As companies plan for the inevitable return to a ‘new normal’ in which global mobility is a standard aspect of their business once more, traveller safety is front of mind in a way it has never been before. Protecting travellers in a post-Covid world means a new approach to travel risk management (TRM) and a fundamental shift in focus for those providing this kind of support to ensure employers – and most importantly travelling employees – are comfortable that the risks involved in travelling have been mitigated as much as is possible.
“Duty of care responsibilities and travel risk management have never been more important, ensuring that those willing to travel are supported from both a medical and travel safety perspective,” Damian Taylor, Director of Strategic Services at Securewest, a UK-based global risk management company, told ITIJ. “Employees’ expectations will be higher with regards to what their company is doing to support them before and during travel and, just as importantly, upon their return.”
The provision of support for mobile workforces generally comes from in-house TRM teams, who in turn rely on the services of global travel and medical assistance companies to a varying extent. Working together, they formulate company travel policies and support systems that are tailored to an organisation to meet its unique needs. However, whereas many TRM strategies were designed to kick in when assistance was needed, going forward, prior planning is set to be key.
“Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, our clients mainly focused on the response components of their TRM programmes, such as ensuring they have insurance and assistance resources in place to reduce the risk exposure that results from medical and security crises overseas,” said Thomas Davidson, President of On Call International in the US. “However, now as a result of the pandemic, many of our clients have changed their main focus to preparedness.” In the short term, this is going to mean planning to travel in a world with Covid-19, he added, bringing a ‘necessity for greater awareness and preparedness for the risks of infectious disease in the long term’.
Indeed, until there is a vaccine in place, ‘organisations will need to think about travel very differently to how they have done so in the past’, agrees Matthew Judge, Group Managing Director, Anvil Group, a TRM specialist and assistance provider based in the UK: “In the short-term, they’ll need to put far greater emphasis on the pre-trip due diligence process before travel actually starts, to understand the various elements of the trip and how they’re going to mitigate risk at each of the key stages, including the journey to the airport itself,” he told ITIJ.
Indeed, where security assistance was a core focus pre-Covid, ensuring traveller health and wellbeing is now a key priority. Francine Abgrall, Group Head of Travel at Europ Assistance in France, stated: “In the past, when looking to manage travel risk, firms placed a major emphasis on the security aspect, especially as terrorism and political instability grew in certain regions. Health-related risk did not have the same emphasis. As such, many organisations were not sufficiently equipped to properly assess and handle the risks brought forth by Covid-19. In a post-pandemic world, health-related risks will be the foremost concern of any corporate risk manager.”
In line with a greater emphasis on health protection, many TRM programmes are now increasingly looking to ensure sufficient insurance is included as part of the package, including cover for quarantine and repatriation costs. Abgrall stated: “The biggest change to the TRM programmes that we’ve seen is an increased demand for greater insurance coverage for their employees, especially from a health perspective. I anticipate that many programmes developed in the wake of Covid-19 will have a strong medical insurance component.”
In their own time
Business travel can be stressful at the best of times, as many a report has shown, but travelling when a deadly virus is making its way around the globe is certainly enough to make even the most blasé globetrotter ensure they’ve not just packed sufficient personal protective equipment and hand sanitiser, but have got robust medical assistance – including mental health support – in place. For others, travel at this time might not be something they’re comfortable with at all and companies should, therefore, make it clear that, at least in the near term, travel is undertaken on a voluntary basis, with no prejudice should an employee choose not to travel, says Taylor.
“In a post-pandemic world, there will still be a lot we still don’t know about the virus itself – even basic things like how it is spread and how fatal it is and to whom – with anything like the degree of confidence we’d normally expect before making decisions that could directly affect the health of our employees – this in itself is a cause of anxiety,” Taylor continued. “As a result of this uncertainty, there is anxiety about the safety of even the most mundane activity, such as visiting local shops, let alone international travel. It has never been more important to be able to access objective, accurate advice from a health and medical risks specialist, and the kind of reassurance that could provide might make all the difference.”
Other anxieties may stem from simply being around people again, while some employees may have suffered bereavements of close family members or friends during lockdown and not yet had the chance to grieve properly, points out Judge. “Organisations need to be acutely aware of everyone’s personal situation,” he said, adding that employees’ physical health should also be reassessed before they’re considered able to travel again – some employees, or people close to them, may be more vulnerable to the virus, some may have had the virus and recovered, some may have underlying health conditions that now put them in a higher risk bracket for travel. “We need to understand the impact that lockdown itself may have had on people’s physical and mental health in general,” said Judge. “Furthermore, underlying physical and mental health conditions may have got worse during the lockdown period due to limitations in treatment availability.”
