The outbreak of Covid-19 sparked duty of care concerns over the safety of employees and led to business travel being put on pause. Much has happened since March 2020, and now, we are in the position where many businesses and employees may be keen to resume travel. But how can this happen in the safest way possible?
Along with ensuring that travel is as safe as it can be for employees, it is integral to inspire confidence in travellers. This all begins with thorough and effective risk assessment and mitigation.
There are certain tools that employers and their employees require from travel risk management firms to ensure that travel is as safe as possible. For example, they need support and guidance, which often comes in the form of access to information. Crucially, this information needs to be up to date and precise, as David Geddes, Director of Security at Healix, highlighted: “As we emerge from the restrictions of the pandemic, the most important tool is access to accurate information and an ability to turn that information into actionable business intelligence.”
David explained that the trajectory of the virus, the latest medical discoveries and the range of pandemic control measures that governments are using to try and contain the virus, are constantly changing. “Employers desperately need this information to help keep their employees safe, and travel risk management firms can provide it,” he said. Only with access to correct information can employers conduct effective risk assessments and make appropriate decisions that prioritise employee safety.
ITIJ also spoke with Matthew Judge, Group Managing Director, Anvil Group, who agreed that access to information is paramount.
“Travellers are primarily looking for information and understanding around the more obvious things such as the potential risks and the impact of Covid-19 in the destination locations,” he said. Austin Hansen of ETS Risk Management Inc. also reiterated the need for travel risk management firms to provide appropriate support in the form of detailed information: “It is important to know and keep abreast of details regarding national and foreign states’ Covid-19 travel guidance,” he told ITIJ. “To support client operations without interruption is an overarching challenge, as negative Covid-19 tests are required to pass between borders, varying rules, regulations and timelines are in play, and the rules seem to constantly change. Any travel risk management support company must be agile and flexible."
Tristan Smith, Vice-President of Commercial & Customer Success for Small & Medium Enterprises at Egencia, concurred that flexibility is essential. “The travel needs for employees has shifted to focus on flexibility and information on latest travel restrictions. As businesses have been struggling to stay on top of the ever-changing travel environment due to the pandemic, travel managers at both small and large corporations have looked to travel management companies to provide them with the necessary tools they need to put their employee’s welfare first.”
Reassurance is another key requirement that sits alongside information under the overarching umbrella of support. Judge underlined the importance of reassurance, which is something that has renewed value in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. “Travellers want to feel confident that their organisation can, and will, fully prepare and support them with both their physical and mental wellbeing.”
In addition to requiring reassurance that they have the full support and protection of their organisation, business travellers need to be reassured. “First and foremost, they need confidence and reassurance that it’s safe to travel and that travel risk management companies have employee health and wellbeing at the top of their agenda,” pointed out Lloyd Figgins, CEO of the TRIP Group. Figgins highlighted some of the important measures that can go some way to providing travellers with the reassurance they so desperately need: “A door-to-door approach is required and this will include testing, vaccination certification, emergency response planning, as well as a quarantine welfare plan in place, should restrictions be implemented at short notice,” he told ITIJ.
And this is where travel risk management firms come in. “Employees need to know there’s a plan in place for every step of their journey and the travel risk management company has every eventuality covered,” Figgins stated.
For James Lawrence, Co-Founder & Director, Peregrine Risk Management, another pivotal element of safeguarding employees involves remaining rigorously aware of travel risks that aren’t necessarily Covid-19 related. “As the light at the end of the tunnel slowly starts to appear and the need to resume travel becomes reality, it is important to remember that those travel risks faced pre-pandemic are still abundant, and in most cases more dangerous than ever,” he told ITIJ.
Assessing the material risk
Indeed, it is important to assess the extent to which the material risk to business travellers has changed, given that there is an ever-present array of risks unrelated to Covid that pose danger to travellers. This reiterates the vital role of risk assessment. “For the return of safe travel assessing the risk is key – encompassing all risks, not just those that are Covid-19-based, which can include increased criminality, cybercrime, unrest and natural disasters. Once a risk assessment has been completed to identify the risks, measures can be taken to reduce the impact and likelihood,” stated Lawrence.
