked completely.
I know very few people who fail to prepare for a holiday; we read the brochures, buy travel guides, exchange money or get travellers’ cheques, learn some phrases, know what activities we’ll be doing by looking up Sunshine Coast tours, ensure we have the right insurance cover, arrange our airport transfers, and know how the hotel and nearby restaurants rate on TripAdvisor, to name just a few items.
All too often for business travel we head to the airport just with passport in pocket, e-ticket on mobile and an itinerary for meetings once at our destination. We assume that our name will be on a driver’s sign when we clear customs, that the company has booked a hotel with suitable security, and that any risks would be highlighted to us before departure. Whilst this works most of the time, when it goes wrong it can leave us in a situation for which we aren’t prepared.
Changing Face of Travel Risk
Nowhere on the planet is without travel risk and these risks can take on a multitude of different forms for different travellers. It is worth putting into perspective that the serious incidents that appear in the press are incredibly unlikely to happen. For the majority of business travellers, major security incidents such as terrorism, statistically, are a very unlikely occurrence. According to State Department statistics, you would do better to worry about the hotel’s pool, as you are more likely to drown while travelling than be affected by a terrorist incident.
The recent spate of driving attacks in Europe has raised fear levels, but the press doesn’t highlight that just being a pedestrian is already dangerous – according to 2013 World Health Organisation figures there are almost a thousand pedestrian deaths every day in the world. Pedestrian risk can be mitigated by walking facing the traffic, consider all drivers as a threat and only use official crossings.
I can attest from my own experience that the most likely incidents to happen to us are those that are unlikely to make the news – incidents such as pick-pocketing, road traffic accidents, luggage theft, or paperwork irregularities. However, they would still cause you considerable inconvenience, increase stress, and make you less productive – not an ideal situation on a business trip. The good news is that most of these can be mitigated by good preparation, both in terms of knowing what might happen and how to avoid it, as well as in terms of how to react if it should happen, so the incident can be dealt with efficiently and with the minimum of disruption.[ms-protect-content id=”9932″]
So how do we prepare:
1. Just as for a holiday, read up about your destination. At a minimum, understand the culture, the people, and the climate. What are the security risks, the health risks and the travel risks. Many European cities have huge incidences of petty crime (e.g. pickpocketing, bag snatching) and without knowing this in advance people have a false sense of security and stumble into the same traps time and time again. Chances are that your company already subscribes to a service that provides exactly this sort of information so check with your departmental administrators or Human Resources.
2. Once we understand a risk exists then take an interest in knowing more about how to mitigate it (through where we stay, how we travel, where we visit, how we interact with people, and even what we pack in our suitcase) as well as how to respond to it (there may be different advice on how to respond to certain incidents such as road traffic accidents or assault depending on where you are in the world). Why risk pickpocketing when we can leave our wallet in our hotel safe and only take the cash we need and a card in a secure pocket? Why risk being denied entry to a particular building because of inappropriate clothing?
1. Find out if your company offers training for travel safety and security. Just as you’re probably required to undertake regular training and refresher courses for topics such as health and safety in the workplace, information security, or compliance, most companies now offer (or should offer) similar courses to prepare you for travel. Check with your departmental administrator or Human Resources whether such a course is available to you.
2. Check your documentation and individual circumstances. Would you rely upon your employer knowing when your passport expires? We have to make sure our passport is valid. We should also ensure that we have the correct visa or documents for our travel and not rely solely on others. One of my colleagues was recently in South Africa and a New Zealander wasn’t allowed in because the visa rules had changed and his expectation was that either his office or his travel agent should have informed him of this change.
3. Understand what support is in place to help us, and use it. Check what assistance you have, what information to help you make your own risk assessments, and what insurance coverage is in place; does it cover you for leisure travel if you stay for the weekend or do certain sporting or adventure activities? Also understand the limitations of your Embassy; while they’re often a good (and sometimes necessary) port of call, they rarely replace insurance and assistance companies these days and can occasionally even be seen as heartless to troubled travellers (I was once told “this sounds like your problem, not mine” by an Embassy representative when I was denied entry to a country because of problems with my passport).
