As waves of the global pandemic rolled but diminished in size, businesses slowly dipped their toes back into travel waters—and now come indications of a return to something akin to normal. But even if the amount of work travel eventually reverts to where it was before COVID, much around it won’t. Labor markets have changed and so have global risks and employee attitudes, and it is all putting significant pressure on retail organizations to improve travel risk management and make work travel less stressful, safer, and easier for staff. The need to demonstrate support—and for employees to believe that their safety, security, and well-being are of paramount importance to the organization—has grown higher.
The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) is predicting that international business travel will rise by 34 percent in 2022, on top of a 26 percent rise in 2021. It indicates a long-awaited rebound for the travel industry after the pandemic all but annihilated it, including a 61 percent decline in spending from 2019 to 2020. “Business travel was still down 80 percent twelve months into the pandemic,” noted Kurt Ekert, former CEO of Carlson Wagonlit Travel, in the WTTC’s October 2021 report, The Outlook for Business Travel.
Whether work-related travel ever reaches pre-pandemic heights remains an open question. The cost of it is way up, risks are growing, and companies have grown more comfortable with virtual workarounds. Travel and working patterns should stabilize by the end of 2022, but it may take an additional two years before it becomes clear how exactly the pandemic has reshaped global business travel, according to a survey of 1,000 risk professionals from 100 countries, Risk Outlook 2022 by International SOS. “Employers are still working out what can be done remotely and what requires that face-to-face interaction. While business travel is picking up again, it is not as straightforward as it was,” explained James Bird, the company’s security director for intelligence and assistance.
“Based on their experiences of the past couple of years, some corporations may have a view that they can temporarily reduce business travel without it having any adverse impact on business,” Zubin Karkaria, CEO of VFS Global Group, noted in the WTTC report. But Vivian Zhou, at Jin Jiang International Group, cited lures to putting people back on the road and in the air, including confidential meetings that cannot be done virtually, and the need for face-to-face meetings for culture building, bonding, and location audits.
The most essential travel, and least replaceable by technology, is travel that helps establish and foster client relationships, according to a corporate travel survey by Deloitte, 2022 Travel Outlook. “Trips to visit prospects and network at conferences will likely come back strongest, while internal training and meetings will continue to rely heavily on virtual connection.” Regional travel that can be completed by car should recover first, followed by domestic travel using air or train, with international business travel by air the slowest to recover, suggest most travel company and risk analysts.
In time, some analysts wonder if workers who can work from home—and have grown comfortable doing so—might drive a shift toward greater business travel. As workers and employers negotiate new demands for work-life balance, there may be willingness to exchange more business trips for the flexibility of remote work. In the International SOS risk survey, 65 percent of employers said workers are willing to work in the office, while 73 percent are willing to travel domestically for work.
It is already having an impact and offsetting losses for the travel industry. While the rise of virtual meetings is certainly slowing the return of corporate travel, workers newly untethered from the office offer an upside.
More near-term, however, there exists a gap between employees’ desire to resume business travel and employers’ need for them to do so. In the International SOS survey, only 54 percent of respondents said workers are willing to travel overseas on business and fewer than half would take on an international assignment.
With workers apprehensive, labor markets in flux, and employee retention a priority, effective safety management as part of corporate travel programs is more important than ever. Trying to resurrect or recreate a pre-COVID travel program could be a losing formula. “The work force that we left in 2019 is not the workforce that we are going to be engaging with for the remainder of 2022, and if companies don’t take that seriously, from a mental health and wellness perspective, then they are going to be challenged with retention and performance issues,” warned Bruce McIndoe, president of McIndoe Risk Advisory LLC.
In a presentation on hot topics in corporate travel at a BTN Group webinar in January, McIndoe insisted that travel safety programs are emerging as mission critical in a post‑pandemic world. Between issues of sustainability, worker health, safety and wellness, and the impact on human resources, the travel function is moving from the periphery to center stage. “It’s what keeping me up at night, especially as we face major headwinds [from risks], but, if done right, it can make a huge difference. You now have an opportunity to help the company protect and engage and retain its most valuable asset—your people.”
Coordination Is Critical
Safety is an important part of the travel management ecosystem that companies must enhance to meet the expectations of today’s workers, warned McIndoe—and with corporate travel about to pick up, coordination is key. Retailers might start by mapping out the security roles that different function areas are expected to play in protecting traveling workers and ensuring that the responsibility for those roles are assigned to specific employees. Specifically, companies must ensure that the slowdown in employee travel, which may have allowed some reassigning or cuts in personnel, didn’t create gaps in security oversight that might cause risk as travel picks back up.
Numerous departments have traditionally been involved, including risk, compliance, travel, medical, insurance, legal, human resources, and operations. Now, with travel issues requiring greater attention from company wellness and sustainability departments, “there are even more players in the travel picture than ever,” said McIndoe.
