Written by Marek Handzel
Global political unrest and natural disaster are among the key causes for concern when it comes to travel security. Marek Handzel reports on the increasingly risky job of managing the global workforce in this climate.
The world, as Albert Einstein once famously said, is a dangerous place; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it. Business travellers and the companies they work for are well aware of this. Most of them, of course, are not out to change the world. But many of them are looking to do as much as they can to protect themselves from its unsavoury elements.
Recent years have seen an increase in such incidents around the globe. “Twenty years ago, the world wasn’t as dangerous a place as it is now,” says Nick Doyle, senior director at Kroll Advisory Services. “Even some countries that weren’t the most democratic were still stable for the people travelling there.”
Taking natural disaster-prone areas out of the equation, the list of established ‘extreme risk’ countries is a long one. Ranging from the more obvious, including Afghanistan and Somalia, to those that may not appear to look unstable at first glance, such as Turkey, they all share common characteristics of being compromised by a variety of criminal, terrorist, insurgent and civil war threats.
And there is no sign of a plateau; the list continues to grow. Lee Niblett, head of corporate intelligence at red24, the security specialist firm, says that the company is closely monitoring a number of ‘high-risk’ regions which previously would not have registered on their radar.
One such country is Venezuela. Suffering from high levels of inflation, regular utility disruptions as well as infrastructure failings, insufficient housing, and periodic shortages of both food and fuel, its crime levels have soared. Last year alone, the country recorded over 1,000 kidnappings for ransom and a trebling of its murder rate since Hugo Chavez came to power, in 1999. Further concern comes in the form of upcoming elections and Chavez’s own long-term future. If he were to exit the stage due to either the ballot box or ill health, then the political vacuum he would leave behind him could result in severe civil unrest.
The country’s problems are replicated elsewhere. Security firms and consultants carrying out horizon scanning are increasingly drawn to developments in countries that are close to intimately linked political and economic tipping points. These include, most notably, nations that were swept up by the Arab Spring, or which are spiralling towards economic disaster in the eurozone.
As Niblett explains, country assessment of this sort drills down to a micro level of detail, far further than just headline crime or GDP statistics. Sub-analysis, as he calls it, is carried out on corruption, adult literacy levels, social network usage and public service delivery. As a result, companies using the services of a security service provider can be confident that the risks their employees may face are as detailed as possible.
Organisations with a global presence have certainly responded to the additional threats that business travelling entails. Legislation, in the form of the Corporate Manslaughter Act, and the threat of being dragged through the courts has partly seen to that; perhaps as much as any paternalistic leanings from firms or concern about losing valuable assets, be they human or otherwise.
But there is still much to be done. David Johnson, CEO Travel Security Services, a joint venture between International SOS and Control Risks, says that corporations in Europe are behind their North American and Australian counterparts when it comes to delivering effective implementation of ‘duty of care’.
Benjamin Hancock, worldwide director at Aon Global Risk consulting, says that this is down to a lack of awareness of possible trouble in countries that do not display obvious signs of unrest.
“Businesses are becoming increasingly aware of the risks their employees face in those countries that are perceived to be higher risk,” he says. “However, many are entirely unaware of the risk of kidnap in emerging countries like India or Brazil. Whilst businesses that operate in countries at the top end of the risk spectrum do invest in systems to protect their travellers, many companies sending their employees to medium or high risk countries are not proactively protecting (them).”
As Doyle points out, anywhere can be dangerous for the business traveller. “Most incidents don’t happen in, say, Cairo or Mumbai,” he says. “They take place in Berlin or Brussels. It does not follow that the more dangerous a place the more likely an incident is going to occur. Any time you travel on business you have to be aware of
Johnson says that even those firms that take security seriously for all travel arrangements can fail to deliver robust security for employees. This is usually because they do not implement risk plans from a cross-functional perspective.
As he explains, everyone needs to be singing from the same hymn sheet. “Are employees clear on what they should do or who they should contact should anything untoward happen? Equally, are managers clear on an organisation’s plans? Or aware of how they call upon support and how to contact employees when something happens? Real implementation is at a very practical level,” he says. “It is not just security. It is HR, medical, facilities; so there are a number of functional areas that need to be brought together so that the organisation can have a joined-up approach.”
Once departments are talking to each other, then employee security levels can go up a level, as long as the whereabouts and activity of those employees is known. Which is where ‘travel tracking’ comes in, one of the security industry’s most durable buzzwords.
It was during the Arab Spring, Johnson points out, that ‘travel tracking’ proved some of its worth. “The single biggest challenge organisations had was accounting for staff and communicating with them,” he says.
The Travel Security Services joint venture operates a tracking system that consolidates travel data from multiple sources and presents it in one place, giving users a global view of where travellers are and what their schedules look like. As soon as an alarm is raised from an external source or from an employee themselves, help can be sent to the right location at the right time.
Most companies have a travel management service, which, says Doyle, usually just books tickets. But if they also employ a travel advisory service, which is linked in with the former, then a good deal of security assessment and tracking can become automated.
“So as soon as the ticket is booked, that communication goes through to the advisory service. They rate the risk for you and if someone in your organisation is travelling to a high level location, then this can alert someone to remind them if steps have been taken to understand the risk,” he says.
“It gives an organisation oversight of where their employees are going. It can also be used to track employees. That is not to say we are tracking you to within 10 yards, but we know where you are on any given day and which hotel you are staying in,” Doyle explains.
There are a wide number of tracking systems on the market. An employee can push a button on their phone to send an emergency signal to a call centre which will instantly start tracking that device, for example.
“In some cases, this innovation can work well, but in order for it to be best utilised, it needs to be part of a comprehensive risk management programme, to understand the suitability of the solution,” argues Hancock.
“For instance, in the case of a kidnapping, the first thing kidnappers will do is to destroy your phone. Or what if you are working in an area with no mobile reception? So, in the right circumstances, technology can work well; but it needs to be part an end-to-end solution to cover all eventualities.”
So before any tracking device is switched on, a risk assessment is made of a planned trip and contingency plans are put in place for all eventualities. This is then followed up by alerting firms if Aon’s 24/7 monitoring service flags up any cause for concern for a traveller – a similar real-time scanning service is also offered
Ultimately, as Hancock points out, security advisers can assist with reducing risk, but they can never eliminate it. And sometimes, good old-fashioned preparation can go a long way, and you don’t need to be Einstein to work that out.