October 16, 2019
Hong Kong, an international business center, has been rocked over the past several months by demonstrations against the Chinese government and that government’s response. For business executives who continue to have to travel to the city, the situation has heightened awareness of a problem that continues to grow.
When business travelers hit the road, they face many risks. Political instability or becoming ill while abroad and navigating an unfamiliar healthcare system are just some of the concerns employees may need assistance with from their company when traveling for business.
A 2017 study by the Association of Corporate Travel Executives on how geopolitical issues affect travel found that of the 239 corporate travel managers surveyed, 56 percent said they had seen an increase in reports of heightened personal safety concerns.
Clearly, it is paramount for businesses to get proactive about assisting employees with secure travel. Any business with employees that need to travel must have plans and protocols around how their executives, managers and employees will be able to do it safely and securely. This needs to encompass not only assistance in the event of injury or illness, but employee travel services affecting the safety and comfort of travelers.
Ray O’Hara, an executive vice president with AS Solution, a provider of corporate executive protection, has been helping organizations ensure their executives travel safely for decades. AS Solution employs a global network of security providers with the mission of enabling their clients to travel and do business safely, worldwide. AS manages more than 100 trips outside the U.S. monthly, in about 100 countries. O’Hara spoke with ISC News for his top takeaways on what companies need to consider when it comes to keeping employees safe while they are traveling.
Your plan must be driven by the realities of risk
“We don’t have cookie cutter approach,” O’Hara stressed in our conversation. Each engagement, he said, is shaped by the individual needs and realities of the region where clients are traveling. “There are very few places people can’t go today, other than about half dozen countries where everyone’s travel is restricted,” he said. “But business goes on every day because it has to, people getting in the way of that are making a mistake. Instead, ask if they really need to go there. If the answer is yes, say ‘OK, let’s figure it out.’”
Instead of putting up roadblocks, said O’Hara, it is critical for those in charge of travel safety to find a way to make business trips happen within the context of what is happening in the region. Design a program that is realistic and arm travelers with the tools and knowledge they need once they are in the destination country. This could include taking out some kinds of insurance, such as kidnap and ransom insurance, for example, in volatile regions around the world.
Things can change quickly, so be flexible
“Risk changes almost daily depending on where we are in the world,” said O’Hara. He uses Hong Kong as the recent example of the this. Once a stable region executive clients could travel to without concern, now a less stable and uncertain place for trips because of the ongoing protests happening in the region. Plans, therefore, must be tailored to consider these new issues – even for veteran travelers who have been to the country many times.
Take advantage of government programs
O’Hara encourages all travelers – whether business or leisure – to take advantage of government programs while abroad. One of these is the U.S. Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) program, a free service allowing U.S. citizens and nationals traveling and living abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Travelers enrolled in STEP will receive important information from the Embassy about safety conditions in the destination country, helping to make informed decisions about travel plans. The U.S. Embassy can also contact travelers in an emergency. O’Hara said he insists on it when possible for his clients.
“It also means we have the ability to get to them if needed,” he said. “And at least you know, from a peace of mind standpoint, that someone from the U.S. government knows you are there.”
The level of the manager or employee makes a difference
O’Hara said he has often found higher-level executives are more amenable to changes and guidance on travel because they understand they could be targeted for kidnapping or another crime while on the road given their position within their organization. Often, middle or lower level managers and employees assume they won’t attract attention, and are therefore more resistant to make modifications to travel.
“The higher-level executive is a bit easier to control because they could be more susceptible to an issue than a mid-level,” he said. “It’s almost hard for them to say no when we ask them to do something in the interest of their safety.”
Make a plan for technology
From a data loss prevention (DLP) advisory standpoint, O’Hara notes several countries pose a huge risk to intellectual property because they constantly monitor visitor’s technology.
“We recommend nothing get taken along with confidential information,” he said. “Provide a mocked-up phone. A clean laptop before it goes and clean it when it goes back.”
Airbnb and other alternate accommodations are making protection more complicated
More organizations are incorporating allowance for non-traditional accommodations, such as Airbnb rentals, into travel policies. The ACTE survey referenced earlier found 22 percent of organization are including so-called sharing economy lodging options in their policies, up from nine percent from the year prior.
“Sometimes we we don’t know anything about the location, or what is going on with the critical infrastructure downstairs, for example,” O’Hara said. “The company has duty of care and if you have traveler in Berlin and staying at someone’s house, it is much more difficult to control the circumstances.”
Cultural differences must be considered
He advises every security manager planning travel for executives to be mindful of how cultural differences may planning more difficult. While, for example, it will be imperative to vet the security of a driver in another country, this could be considered insulting in some cultures.
“If the CEO of a company is going to San Paolo, for example, the business leader wants to be there to pick them up. It’s cultural tradition and courtesy. Now, if they offer security and a driver, they can be. But sometimes those living in other countries won’t see it that way and it can be a sensitive situation that you will need to work through.”