The Covid-19 pandemic negatively affected a number of international assistance companies, with some no longer able to operate, resulting in changes to capacity, support and provision for the insurance industry. Although this turn of events presented challenges, opportunities have also emerged that have been harnessed by insurers to strengthen existing capacity and enhance resilience. Many assistance providers were able to continue operating throughout the pandemic due to contingency plans, and succeeded in overcoming challenges and learnt important lessons that will be implemented moving forward. As Des Donnelly, Senior Vice-President, Distribution & Partnerships, International SOS, told ITIJ: “International assistance companies will find a way to support the insurance industry. Demand and supply will always balance if there is profitable business.”
Flexible benefits and expertise in medical assistance
ITIJ also spoke with Claire McKinnon, UK Sales Director, Healix, who confirmed that the pandemic undoubtedly impacted smaller international assistance companies: “Particularly those who did not have the capacity or capabilities to respond to the changing demands of corporates and insurers,” she added. McKinnon speculated that insurers’ evolving needs in light of the pandemic may have impacted certain assistance companies. “Following the initial need to assist business travellers navigating global flight bans and border issues, or providing medical assistance to those with Covid, corporate requirements were redirected towards things such as 24/7 medical helplines,” she told ITIJ. “As a result, partnering with assistance firms that could offer expert and constant medical and security expertise to their staff became vital, and is likely to be where some smaller travel assistance companies struggled.”
Randy Cook, CEO, AMI Global Assistance, commented that on the surface, assistance capacity has decreased, whilst the complexity of need has significantly increased. “While many use the volume of global travellers as the ‘need indicator’, specifically in the leisure travel sector, we cannot avoid the new mix of factors impacting the industry, beyond the number of people in the air,” he told ITIJ. “International assistance companies work within national and localised healthcare channels when delivering service. This drives the need for regional expertise where many larger firms garner support from smaller firms with a niche regional focus. If those smaller firms are still suffering impacts from the Covid era, you have the beginnings of capacity issues, which will only grow exponentially.” Ultimately, the relationships between stakeholders – namely insurers and global health and assistance providers – are key, and strong connections are crucial to continued success.
assistance companies have a responsibility and measures in place to ensure continuity when unexpected events occur
James Page, Chief Administration Officer and Head of Assistance and Claims, AIG Travel, said that his company has seen only minimal changes to the number of providers available to assist with cases: “While some companies did decide to close or combine with others in their field, the majority of the providers we have historically worked with are still in operation. Some staff may have been reduced due to the decrease in travel, but assistance providers appear to have been able to evolve to a model designed to provide more flexibility when full volume returns.”
Amanda Winkle, Chief Commercial Officer, IMG, highlighted that assistance companies have a responsibility and measures in place to ensure continuity when unexpected events occur: “Covid-19 has certainly generated significant call and case volume increases, but there’s a responsibility of assistance companies to plan and staff for these types of rapid and unexpected volume increases,” she stated. “Assistance companies also have a business continuity plan and disaster recovery plan that is tested annually. If there is an unexpected increase in volume that cannot be managed by the core service team, the contingency plans are activated to manage the volume.” This may entail having other offices or entities handle the increase in work, or it could mean deploying a plan to get temporary help in place quickly.
Recovery, uptick and resilience
In spite of setbacks and challenges experienced, as travel resumes and consumer confidence increases, many assistance companies have seen a subsequent rise in demand for their core services. What is more, the need for effective assistance and travel risk mitigation has been underlined by an increased understanding of the importance of the industry. “By mid-2021, assistance case activity started to increase in volume again alongside travel insurance claims, as restrictions were lifted and more people – firstly tourists, and then business travellers – gained confidence to travel,” said McKinnon. “From this point on, many organisations have seen an increase in the need for assistance beyond pre-pandemic levels, as Covid-19 has reinforced the need for effective assistance and travel risk management solutions more than ever.”
Jamie Hersant, Head of Travel Claims, Admiral, described positive changes in terms of new levels of flexibility afforded: “Specifically in relation to the UK market, some of the larger assistance providers are benefiting from the flexibility the pandemic has created to recruit remotely in the UK and abroad to expand and strengthen their existing capacity to be ready for the rebound being seen in the travel market as a whole.” He said that although there is no denying that it has been a challenging period, there is a new understanding of the importance of resilience and many companies have been able to showcase these skills, as well as provide newly developed offerings. “It has shown which companies have a resilient model to weather even the most challenging of circumstances,” he stated. “It may also give an opportunity for new companies to emerge providing something different, or to restart without the legacy of any issues that existed prior to the pandemic, and this should be embraced.”
Winkle said that for IMG, rigorous staffing preparations have played an important part in mitigating the impact of the pandemic, and will continue to do so moving forward: “This is achieved by staying closely aligned with current and potential clients to understand their needs and volume projections for the upcoming months and years,” she told ITIJ. “Ensuring that a robust talent pipeline is maintained through our partners in Human Resources is also key to allow for rapid and efficient hiring of staff to account for the additional need.”