“The days are gone when safety and security professionals could only be concerned with employees when they were inside company locations,” said McIndoe. “The companies that are moving forward understand that ‘I need to take all of these disciplines, and have them share data and work together, from wellness, to safety and security, to crisis response—everything I need to protect those people.’ They all need to work together,” said McIndoe. As an example, travel managers can be brought onto COVID task forces—anything is helpful that pushes together the forces that must work in unison to protect traveling workers, he said.
Data sharing is fundamental to coordination, according to McIndoe. A comprehensive repository that all stakeholders can tap into for information—on travel itineraries, employee contact information and risk profiles, and risk ratings and risk intelligence on travel destinations—can help simplify and coordinate activities. Database analysis—where are employees traveling? when? who?—helps to identify specific actions to improve travel safety programs from when training is conducted to what safety topics are emphasized.
Initially caught off guard by the disruption that the pandemic wrought, many retail organizations subsequently made investments in real-time intelligence gathering and crisis communication tools and processes. These pandemic investments—made to better track fast-changing situations, quickly identify emerging risks, and better support workers in an emergency—should now be fully leveraged by travel safety programs.
A platform or app to share information with traveling workers is equally critical. Employees need 24/7 access—via smartphone, laptops, or other mobile devices of their choosing—to health information, helpful cultural and language information, and immediate alerts if emergency situations arise. And it’s critical that workers can receive information and alerts constantly, even if it’s a Saturday night and the corporate security team is asleep, explained one LP leader.
Regarding priorities, the survey of risk leaders identified two primary focus areas for employers to support employees at this critical juncture—the ability to communicate with the workforce during critical events and access to location-specific health information.
Retailers have seen the risks of global operations in sharp relief of late, with shops forced to close in Ukraine and retailers choosing to cease sales in Russia. But regardless of risk, retailers will always be eager to find new customers and tempted to go wherever they can find them. But long before a retailer can exploit them, it needs to know the geography of new markets.
On any given day, a major retailer is likely to have a dozen or more employees—from sourcing, design, business, and compliance departments—traveling to remote parts of the globe looking for chances to enhance global operations or scout out emerging suppliers. But global opportunity can collide with a world of risk. The increasingly complex and interconnected global security environment is marked by the growing specter of competition and conflict between powers and threat actors competing for resources and attention, notes the 2022 Annual Threat Assessment report of the US Intelligence Community.
With the return to conferences, buyer trips, and in-person vendor business, what will employees getting back on the road find? “The risks that are out there in 2022 are going to have an increasing impact on your travelers,” warned McIndoe, echoing conventional wisdom among travel risk experts is that the dangers associated with business travel is rising. They typically identify factors including more extreme weather, upcoming contentious elections in several countries, global extremism and country disputes, and increases in crime in large cities. Overall, twice as many risk professionals think risks associated with business travel will increase in 2022 compared to the number that think the risk level will stay the same.
One global LP leader, who has retail personnel engaged in sourcing and visiting manufacturing hubs overseas, said it is ordinary street crime, more than natural disasters or specific targeting, which concerns him most, and it’s why they focus on educating travelers how to blend into their environments and steer them away from high-crime areas in pre-trip travel safety briefings. It’s good trip preparation for domestic travel as well, said Jim Hayes, vice president at Guidepost Solutions, a security and investigative consultancy. “The risk profile of major cities has changed, with increases in random acts of crime.”
It’s critical for organizations that manage travel programs to be proactive in understanding today’s travel risks—including logistical and security and health—and to provide necessary support to employees, according to Bird. “A vital element is having access to accurate and up‑to-date insight that can help travel function smoothly. This insight needs to account for new and emerging risks, such as new COVID variants or security concerns and disruptions.”
COVID-19 dominated concerns during the resumption of business travel following the holiday season, as seen in data on calls to traveler hotlines supplied to LP Magazine by Crisis24, a GardaWorld company.
“Many COVID-19 inquiries included travelers needing clarification on the testing requirements to enter/exit their country of destination,” said Israel Cisneros, director of global operations at Crisis24. “As business travel continues, we see a big decrease in COVID-related assistance and a slight uptick in your normal day-to-day medical aid-related assistance cases,” which vary from dealing with existing chronic medical conditions that can lead to death whilst traveling, to dental conditions causing discomfort, to unforeseen incidents like slipping on a wet hotel floor in the lobby, and food and water-related illness needing immediate medical attention, Cisneros added.
