Are travel buyers and clients really ready for an emergency?
A tsunami, earthquake, bomb, kidnapping or hostage scene; any of these relayed in a past-midnight conversation to a dozing travel manager is likely to send pulses racing. Taking responsibility for a traveller in distress and whisking them out of harm’s way is the most nerve-wracking experience for any buyer. If you personally sent them out there, you feel responsible. That duty-of-care buck stops with you.
No amount of traveller tracking, advice, pre-planning or executive support can prepare you for that call or incident and how to deal with it effectively. Each emergency is different, each requires painstaking attention and must be dealt with properly.
A good dose of nervous energy, at the same time a calm resolve, not to mention collaboration and no end of communication are all part of that adrenaline-fuelled first response. “These incidents rarely occur during UK office hours, and often involve many calls and conversations. This could be medical, such as malaria, or political, such as South Sudan’s civil war,” explains Sarah Marshall, travel and security manager at international development company DAI Europe.
“Even when a situation is under control, I have made as many as 100 calls to arrange a medical evacuation over a weekend. I changed my ringtone to something soothing after one particular incident!”
The percentage of emergencies measured against the number of trips booked is still exceptionally small, although it is on the rise. For instance, security specialist International SOS and Control Risks have seen demand for advice grow by almost 30 per cent in the past two years and mushroom by 800 per cent in the last decade.
When incidents do happen, managers hope they can be resolved quickly and efficiently with either some online rebooking, money transfers or reassurances to a distressed traveller. It’s when issues are a little trickier, more remote, unexpected or uncontrollable, involving medical and security support that problems arise.
“Travel managers’ expertise does not generally lie in crisis management or incident response,” states James Wood, security director, security solutions, EMEA, at International SOS and Control Risks.
This raises the question, and to steal a line from the 1984 film Ghostbusters, when real trouble is afoot: “Who you gonna call?” More often than not, it is the TMC. If it arranged the travel, then it’s a natural first port of call.
“Many TMCs refer to their out-of-hours service as an emergency service. However, they don’t mean they have a crisis centre service or a terrorist incident hotline,” states Adam Knights, managing director, ATPI.
“Now, this doesn’t infer that we or any other TMC isn’t prepared to deal with the responsibility. Virtually all TMCs are doing an amazing job of reacting to these situations purely through goodwill. Yet scaling up their service and helping their clients in real emergencies is rarely part of a contract.”
This is interesting to note. It’s the reason why many TMCs now have add-on services that guarantee support in emergencies. If corporations can afford it, they hire risk management companies to handle serious incidents. If not, then a crisis has to be dealt with somehow.
Picking up the tab
The biggest issue when it comes to dealing with a complex traveller emergency is one of resource. The hard fact of the matter is that complex events suck in a lot of time, energy and, ultimately, money. But whose?
“When we discuss this with customers, they begin to realise that relying on their TMC to step up when only contracted at highly competitive transaction fees is OK, until a major emergency occurs,” says Knights. “Then the chief executive of the client company asks what provision the travel manager had in the contract. I truly believe this is a real issue for many.
“Companies are realising that if they engage with their TMC and have a discussion on this subject outside the core TMC contract costs, they can often get a good emergency solution at a competitive rate,” he explains.
There are lessons to be learnt. A number of travel managers interviewed talked about clarity. Certainly, one of the things buyers learn quickly when handling an incident is that they cannot do everything themselves. It is worth thinking about what contingency you have in place, if any, and resources you would allocate.
“There shouldn’t be any grey areas,” says Bruce McIndoe, founder of risk management consultancy WorldAware. “If the programme is properly developed, defined and trained for, each person and company should know their role, responsibilities and when to act.”
It’s the uncertainty that’s the killer here. The question for travel managers is who is ultimately going to pay for and manage a major incident? You cannot rely on goodwill alone, so how will you resource an emergency response, however rare that might be?
“Having an incident management plan and appropriate business support teams together with a structured incident response hierarchy that is well tested is important,” explains a travel manager who works in the energy sector at some pretty tough destinations.
“Processes in place are crucial, as is communication. There should be no compromise on funding emergency situations,” says Ken McLeod, director for industry affairs at Advantage Travel Partnership.
Held to account
This could be expensive for a humble travel programme. If managers are worried about getting budget allocation for a very rare event, it is best considered within a wider remit – one that involves human resources, duty-of-care and corporate social responsibility.
But this is difficult when a procurement team holds the TMC contract of the travel manager. Getting the right audience internally to raise its profile can be a real issue. An unlikely emergency incident is just that. What-ifs and maybes don’t cut it with accountants.
“Ultimately the board of directors could be held accountable if something goes wrong and the necessary support and training is not in place. While certain functions can be outsourced, and indeed it is best practice to use experts, using them does not abrogate responsibility,” says Peter Cooper, global security director at Collinson.
“Consider the worst case and how you, your managers and the organisation would look if something went wrong and it was perceived that you hadn’t taken reasonable precautions.”
That doesn’t mean you need to sign up to an expensive risk management programme. But it is worth putting a plan in place.
“Ensure that you review company policies. The mechanics should depend on the nature of your business,” says Arthur Bosch, head of business administration at Wings Travel Management. “Yet the ultimate duty-of-care and responsibility will always remain with the company that is sending its employees on business trips.”
Having a collaborative approach to risk and managing emergencies can ensure the burden of responsibility doesn’t fall on the buyer. “Depending on the level of emergency, our business continuity plan would kick in.” explains one travel manager at an international law firm. “This would include the head of travel, facilities, risk specialists, human resources, the chief operating officer, insurance providers, finance and internal communications.”
Post-incident reporting is also important. “At DAI we track all incidents, and this enables us to adjust protocols, if necessary. For example, if you are stuck in traffic in Nairobi keep the window wound up to avoid having your mobile phone snatched! Some colleagues learnt this the hard way, but now all Nairobi travellers benefit from this information,” Sarah Marshall explains.
If you don’t have a plan for how you would deal with a natural disaster, terrorist or other incident, now is the time to draw one up.
Tips on getting the right plan in place
- Travel managers should not attempt to deal with emergencies in a silo, but involve all the other relevant people within an organisation.
- Goodwill won’t cut it. You need to be able to manage emergency situations beyond any travel procurement contract you may have.
- Draw up a plan of a worst-case scenario, so you know how you, your managers and the wider organisation would need to act.