Essentially, it is important that the pandemic doesn’t distract from pre-existing and ongoing challenges, and vigilance in the face of these longstanding potential risks is vital.
“The focus right now is understandably on the pandemic and the associated risks. However, this means that many organisations (and travellers) could find themselves taking their eye off the ball when it comes to other risks,” said Judge. “Travellers will still find themselves facing the same travel risks as before – from minor disruptions like travel delays, to major threats such as conflict, terror attacks, weather events, natural disasters, and violent protests and disorder – these haven’t gone away. It’s important not to overlook these as we return to travel.”
In addition to potentially detracting from other risks, Lawrence pointed out that the pandemic has had a direct impact on risks: “Inherent risks following the Covid-19 pandemic have changed and also increased due to the global economic downturn, unemployment, social unrest and increased cybercrime. Lack of internal investment in infrastructure will see an increase in accidents, outages and other related incidents. Those countries that experience natural disasters (due to climate change, the frequency and severity is increasing) on a catastrophic scale and will continue to see a lack of investment in regeneration strategies, this will also trigger increased criminality, kidnap and unrest,” he explained.
Another effect that the pandemic has had on risk, said Figgins, is to demonstrate the importance of a clear travel risk management strategy to mitigate other travel risks. “What Covid-19 has done is to elevate the need for travel risk policies straight to the top of the list. However, it shouldn’t take a pandemic to make senior leaders understand the value of effective travel security and health strategies for travellers,” he told ITIJ.
The risk of Covid-19 may be perceived to have lessened thanks to widespread immunisation programmes and improved understanding of the disease.
“The large majority of travellers that we interact with have increased their risk acceptance compared to when Covid-19 first emerged. With the development and uptake of vaccines, coupled with the associated low mortality rates, the majority of travellers that ETS support seem to place a minor level of interest and concern in this risk,” Hansen told ITIJ.
David agreed: “It could easily be argued that the material risk was higher six to 12 months ago than it is now, with the increased knowledge we have, vaccinations and advances in treatment. A greater concern might be the extent to which the experience of Covid distorts our wider thinking around risk.”
But other risks still remain, he reiterated: “Other risks haven’t gone away, and our own experience is that the more established travel medical risks, including cardiovascular disease and trauma, continue to present more of a challenge in terms of risk prediction, mitigation and response than Covid.”
Re-establishing eroded travel confidence
Even with thorough risk assessment and mitigation strategies in place to safeguard employees, they may still, understandably, be wary of travelling. How can confidence be instilled?
“Traveller confidence has steadily been eroded, and as a result, so has their appetite to travel. We have reached a stage where the risk factors outweigh the benefits for many travellers, and it will take time to reverse this trend. In order to achieve this, the industry will need to be collaborative in its approach to risk mitigation,” said Figgins.
He believes that with the full participation of the supply chain, over time people will see what is possible with robust safety and security measures in place, the return to travel will start to gain momentum, and traveller confidence will return. David hopes that confidence will be improved by the vaccination campaigns, of which we haven’t yet felt the full impact.
For Hansen, communication is key to instilling business travellers and their employees with confidence: “It is important to get ahead of any potential anxiety. Providing the client with a Covid-19 section in the security vulnerabilities risk assessment travel brief between countries is critical to demonstrate to clients that your company understands the risk
to the client in the area where they are travelling. It is also important that the traveller understands the risk that they are in, and makes a decision whether to take that risk, or not,” he explained. “Once the traveller(s) understand the risk, they should be further communicated with to explain what risk mitigation and management measures will be put in place.”
Lawrence believes that it is paramount to empower the traveller through knowledge, understanding and transparency. “In order to achieve this, it is imperative that protective and reactive measures are implemented to reduce the risk level within the organisations risk appetite,” he told ITIJ. “On completion of a pre-travel risk assessment, the traveller will have a high level of awareness for the environment travelling they are to, and will have a support network in place both internally and externally available to them once at their destination.”