4. Follow advice; unfortunately a lot of advisory emails and education measures aren’t particularly user-friendly or travellers are bombarded by advice, but do try to get the high level information and understand what its impact on you may be.
1. Behave appropriately to the environment you are in. This will often be dictated by the research you have done, but also consider what you see around you. If you don’t see locals wearing shorts and singlets then you probably shouldn’t yourself (even if it is acceptable) as it will draw attention and may attract criticism or worse from the less tolerant members of the local population.
2. Don’t do things you wouldn’t do at home. This point can be exemplified by the increased incidence of travellers who seem to think it’s okay not to wear a seatbelt when travelling in certain (often developing) countries when they would never drive without a seatbelt at home.
3. Ask for help. Whether asking the hotel staff where it’s safe to go jogging, or local colleagues for a good taxi company, or a complete stranger during or after an incident – don’t be shy. Most people want to be helpful and will support you to the best of the ability, especially after an incident.
4. Finally it is important to trust your instincts and learn how to say no. If you have done your research and completed your own risk assessment and you don’t feel comfortable with any aspect of your travel – don’t do it. Make the case to cancel, postpone or adjust the plans (for example getting better levels of support) until you feel comfortable with what you will be doing and when you are doing it.
By following the advice above you should be in a much better position to manage the everyday risks of travel. The serious incidents do still occur and it can be difficult to prevent being caught up in these events. However, we can mitigate their effects by understanding what might happen at your destination and how to react in the unlikely event it happens to you.
Most travellers are unlikely to get specialist training for serious incidents but rest assured that by knowing what they are, understanding they might happen to you and having a basic response plan (for example, understanding the “Drop, Cover, Hold” procedure in earthquake-zones) we are in a great position to come out the other side in one piece.
We advise the following four steps for any incident and it was reassuring to hear a talk by a Brussels airport-bombing survivor in which he described the same process:
Stay calm – this allows you to think about next steps rationally and allows your instincts to work. It is often overlooked how important our instincts can be for our wellbeing.
Be a survivor – think what we need to do to survive, nothing is worth risking being seriously injured or killed for. Nearly every survivor of a serious incident will recount how they put a plan into effect to get themselves into a safer position.
Get to a safe place – whether protection from the danger or somewhere you can recover after the event has passed. This place should offer you a level of protection against further threat.
Communicate – get help and advice and let a professional help you understand what has happened and what steps you should consider next.
Travel safety has been a passion of mine for a number of years now and I am a firm believer in good preparation, both through my own experience and also developing client programmes. Much of a travel risk management process is about putting structure in place to support organisations and decision makers and the small section of training and education is often poorly implemented with uninspiring content or lacking altogether.
As no support structure can replace an individual understanding their own personal risk or help them deal with a situation as it unfolds around them, I firmly believe that training not only helps produce safer, less stressed and more productive travellers, it is also a fundamental component of a comprehensive duty of care package. Part of taking responsibility for yourself is ensuring that your company is also taking responsibility for you while you’re working or travelling under their auspices, and this includes being given adequate resources and training to allow you to prepare for a safe and secure business trip. If there’s one thing you do when you finish reading this article, it’s make sure you understand what your company currently does to support you not just while you’re travelling abroad, but while you are preparing for that travel, too: do they subscribe to a travel security service and do they provide travel safety training? After all, travel starts at home.
About the Author
Sophie Harwood is the Women Traveller Advisor for beTravelwise. She specialises in travel risk mitigation strategies for women travellers. She is passionate about other cultures and has lived and worked in Zimbabwe, India, China, France and the USA. She spent several years working as a Security Risk Analyst for a Fortune 100 investment bank and as a Training Manager for a travel security consultancy. She has a BA (Hons) from University College London, an MA from King’s College London, a diploma from the University of Paris, and is currently working on her doctorate (researching women and war) at the University of Leeds.
beTravelwise offers a range of specialised training courses designed to support professional organisations in their travel risk management programmes. The training courses help clients educate their travellers about the travel risks they may face and how to avoid them. beTravelwise provides practical and cost-effective training solutions suitable for every destination, not just those designated high risk. Training seminars cover the key considerations for health, security, culture, road safety and individual preparation. By sharing relevant knowledge in an engaging way, beTravelwise promotes safe travel practices and policy compliance.