ITIJ 213, Assistance & Repatriation Review, October 2018
Russia is the largest country in the world by area, covering more than one-eighth of the Earth’s inhabited land area. Providing assistance to the thousands of travellers who visit the country each year, then, is a challenge not to be underestimated, as Mandy Langfield explains
In 2016, the last year for which reliable figures are available, inbound tourism to Russia grew by seven per cent, according to Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky. The number of Iranian tourists increased significantly in that year over 2015, while China, Korea, India and Spain also registered an increase. Italian and French tourist numbers were up too. Leonid Marmer, CEO of Intourist Thomas Cook, said that the country is most popular with Chinese tourists, though, as 2016 saw 1.2 million Chinese tourists visit Russia, while Germany, in second place, saw 500,000 tourists head to the country.
2018 – a new challenge
In the summer of 2018, Russia hosted the FIFA World Cup, which saw vast numbers of tourists head to 11 different host cities around the country to attend football matches. State news agency TASS reported that Russia’s Black Sea resort city of Sochi saw an increase in visitor numbers of 90 per cent during the World Cup. In July, at the end of the tournament, TASS reported that more than five million tourists, of which 2.9 million were international, visited the host cities.
Arthur Zulficarov, General Manager of assistance firm GVA Russia, told ITIJ that the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 had been helpful for everyone involved in the FIFA World Cup organisation process, as it allowed companies to prepare for another big influx of visitors. There were, however, changes in national healthcare provision between 2014 and 2018, which brought about ‘constant updates of changes in our network’ during the preparation phase, he explained: “About 12 months before the World Cup teams’ playoff draw held in Moscow in December 2017, we organised a massive information campaign within our network in the hosting and neighbouring cities to update our knowledge of changes with their organisational structure, renovation, equipment, key contact staff members, renewal of agreements, and so forth. At the same time, we focused on the potential emergency needs of English- and Spanish-speaking FIFA fans in these locations.”
The main challenge for GVA was to find as many English- or even Spanish- speaking doctors in Russia as possible, especially outside of Moscow and St Petersburg. “All GVA assistance co-ordinators and doctors are fluent English-speaking,” said Zulficarov, “and some are Spanish-, French- and German- speaking, so during the tournament we faced a dozen cases in smaller cities where GVA was playing the role of a medical interpreter between an international patient and the local doctor hospital.”
The expertise of assistance companies in the country with experience of dealing with international insurance providers allowed calls for assistance to be dealt with promptly and professionally, when the eyes of the world were on them
Sergey Nickoulitchev is Business Development Manager for Savitar Group Ltd, which was part of a tender process for providing assistance services to European officials who were preforming site surveys before the tournament began. He explained: “Our key target was to have a clear picture of the hosting cities’ infrastructure, medical and security capabilities. Our network and medical departments arranged missions to all 11 cities during spring 2018. The results were discussed in internal meetings and accumulated in relevant reports/presentations. Those of our clients who were interested in learning about our network received a copy of the report.” The increase in the number of visitors, inevitably, was going to put pressure on the company’s resources – namely, staffing. Nickoulitchev said: “In terms of staff availability, we were prepared quite well for a major case flow. There is a natural, predictable increase of cases during the summer season, so the staff was employed and trained in anticipation of the growing workload. A separate sub-plateau was established for the FIFA cases. This part of our team did most of the work to support foreign guests coming to Russia this summer.”
As the saying goes, prepare for the worst, hope for the best. For Savitar, this came true, as Nickoulitchev explained: “We did expect a high volume of injury-related claims. However, in reality the bulk of the cases turned out to be simple travel-type sicknesses like flu, fever or gastroenteritis. There were no criminal-related cases (to everyone’s relief), only a couple of lost documents/missed flight dossiers and around 12 really complex medical cases, with air evacuation or body transportation from Russia to other parts of the world.”
The level of preparedness, preventive measures, and alertness of all federal, regional and municipal security and healthcare systems across the host cities and team bases was reportedly impressive, and there were therefore no major incidents or criminal cases involving foreign fans during the tournament. GVA opened 312 cases related to World Cup tourists during the six-week period, ranging from minor trauma to an unexpected labour and birth, and a heart attack that a fan suffered during a match.
When it comes to air medical transportation within Russia, the situation is complicated by the fact that there is not a single private jet company in the country that dedicates its entire fleet to medical evacuations. The Ministry of Emergency Situations has developed a state-managed network of air rescue planes, so medical evacuations can take place in theory, but the reality is that these aircraft are mostly dedicated to missions such as natural disaster relief. Nickoulitchev said that Savitar has to therefore explore other avenues when medical evacuation is necessary: “If there is a necessity to bring a foreign patient home from Eastern Europe or Central Asia, we would rather search for available options from countries like Finland, Germany or Turkey, or consider equipping a rented flight with our medical gear, depending on a patient’s condition.”
The major concern during an event like the world cup...is the lack of space for stretchers and ticketing for seated patients
To eliminate any potential complications or delays in obtaining Russian visas for international medical escort staff, GVA finds it more effective to provide medical escort services itself for its insurance and assistance partners in other parts of the world. The company performed six commercial carrier medical escorts throughout the tournament and assisted on the ground for three air ambulance evacuations performed by foreign air ambulance teams. “The major concern during an event like the World Cup,” pointed out Zulficarov, “is the lack of space for stretchers and ticketing for seated patients due to high air passenger traffic both incoming and outgoing as well as hotel rooms for escorting medical teams because of high demand of hotel rooms by the fans and the visitors.”
The advent of new technology into the Russian assistance business has helped to significantly streamline the provision of such services to tourists in need. When Nickoulitchev first started out in the assistance business 13 years ago, he said there were few technical tools available – just a few adapted programmes that would help to manage the case load. “Now, in 2018, things do look quite different,” he reported. “Web applications, remote access tools, online conferences, training options – all of this helps us immensely. New tools make life in our call centre easier, both on the management side with wider statistics availability and on the operational side, with more capabilities to provide fast and efficient service.”
GVA has developed its own proprietary information infrastructure and maintains it as a result of the IT team working hand in hand with assistance co-ordinators and doctors. “It is not only a database to manage cases, it is a digital eco-system embracing GVA Alarm Centers worldwide,” said Zulficarov. The smartphone era in particular, he added, has contributed a great deal to the firm’s information environment by taking formats of communication adored by younger generations and transforming them into professional tools for co-ordinators and medical professionals. “Web-based geographical tools, great geo-positioning and tracking instruments, online booking systems, instant access to medical databases, you name it – all this is heavily used in a daily routine,” said Zulficarov. The ability to communicate more effectively with clients has also had a positive impact on GVA’s operations, he said, while quality of care and customer loyalty have also both improved as a result of immediate communication with end users. There is, though, still a case to be made for more traditional methods of communicating with customers. “There are users who still prefer a conversation on the phone, particularly when it comes to a medical or critical situation. Therefore, we believe that along with new technological solutions that we are committed to testing and implementing, the role of the human touch in communication in our activity will keep playing an important role now and in the near future.”
Job well done
Russian organisers responded well to the challenges of holding successful – and safe – international sporting events, which is no mean feat. The expertise of assistance companies in the country with experience of dealing with international insurance providers allowed calls for assistance to be dealt with promptly and professionally, when the eyes of the world were on them. While the Russian football team didn’t make the final, they, like their countrymen in the insurance and assistance business, certainly distinguished themselves. ■