NGO travel: Handle with care

Managing NGO travel brings risk management challenges combined with maximising bang for donors’ bucks

Given the gregarious nature of the travel management community, and the undoubted wit and wisdom of its members, it is a matter of some considerable bafflement to discover that there is only one industry joke.

Contact any travel management company, tell them you’re writing a feature on not-for-profit organisations, and they say: “Well, you’ve certainly come to the right place.” I laugh as though I’ve never heard this before.

Perplexing though the paucity of industry one-liners may be, it is nothing compared to an infinitely greater bewilderment – why aren’t more TMCs involved in the not-for-profit sector? Only six of BBT’s Top 50 TMCs trumpet their altruism, and it seems unlikely that the other 44 are just being modest.

Ten years ago, according to the Charity Commission for England and Wales, there were 169,279 charitable organisations on its books. Between them they reported a gross income of more than £44.5 billion.

In the 12 months to the end of September 2017, the number of registered charities had fallen to 167,443, but gross income had risen to £74.43 billion. In that period, 2,245 charities enjoyed income of more than £5 million apiece, and banked a total of £53.7 billion.

Of course, not all charitable organisations have extensive travel requirements, although the two biggest earners – the British Council, with nearly £980 million, and Save the Children International, with more than £905 million – certainly do.

Compare those with BBC Children in Need, which ‘only’ had total income in 2016 of just shy of £65 million, roughly half the figure raised by the NSPCC.

Scope for solutions
Of course, charities want to get as much bang for their beneficent buck as they possibly can, so up-selling opportunities are thin on the ground. However, there is plenty of scope for TMCs to provide the sort of ‘solutions’ that charitable organisations are crying out for – and willing to pay for.

Duty-of-care inevitably tops the list of requirements, although most not-for-profits appear to have that under control.

Jane Bankester, global travel director for Washington-based World Vision – an evangelical Christian organisation that works to overcome poverty and injustice around the world – clearly values her TMC. “World Vision cherishes the health and safety of employees who are travelling,” she says. “Because of that, there are mandatory trainings that must be completed before travelling on behalf of World Vision. We also have a third-party risk management vendor to send out country information. Our TMC and the risk management company have the capability of traveller tracking.

“If a traveller is heading to a fragile location they must have approval from their manager. Along with our TMC, we have developed a travel authorisation form.”

Bankester is committed to a programme called HEAT – Hostile Environment Awareness Training – which is mandated for all personnel heading into high-risk areas. It covers everything from “behaviours at a check-point” and “surveillance detection” to “hostage survival” and “improvised explosive device awareness”.

Alina Holmes, purchasing and corporate travel manager for housing charity Habitat for Humanity International, imposes equally stringent pre-trip approval processes. “We have two lists – one red, one yellow – that if booked will trigger our global pre-trip advisory process,” she says. “If the country destination is on the red list you will not be allowed to complete the reservation and will be pointed to our security contact. Travel to a red country requires authorisation from security and management.

“Travel to a yellow country and you are sent a warning and specific travel security information on reference to the country destination. Travellers are very receptive for they understand the importance of their safety to our organisation and appreciate the pro-active response for their well-being.”

Bankester sees the not-for-profit/TMC relationship in a positive light. Can non-specialist TMCs be persuaded to put altruism ahead of profits? “Yes, I think they can,” she says. “By working as partners we’re able to work on combined future investments in the travel industry that, in the end, will increase their understanding of our world as well as gain an insightful look at the fragile countries around us.

“Off the top of my head every large, medium and small TMC knows the basic needs of an NGO; it’s making sure as a buyer you are keen on the detail of every aspect of the industry when it comes to the sales force for all products,” she adds.

Holmes isn’t so sure. Asked about the challenges she faces, top of her wish-list was “a true global TMC”. Of course, they do exist, but price is clearly an issue. What does she want? “One TMC – instead of depending on regional offices to book  travel – providing one-source reporting at a non-profit cost. We still need the same data as for-profit, because we do operate globally, but the price range is very expensive.”

Forming partnerships
What’s the TMC perspective on non-profit? Patrick O’Neill, managing director at Ian Allan Travel – and yes, he did crack that joke – emphasises the partnership role. “These days, most of the charities we work with recognise the requirement for their own security officers to be part of the pre-trip process – pre-trip training and advice is now a protocol,” he says. “It’s something we have been advocating for many years, and pre-trip training is very much policy now. We, in turn, support that with our own traveller risk profiles. We monitor where they are, where they’re going – we can pinpoint these people precisely. If something goes wrong, each charity will deal with that in their own way, so ours is a supporting role.”

He goes on: “Equally important is getting people out. It cannot be our decision to repatriate a passenger; we need a formal instruction either from the individual themselves, or from the client.” He says a major aspect of this is “we may not be able to get that person out directly – it’s never straightforward, and there has to be an authorisation. That £400 flight may not be available because the airport is closed, so we have to work out an indirect ‘escape route’ which probably comes at additional cost, and for that we need the client’s approval.