Regarding security incidents, Crisis24 said it is seeing them rise alongside resumption in travel. “We see the usual travel security issues starting to rise recently when it comes to individuals losing their laptops or phones,” Cisneros said, noting that common theft and loss scenarios include devices being stolen at a bar or restaurant, left in taxis, or taken in robberies. Most such loss incidents occur as employees are in transit between airports, hotels, and offices, he said.
“Since last year, security threats and possible assaults while on travel to high-risk countries has increased, especially when the travelers do not have proper security accommodations,” Cisneros said. “Regarding kidnap and ransom incidents or missing persons, although rarer than other security incidents, they continue to trickle in as travel picks up in 2022, with at least one case reported every other month.”
Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin recently noted that kidnaping rates are rising, with at least 12,000 kidnap‐for‐ransom situations occurring globally each year, and that kidnap, ransom, and extortion pose a problem for corporations wishing to take advantage of emerging market opportunities. They found that 75 percent of Fortune 500 companies and an increasing percentage of small- to medium-sized companies now purchase K&R insurance as a risk control technique, something they recommended.
“Consideration of kidnap risk, training for appropriate prevention behavior, and crisis management plans are important aspects of corporate governance in this evolving, more hazardous global business environment,” concludes the study titled “Kidnap and ransom insurance: A strategically useful, often undiscussed, marketplace tool for international operations” published in Risk Management and Insurance Review in 2019. “K&R insurance, while little known and unpublicized, can play an increasingly vital strategic role for corporate boards of directors to mitigate such risks and their consequences.”
Though largely diminished, COVID’s impact on business travel is likely to be a wildcard at best and create havoc at worst—and is likely to do so for years to come. “As COVID-19 becomes endemic, the travel sector will need to prepare for ebbs and flows of outbreaks and changes in travel restrictions, which may last for several years,” noted the WTTC report.
It concludes that geographic disparities in vaccine rollouts, virus management strategies, and government decisions and actions to protect their citizens regarding healthcare considerations and travel policies will continue to have a significant effect on where and how often employees are asked to travel. Their report recommends that to decide where to allow employee travel, employers should consider vaccination rates, prevalence of variants and hospitalization rates, testing accessibility, and what different travel destinations recognize with respect to health-related documentation. Preparing for COVID-19 must remain a priority for business travel, warns the World Health Organization.
Governments have adopted a differing array of strategies and tactics to manage the pandemic and varying approaches to travel restriction are likely to persist. Bird warned that rapidly changing travel restrictions and testing requirements mean that crossing borders can be complicated. Given employee’s reluctance to travel and their lingering safety and health concerns, managing those complications effectively is critical to building back their confidence, as well as minimizing the cost and maximizing the value of corporate travel.
Many fundamentals of travel risk management haven’t changed, according to experts and global retail security executives we interviewed, requiring:
- A clearly communicated travel safety policy.
- Threat intelligence gathering and analysis to inform decisions about travel, pre-trip briefings, and training.
- Safety training and security awareness briefings for traveling workers.
- A system for real-time monitoring of global risks in conjunction with employee locations to understand when employees are at risk of emerging threats while traveling, such as identifying employees who are in areas where protests, disease, or social upheaval is breaking out.
- Contingency and emergency strategy and response, including communication tools and protocols to facilitate assistance to traveling workers, and which also accounts for communicating with a worker’s family in case it is necessary.
To make an accurate security assessment about employee travel, analysts must have access to detailed, reliable, and timely security information about global destinations, as well as trip information, travel and accommodation details, and the employee’s individual risk profile, such as their position with the company and their level of familiarity with the destination. Companies should examine employee travel itineraries, compare them against the unique risks, infrastructure, and availability of services in the destination region, and decide if any additional security steps need to be taken before travel, such as specialized traveler education.
Traveler education is a key component to safety programs, say LP leaders, noting that sophisticated tools like real-time information platforms and good trip preparation and planning can come undone at the hands of clueless or careless travelers. McIndoe said employee instruction on staying healthy, avoiding danger, and accident avoidance typically has more of an impact on the outcome of travel safety programs than anything else a company does.
To overcome employee reluctance to training, including employees who don’t think there is anything for them to learn, one security director said he relies on practical examples that impress upon workers what they don’t know. He creates scenarios and has workers break into teams to discuss the best course of action. For example: What happens if you go to pay for a late-night meal in a Kuwaiti restaurant and realize your wallet and passport are missing? What if you find your laptop was moved while you were out of your hotel room? What if you lose personal medication that you need daily? What if you get an emergency phone call from home? Having workers focus on easy-to-imagine travel headaches helps generate greater interest in all aspects of travel safety.
“For employees, the biggest factor for protection is a sense of situational awareness, to understand where you are traveling to, who is around you, and avoiding hotspots,” said Guidepost Solutions’ Jim Hayes. The unique risks to female travelers may warrant specific attention, suggests data from a 2022 report by AlertMedia, Business Traveler Safety. In a survey of women who go on four or more business trips annually, 83 percent said they had a safety‑related event in the past year; 80 percent said it hurt their productivity.
