Troubleshooting: Lay down the law

From natural disasters and military coups to airline strikes and rogue travellers, imposing order can be a tough job in the Wild West of travel management

Outlaws come in many forms in the workplace, and taming them as a modern-day sheriff requires a combination of skill and wit. For most travel buyers and TMCs, trouble unfortunately rears its head on a regular basis, but the art of modern troubleshooting is to expect, anticipate and, eventually, see off any troubling and ultimately costly issues. As Andrew Perolls, executive director of Business Travel Direct, says: “Travel disasters happen all the time, that’s just normal.”

The troubleshooting spectrum is wide, from flight disruptions and managing risk to reining in employees who go “off piste” and book their own arrangements. This can have problematic consequences as Robert Howell, senior advisor of critical operations at risk management company WorldAware, points out.

“We’ve had people who’ve taken self-directed trips to places they’re not supposed to go to, such as Port Harcourt in Nigeria, and when they get there they’ve realised, ‘Wow, this is a lot worse than we thought. Now we understand why we were told not to go here,’” says Howell. “They lean on us to provide safe transportation back to the airport and then we get them on a commercial flight back to Lagos.”

Sometimes the stakes are high, especially when nature intervenes, such as when the volcanic ash cloud grounded flights for weeks in 2010. Then there’s political upheaval, for example, the 2016 military coup against President Erdogan in Turkey. Perolls says that his TMC had a number of clients in Turkey on the evening of the coup when “bridges were closed and tanks rolled in” but there is a “process in place that helps you identify which of your travellers are in areas deemed as high risk”.

One of Perolls’ clients, who works in manufacturing, heard about the attempted Turkish coup when out for dinner on the Friday night and a BBC news alert came through on their phone. “My first thought was that we had several employees in Turkey and my next thought was to check my emails to see if anyone had tried to contact me,” says the client.

“I had two emails; one from the SMARTtrack system alerting me to the potential risk in Turkey and the names and locations of my employees, and another message from Business Travel Direct, explaining that SMARTtrack had automatically sent out the relevant SMS and email communications to my employees within the area of the incident. Each traveller had also received a personal call from the risk management team at Business Travel Direct to ensure their safety.”

Here’s a list of some common troublesome situations buyers and TMCs contend with:

Extreme circumstances
Emergency evacuation is at the ultimate end of the troubleshooting spectrum, argues Perolls. “We have a lot of travellers in the construction or marine business and working in more dangerous areas of the world. What we’re working on is a service that will crisis-manage where there’s a real problem and you’ve got to get people out by sending someone there to rescue them.

“If you take Afghanistan or Iraq, there are western companies operating in those countries, and people have to travel from one place to another so, in those cases, you often require a specialist service managed from the UK where you’re actually facilitating their safe transport,” Perolls adds. “That’s not evacuation but helping people ‘in country’, which is Boy’s Own stuff really.”

WorldAware provides evacuations during political unrest (last year it evacuated clients from Nicaragua and Colombia), security-related situations and natural disasters – and it offers smartphone apps that track travellers. The client “opts into” the tracking system and can press a crisis/panic button on the app, which triggers a GPS fix on their location. WorldAware’s operations centre delivers an “immediate response and assistance”.

“It’s an opt-in system and doesn’t involve continuous tracking,” says WorldAware’s Howell. “But we have one that is continuous tracking for the executive team and for high-risk travel environments, such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan; it’s mandated to have this kind of tracking in high-risk environments.”

Rob Walker, International SOS & Control Risks’ security expert, also operates at the extreme end of travel troubleshooting, including thinking ahead after a volcanic eruption. “We identify potential diversion hubs for regional flights and look at block-booking rooms, which we did for the volcano in Bali in 2017,” he says.

“For this situation, there are also the knock-on effects of people being stuck longer than expected in a location and only having enough chronic medication/contact lenses/antibiotics for the exact duration of their original trip, so then needing to seek medical care to get a repeat prescription or replacement,” adds Walker.

Flight cancellations and strikes
Cancellations and strikes are inevitable. Having the right tracking technology in place so travellers can be contacted and rebooked is essential, but so too is common sense.