Then there are other complications, says  O’Neill, such as where re-routing takes the traveller into a neighbouring country with different visa requirements. “We can only take advice from the FCO [Foreign & Commonwealth Office], and then it’s up to the client to decide – again, that’s why it’s so important to have a security officer as part of the decision-making process.”

Gary McLeod, joint managing director at Leeds-based Traveleads (and yes, the joke was trotted out yet again), emphasises the role of the TMC – with a distinctively domestic bias. “Some charities, by the nature of their work, are going to be more ‘reactive’ to events than others and, therefore, potentially won’t have the luxury of much of a booking horizon – possibly leading them into more expensive scenarios,” he says. “One of the main challenges is, therefore, to encourage as much forward calendar planning as possible in order to achieve better value for money whenever the opportunity presents itself.”

He adds: “We find that for many UK charities, their travel has a strong domestic focus, and the flexibility of rail booking solutions, such as Evolvi with its multiple profile options, really allows us to tailor programmes to suit each client and maximise savings. We’re seeing 20 per cent savings on rail spend in some organisations that are strong at mandating, plus we put a lot of time into educating clients in the free provision of railcards to staff in order to further reduce costs.

“We spend a lot of our time helping clients identify situations where advance bookings can be easier to achieve and are pretty much going to guarantee them savings. We then circulate information among travellers and bookers giving them practical advice about how to secure better rates. We also encourage early booking on restrictive tickets if we see a reasonable percentage of bookings being unchanged by clients. If they bank the savings as often as possible, when things do go wrong and potentially new tickets have to be bought, the client will have amassed a fund of savings to help them defray the higher costs of later bookings.”

Sound advice, surely, but sadly lacking in the rib-tickling department. Then again, not-for-profit travel isn’t a laughing matter, unless that is you’re a journalist writing a feature on it and having to hear the standard one-liner yet again, and laughing as though you’ve never heard it before.

Dealing with disasters
On 12 November 2017, a 7.3 magnitude earthquake struck along the Iran-Iraq border close to the city of As Sulaymaniyah, roughly 240km north of Baghdad. More than 500 people are reported to have died, with local officials estimating at least 6,000 injured and 70,000 rendered homeless.

Less than 24 hours later, the International Medical Corps (IMC) had a four-strong emergency response team in place. Between them, the doctor, two nurses and a pharmacist carried enough medical supplies to treat 1,000 people, with more waiting to be despatched at a moment’s notice.

Devastating though the earthquake was, from a travel management perspective the initial response to the disaster was relatively straightforward.

The Iraq-based team was sent in by IMC’s Iraqi country director Bogdan Dumitru. As Sulaymaniyah is well-served by road links and the nearest rail-head, at Kirkuk, is only 90km to the west. “We are coordinating with local and national health officials to identify additional ways we might be able to support relief efforts,” Dumitru said.

Transporting manpower and supplies to the stricken region was challenging, but not insurmountable. But, as IMC’s global travel manager Larry Bague makes clear, that’s not always the case. “Travel is part of the emergency response planning team and we try to get our first responders on the ground before an anticipated disaster, but afterwards it presents its challenges.

“For Haiti 2010 [a magnitude 7.0 earthquake followed by a cholera epidemic] we deployed staff that evening from the US to Santo Domingo and then used military and UN flights to get to Port au Prince,” he says.

“For the Nepal earthquake in 2015, we contracted with helicopter services; for the civil war in Libya a few years back, we entered via neighbouring countries and across the Mediterranean from Malta by boat and ship.”

Traveller safety and security are very high priorities. “On all deployments to our field offices our security will provide in-country information along with the latest security briefing,” explains Bague. “All travellers are required to complete a video training and quiz, and attain a passing grade prior to deployment or they don’t travel. It’s our security department’s call to make any exceptions.”

While IMC’s teams boast CVs listing highly specialised skillsets, how good are they at travelling? “Some have the luxury of knowing what to pack (tent, hiking shoes, water purifying kits) while others have to adjust on the fly,” says Bague. “After the recent Caribbean hurricanes, some islands wanted people to arrive being self-sufficient – not relying on the limited resources of water and food.

“That’s where our first responders/ assessment teams play a critical role, informing staff what to expect and what is needed. Each emergency presents its own unique set of challenges.”

Specialist TMCs are thin on the ground, but Bague doesn’t see that as too much of an issue. “We’ve always worked with a TMC that specialised or had access to humanitarian air fares through a third-party agreement in addition to their normal airline agreements. Our ground and hotel agreements are led by the TMC’s expertise, but most in-country ground transportation is usually contracted locally, as are hotel stays, for security reasons.

“I believe the successful TMCs can make a profit by gearing their vendor relations around their customers’ third-world city-pair markets and understanding the service platforms needed when working with NGOs.”

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