Traditional assistance is reactive, commoditised and no longer meets the needs of complex multinational client
A new era of assistance?
The challenges presented by the pandemic highlighted the need for reactivity and flexibility and underlined the idea that certain traditional processes may no longer be viable. Donnelly told ITIJ: “Traditional assistance is reactive, commoditised and no longer meets the needs of complex multinational clients. Most seek proactive education and intelligence, delivered through digital platforms and apps, to not only fulfil their Duty of Care requirements but to protect their people and eliminate insurance claims.” The Covid-19 pandemic amplified this market shift, typified by the high rate of adoption for teleconsultation, which is now readily accepted around the globe as new way to see a medical professional. “Another example,” he continued, “is specialist counselling services, which are seen as a core need for mobile populations, often purchased directly rather than as an add on to insurance. Covid-19 has radically changed clients’ needs and the demand for more bespoke solutions. The adoption of ISO 31030 will also increase expectations even further.”
Cook also believes that a focus on digital solutions, along with flexibility, is essential to navigating the ongoing impacts of the pandemic and that it is necessary for all stakeholders to adapt in order to thrive: “The ‘new’ focus to stay safe and well is pressuring the assistance sector to quickly pivot and become more agile and digital. As people continue to embrace new methods of healthcare delivery, global assistance providers will need to adopt a more pre-emptive approach with services such as pre-travel planning, contact tracing, counselling/mental health services, telehealth offerings, occupational health programmes and cost containment services.”
Lessons learned and positives taken
As travel continues to gain ground, the remaining assistance companies are well placed to deal with demand and continue to adapt and respond to the unexpected. As McKinnon pointed out, while the industry will never be the same again, this doesn’t have to be a bad thing: “All players have learnt many lessons in the last two years that have made us more resilient and entrepreneurial. Now, the companies that expand their offerings, innovate towards clients and partners’ needs, and can be flexible internally to meet demands, will be the ones who have the capabilities to support the insurance industry, and those who don’t will struggle, regardless of their size,” she told ITIJ.
Typical responsive assistance business models, providing pure emergency response solutions, will not meet the emerging needs of customers
Cook agrees that the pandemic has irreversibly altered the state of play: “Covid-19 has radically reshuffled the deck, ushering in new challenges for businesses, travellers and insurers. Typical responsive assistance business models, providing pure emergency response solutions, will not meet the emerging needs of customers, which have been shaped by new perspectives on risk coupled with navigating evolving policies and protocols.”
Hersant said that new levels of awareness have been reached for both consumers and travel insurers and continued growth and evolution will ensure consumer needs are met: “There is still a variety of products and differing levels of cover available to suit most customers’ needs, and the pandemic has made customers more aware of both the need for travel insurance, and the importance of finding the right level of cover for their needs,” he said. “This is a positive thing for the market both in terms of potential growth, but also customers being more aware of what they are buying – by default this is likely to drive evolution in product development to meet future needs.”
Together as one
With continued flexibility and adaptability, travel insurers and assistance providers alike will continue to evolve and meet the changing demands of consumers. “As insurance providers focus on expanding their global footprint through highly customised insurance policies and the delivery of new digital services, the assistance sector will have to work diligently to adapt their service models to more tailored, innovative solutions for customers to keep pace with the growing demands for more and better protection,” said Cook.
Insurers and assistance providers are primed to continue providing the service they are known and respected for.
Solutions will always be found and as challenges evolve, so too will the tools needed to overcome them, said Donnelly: “The insurance and assistance industries are interdependent and will always find solutions for clients,” he told ITIJ. “Covid-19 has radically changed what those solutions look like and the demand for more bespoke solutions.”
As they emerge from unprecedented turbulence, it is even possible that many companies are now stronger than ever before. As McKinnon stated: “Many international assistance companies are now seeing the opportunity to come back stronger and with an increased offering to cope with new demands in a post-pandemic world.” However, this relies on a willingness and ability to adapt. “With an uptick in domestic and international travel, assistance providers will have to be ready to respond to new customer demands and expectations,” said Cook. Page acknowledged that challenges remain, and it is important not to become complacent but remain ready for action: “While we are not currently encountering difficulty in finding providers for assistance cases, travel has not yet returned to full volume; we anticipate that providers will continue to adapt and meet demands when we reach full travel volumes,” he said.
The pandemic served to highlight that some of the more traditional methods employed by the insurance and assistance sectors may no longer be effective in the face of challenges and new, novel solutions such as telemedicine are helping to drive these industries forward. Flexibility and agility have become more important than ever before, along with contingencies in place to continue to thrive in the face of unprecedented challenges.