An evolving landscape
It is undeniable that the travel risk management landscape is one of constant evolution. Looking at recent times, apparent changes include need to redefine the meaning of travel risk management, a growth in technology and the advent of new challenges. Indeed, David wonders if travel risk management should be renamed people risk management, due to the inherent shift in focus.
He explained: “To some extent, you could argue that ‘travel risk management’ became an outdated term a while ago, because it refers to protecting your people, wherever they are. But with the pandemic establishing ‘home working’ as a normal business activity, it is unlikely that this will become a sub-sector of risk management. Therefore, rather than continuing to be seen as a separate discipline, the travel risk management landscape should be encompassed under a broader approach that ultimately focuses on people risk management.”
Figgins noted that the use of technology has significantly increased in recent years, but that this shouldn’t detract from important, basic skills: “Many travellers are equipped with apps and direct communication to experts at the touch of a button. This has changed (and continues to change) the landscape of travel risk management. However, the industry
mustn’t lose sight of the basic skills that will keep travellers safe. Travel safety and security training for travellers should be rolled out in tandem with the technology they carry in their pocket or bag.”
According to Hansen, for many years there has been a need for companies to adopt a more proactive mindset when it comes to travel risk management, and the pandemic served to emphasise this. “This is so often the case with security and risk management; there needs to be a big incident to drive home the issue,” he told ITIJ. “It is hoped that organisations will now place greater emphasis on avoidance versus reaction.”
Important lessons about risk assessment and mitigation have been learned. How will these be actioned moving forward to ensure that travel risk management firms and their clients remain on the ball and make sure that employee safety remains a priority?
David pointed out that the pandemic put pressure on organisations and their ability to maintain high levels of situational and contextual awareness that are necessary for assistance work. “Having a resource you can depend on to rapidly collate information, analyse it and interpret its relevance became absolutely invaluable, and this is likely to be seen as a ‘must have’ moving forwards,” he said.
Figgins said that the importance of preparedness planning was accentuated by the pandemic. “It has taken on a whole new meaning during the Covid-19 pandemic. Those organisations who had pandemic plans in place clearly fared better than those who found themselves forced to take a more dynamic approach to the pandemic,” he told ITIJ.
Flexibility and adaptability will be prioritised moving forward. “A ‘business as usual’ mindset no longer exists in travel risk management, as the rules for travel are ever-changing, forcing companies to stay on their toes in closely monitoring the global response regarding Covid-19 and the Delta variant,” said Hansen.
Gaps have become apparent, and there is work to be done: “While cost, traveller experience and care remain key focus areas for travel programmes, Covid-19 has exposed major gaps in companies’ duty of care practices and standards for supporting traveller welfare,” said Smith.
Lawrence agrees that there is room for improvement, and adds that technology can assist with this: “The key lessons learned from the pandemic are that organisations haven’t prepared their contingency plans correctly. There is a huge lack of understanding around crisis management, incident response, and evacuation planning which, through pre-travel risk assessments, can be identified and addressed. Historically, the pre-travel risk assessment has been bureaucratic and paper based. However, there is new technology available on the market to aid organisations to streamline this process through technology and innovation.”
Collaboration, communication and confidence
Travel risk management firms are crucial for safeguarding clients. What employers and employees require from these organisations, first and foremost, is support and guidance in the form of access to up-to-date, accurate information, as well as confidence and reassurance. Key desired traits for travel risk management companies are agility and flexibility, and these traits need to be mirrored by employers and their employees in their approach to travel.
Situations can change in an instant, and organisations must be ready to respond to these changes quickly and effectively. Despite there having been a natural and needed emphasis on the material risk of an individual contracting Covid-19, this shouldn’t distract from other risks, and organisations need to remain vigilant.
The pandemic has highlighted the value of effective travel security and health strategies, as well as exposing gaps that need to be filled. With ongoing technological advances, technology and innovation can be applied to enhancing travel risk assessment processes.
Looking ahead, the future of travel risk management relies on effective industry collaboration, as well as communication with travellers. For business travellers to feel confident about travelling, they need to be empowered by knowledge and reassurance. The industry is arguably stronger than ever due to lessons learned and experience gained that can be applied to existing and future risks, making travel safe and ensuring peace of mind.