Hearing the strains last year of yet another reincarnation of ‘Do they Know it’s Christmas?’ was a timely reminder of the inevitability of regional disasters – incidents which require humanitarian aid. The money that Geldof and co are raising is not the end in itself but a means. Development projects and disaster relief require money to enable people of many different skill-sets to go to the affected region. That means business travel of a very unique order.
Welcome to the world of NGO travel. NGO – non-governmental organisation – is the umbrella term to cover any body that is neither a private sector company funded by investors and sales of goods and services, nor a public sector body funded by government. The term covers a wide spectrum of organisations, many of which are quite small and local, and do little or no travel. NGOs also include relief agencies that are complex international organisations with very particular travel requirements.
Their personnel travel to unusual destinations and their business needs usually fall into one of two large categories: development projects or relief.
Development covers all the infrastructure, medical or educational projects which various NGOs, such as VSO, undertake to improve lives and communities. These can vary from building a school in a South American village to cookstove projects in remote African communities.
By their nature, development projects work to a plan and a budget. Travel can be planned well in advance and is often to remote locations. A hotel booking is usually not needed because there is housing associated with these projects. Relief organisations exist to help communities cope with the effects of natural and man-made disasters, from the 2013 Philippine typhoon to the devastating floods that have affected Pakistan in recent years. Although some disasters, such as that in Syria, are ongoing, most require a quick response to an immediate need.
Humanitarian agencies can be either national or international. International organisations often have a federated structure – that is, local autonomy and budget responsibility under an international ‘brand’. For example, Water Aid is a global organisation that is based in London (where it was first established by the UK water industry), with offices in the US, Japan, Australia and Sweden.
Because of this, revenue does not come from one source and management is not always consolidated within one office. National branches may do fundraising while the global organisation may seek finance from large funders of international relief initiatives. This means organisations often have some very traditional business travel destinations such as, say, New York or Washington. It also means travel policy and purchasing is sometimes consolidated in the global headquarters, and sometimes managed by the local organisation.
Chris Airey is managing director of Diversity Travel. He says: “In the past very few organisations had travel policies, but now a big proportion do. We’re also now seeing the benefit of mandating – in the past few NGOs mandated policy or the use of a TMC [travel management company], but that is changing as more people come into this sector with experience of the private sector.
“There is a lot around safety. Organisations will categorise countries according to risk level and adjust their approach to traveller risk management accordingly.”
Unlike development agencies, a relief organisation will be unable to commit a given volume of business on specific routes with a designated carrier, so the special fares available to this sector – ‘charity fares’ – are very valuable. Key Travel marketing director John O’Sullivan claims that the TMC started charity (or ‘humanitarian’) fares 30 years ago.
These apply a discount specific either to the corporate client or the TMC, which vary by route. They are available only on selected airlines and via certain TMCs. They are beneficial because the customer, according to O’Sullivan, effectively “gets flexibility on a non-flexible ticket”.
On a charity fare, the airline will hold a flight for longer than it would with a normal published fare before the need to ‘ticket’ (that is, commit to purchase) so these buyers are able to book further in advance than normal. It will also not charge for cancellation or booking changes; and allow extra baggage – depending on the airline, two or three pieces of checked baggage will be included in the fare.
The excess baggage allowance is especially attractive for this market. To quote Ian Allan Travel’s managing director Pat O’Neill: “Someone going to east Africa for six months isn’t going to be carrying only 23kg, and may very well also be carrying medical supplies and equipment.”
Diversity’s Airey highlights the cost-conscious nature of the sector. “Travellers are generally in the economy end of cabins, standard class on trains, and there are tight budget restrictions around hotels,” he says.
Despite this, the sector does acknowledge that cheapest is not always appropriate. As O’Sullivan says: “There is a delicate balance between employee well-being and budget. Itineraries are generally much more complex so you’re not just finding best fares but the best route. There’s the length of stopover, the traveller could be going to one destination and travelling back from another, and itineraries take a lot longer to book. Online doesn’t work as it always returns the cheapest fare, and that isn’t always the best solution.”
O’Neill agrees. “Sometimes people will want to travel in club class if they have to hit the ground running when they arrive. It can’t be scripted because it’s reactionary. We have a dedicated team that requires people with the sharpest of minds and a degree of experience, with an extensive knowledge of visa and transit visa requirements.”
Chris Airey believes the sector is the most challenging to manage. He says: “Disasters don’t wait until 9am on a Tuesday morning to happen. From absolutely nothing you can go to an immensely busy period that is unplanned, and that can present challenges.”
Former UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband still travels the world in his current role of president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, but the challenges are quite different. On a recent trip to Liberia he was asked if he had concerns about his safety. He replied: “I don’t think the leader of an NGO can call himself brave for going somewhere when 300 staff of his organisation are working here every day. If it’s safe enough for my staff, it’s safe enough for me.” That’s risk management in action.