Blue Cube Travel had a client – the boss of a private investment house – who was booked to travel to Tokyo on a Monday and wanted an Air France option. Air France was on strike and randomly cancelling flights, so Blue Cube booked and ticketed with an alternative airline as a back-up, with the assistance team monitoring Air France flights throughout the weekend and regularly updating the traveller on the status.

Meanwhile, if an employee ends up stranded, a TMC should be able to pull a report, and Rosie Mohammad, head of travel for the law firm Pinsent Masons, says she will be able to identify the employee. “Nine out of 10 times the traveller will contact the TMC, but if they’ve booked out of policy and have done their own thing we don’t say, ‘we’re not going to help you’. We help as much as we can but sometimes the TMC will not be able to touch that booking if it’s been booked through a third-party,” she emphasises.

Time-wasting employees
Many travellers book outside company policy because they want to earn loyalty points from a certain airline or hotel chain. Perhaps they are unhappy with the cabin class of travel they are permitted to use. “Travellers think that booking their own flights or hotel online rather than through their TMC partner will save the company money,” says Paul East, chief operating officer, UK/Europe & Americas, Wings Travel Management.

However, as East points out, in reality travellers aren’t getting a better deal as the booking may have changed or there may be cancellation fees associated with it, or they have not included added-value extras that have been negotiated as part of the travel policy with preferred airlines and hotels.

Mohammad points out that her firm has a well-managed programme with a fare match guarantee, but there are always occasions when travellers go “off-piste” on the internet. “We have a minimum leakage of less than one per cent,” Mohammad says. However, some travellers do opt for “savings” on the likes of Skyscanner and Booking. com and it’s not particularly helpful.

“Travellers come up with an option they’ve spent hours searching for, which is a false economy,” she says. Lawyers at her firm charge up to £500 an hour for their services, yet they’re “looking on the internet for a saving of £10, which actually doesn’t work out to be a £10 saving because there’s a whole manual process to go through”.

Judith Heinrich, managing director of Travelocity Consulting, admits it’s tricky to encourage certain staff to use the internal tools. “Employees are usually presented with OBTs without training, which can be a deterrent. The personal interaction and communication is lost.

“As soon as there’s one issue with the online tool, the employee loses trust and starts booking outside the recommended tools.” Heinrich emphasises that online booking tools, rates, deals and especially travel policy need to be reviewed on a regular basis. “The corporate needs to appoint a champion for the OBT to ensure they serve as the first point of contact,” she concludes.

Last-minute bookers
Even now, it seems employees still love to leave booking to the last minute. “It’s usually because employees have not been able to organise their diary,” says Heinrich. “A simple policy where trips should be booked for 14 days in advance can be introduced using OBTs where a break in travel policy can be logged, or trips declined.”

Mohammad admits some last-minute bookings are unavoidable, but it’s important that the TMC deliver a 24-hour service. “Even if I’m booking in the middle of the night, I know that my TMC will work,” she explains.

One buyer told BBT that if a booking is made within three weeks of departure, the employee must explain why to the chief executive. Daunting stuff – but it proves effective.

It isn’t easy being the sheriff in town, but staying one step ahead is a sure-fire way of keeping the bandits at bay.

Minimise trouble with a checklist
Documents: Check pre-trip health, travel alerts, passport and visa requirements, and local laws, for each journey.

Profiles: Make sure the data you as a company, and your TMC, hold on each traveller is comprehensive and up to date; this information is essential in a crisis.

Map out risk: Evaluate and prepare a list of destinations your company sends travellers to regularly. Flag up those that could be considered “at risk”. Agree what level of risk is applicable to each destination in terms of crime, illness, unfamiliar culture/language, and what procedures can be put in place to mitigate those risks.

Tracking: Ensure you have reliable tracking processes in place – your TMC will be able to run reports before and during a trip.

Emergency plan: Work with your TMC to prepare an emergency response plan and ensure it is communicated to employees on a regular basis.

Post-situation review: Once an emergency has been managed and travellers safely returned, analyse the response process and see if there are ways it can be improved.
Source: Wings Travel Management

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