Hayes says that just as average business travelers need education and support, so do key company personnel—and retailers may need to extend close protection beyond the CEO to include COOs, other senior leaders, and even key marketing people. “Everybody is famous now to some degree, for someone who wants to make a statement or get involved in an extortion scheme, it just requires access to people who are decision makers at leading companies.”
Social media has necessitated a widening circle of “executive protection,” to include the children, spouses, and others close to key executives, as well as the locations where they might be at risk. Additionally, social media can push companies into distinct camps on hot button social issues, “which can bring out people who are radical and that presents a risk,” Hayes noted.
He thinks major retailers tend to possess a good understanding of executive travel risks and a healthy concern for today’s volatile risk environment and the trouble that key personnel can encounter when traveling. Hayes sees problems crop up, however, when businesses grow especially quickly. “It’s not their fault, but when you very quickly go from a small to massive operation, issues like executive protection are not necessarily something you would have foreseen,” he said. “It’s always easier and smoother to do advanced planning than to seek out additional support after a threat or incident.”
New Trends in Travel Risk Management
Beyond core program elements described above, LP executives and travel safety experts interviewed identified new developments and priorities to consider as more employees go on the road again.
Covid accelerated innovations that businesses can leverage to improve traveler experiences. The pandemic forced the travel industry to digitize, increasing customer-facing functions to help manage the increasing frequency and complexity of communications such as clarifications on health and safety protocols and itinerary changes. “Smart tourism” is developing, which businesses can scale to streamline internal operations, noted travel analysts. At a minimum, retail organizations must ensure their destination management organization partner is up to the challenge of disseminating information regarding travel restrictions, policies, and procedures.
In late 2021, the International Standards Organization (ISO) published a guidance document for organizations on managing risks to organizations and employees from work-related travel, ISO 31030. “It is a risk management framework that can be built upon,” explained McIndoe. “It’s a guideline, not a standard, but you should familiarize yourself with it this year and be prepared in case it becomes a standard and it becomes auditable.”
For small retailers, or those trying to get a fledgling travel safety program off the ground, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health published in late 2019 a helpful planning tool for international employee travel. The document includes checklists to assist in planning for safe travel.
As part of threat intelligence, geographic information systems that map global risks against employee travel have become increasingly useful to visualize the potential threats to traveling employees in pre-trip planning and for identifying in real-time where events may be putting staff in danger.
The detention in Russia of WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner for the alleged discovery of vape cartridges containing cannabis oil at a Moscow airport should be a warning for all companies. The risk has been growing for several years, according to Tom Dunlap, assistant vice president at Liberty International Underwriters. Any company with employees traveling abroad or operations overseas can be a target, and occasions are growing in which governments are getting involved in detentions, he warned.
As diversity and inclusion programs have become common in many parts of the world, employees have grown more comfortable fully expressing themselves in the workplace and in public. In some countries, however, it can cause workers to be targeted. In an LP Magazine profile piece on American Eagle’s travel safety program, the company’s Chief Global Asset Protection Officer Scott McBride explained that it is mindful to provide security training for travelers on cultural differences that could impact their safety, including attitudes toward LGBT issues, the overt wearing of religious symbols, or alcohol consumption.
Mobile apps and software tools are proving useful in multiple ways, from keeping track of traveling workers, to pushing them critical alert information, and even helping workers navigate language barriers. “There are a number of different apps that allow you to consensually keep track of where employees are, but you want to make sure how employees feel about it and that it’s a good cultural fit,” said Guidepost Solutions’ Jim Hayes.
Most experts in travel safety warn of a quickening pace in the global risk environment, where threats more quickly emerge. Retailers need an intelligence program that can keep pace, they said. McBride noted that it is critical to know exactly where traveling employees are and to help keep them safe, which means “working to stay ahead of threats, studying emerging markets to have a pulse on what the geopolitical risks are, what the societal risks are, and what employees need to know to travel safely to those countries.” Other leading experts said it’s important for travel safety teams to collect reports of scams or crimes impacting traveling employees in different regions and to quickly integrate them into travel safety briefings, as they tend to have a short life span but an outsized impact on business travelers.
Legal considerations remain pertinent, according to presenters at a recent health and safety conference session on safety risks to employees during travel. They advised meeting with legal counsel to ensure that the travel safety plan is aligned with the company’s duty of care obligation to protect the health of traveling workers. Best legal practices call on companies to:
- Ensure they provide employees at risk with appropriate advice, warning, and training,
- Proactively minimize risks, and
- Have reactive procedures in place in the event an employee needs them.