One of the fundamental elements of corporate TRM is a travel safety policy that sets out a company’s approach to ensuring employee safety while travelling and provides reassurance that travel risks have been assessed and mitigated, and that a support structure is in place should anything go wrong while the employee is abroad. “An integrated approach to TRM should ensure that the company’s commitment to the health and safety of its employees is clearly articulated and aligned with relevant policies across the organisation,” commented Taylor. “This will establish the principles, scope, and standards of how the organisation manages travel risk, including their approach to supporting staff through the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond.” Part of this policy should address the issue of how to manage employees who choose not to travel even where all appropriate steps have been taken, he says, and identifying staff who could undertake the trip instead.
Pre-travel risk assessments, then, are essential for all staff considered for business trips and, according to Taylor, should be ‘dynamic, current and tailored specifically to the individual traveller’. Age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, travel experience and dates of travel, as well as underlying health conditions, should all be considered, he says: “As well as identifying the traditional risks – road safety, petty crime, malaria, etc. – they should now consider Covid-19 specific risks, such as live cases in a specific city or destination, transmission rates, social distancing laws in the destination, specific entry requirements, and so forth, as well as local medical capabilities in case an employee falls ill while travelling.”
Health environments may have changed in many parts of the world due to the effects of the global pandemic, and this is also something that those in charge of TRM need to consider. As Judge told ITIJ: “Some places may be experiencing restricted levels of service, with some facilities not accessible or available as they were prior to Covid-19. Should travellers find themselves in need of treatment for general health conditions or for conditions brought about by additional Covid-19-related stressors, travellers could find it more difficult to access treatment while away.”
A robust pre-travel briefing, then, is also essential to ensure business travellers know who to contact and where to find help if in need while away. These briefings, whether face-to-face or via video call, will be based on the findings of the personal risk assessment and provide guidance and reassurance to the traveller, says Taylor.
They also need to come with warnings, however – namely, the consequences for themselves and the company should a traveller fail to comply with local social distancing or quarantine protocols, for example. “Non-compliance could lead to very large fines or the withdrawal of work permits and visas by the local authorities and could even include imprisonment of the employees and a restriction on the organisation being able to operate in a particular country,” explained Judge.
“For instance, there was a well-publicised case in May of a US pilot sentenced to four weeks imprisonment in Singapore for breaking quarantine restrictions and leaving the hotel airport in order to buy masks and a thermometer. Quarantine violators in Singapore face up to six months in jail, a fine of up to S$10,000 (US$7,000), or both.”
Destination risk factors
“The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for destination-specific intelligence on disease outbreaks, and for knowledge about a travelling employee’s own health conditions and recent global movements,” Angela Smith, Head of Propositions for UK-based Charles Taylor Specialist Claims Management, commented. “This increases the onus on employers to ensure that the right precautions are taken both before and during employee assignments overseas.”
Getting this right is no mean feat, with entry requirements, visa statuses, work permit rules, flight routes and Covid-19 case numbers changing daily in all parts of the world. “To compound the complexity, restrictions vary between – and often within – countries,” said Taylor. “Those conducting the risk assessments need to have access to live, trusted information to provide guidance.”
As an example of the ever-changing complexities that need to be navigated by TRM specialists, Taylor gave the example of Indonesia, which at the time of writing required those wishing to enter the country to have a valid health certificate in English issued by the health authority of their respective country. “It must be valid within seven days and state that the passenger is free from respiratory disease and ‘fit to travel’,” he explained. “It must also contain the Polymerise Chain Reaction (PCR) test result and the traveller should have no travel history in the last 14 days from China, France, Germany, Iran, Italy, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, the UK or Vatican City. They must also agree to self-quarantine for 14 days and fill in a statement of compliance on arrival. This would extend a five-day trip to a three-week trip and may even require self-isolating when returning home.”
If this wasn’t complex enough, TRM providers also need to consider any countries that business travellers might be passing through on their trip, and address all necessary issues related to crossing those borders or entering those additional countries – a task that involves robust research and intelligence. As Judge summarised: “Regions previously deemed ‘safe’ travel zones now present a potential health risk in a way that they didn’t before, and organisations need to allow the time to understand the situation fully and undertake additional due diligence measures prior to any trip commencing.”
Once a staff member has been cleared for travel, has agreed to the assignment and has set off on their travels, it is now more important than ever to be able to communicate with them while they are abroad. “Many organisations were unable to locate employees during the height of Covid-19, which caused delays in response and repatriation for some,” explained On Call International’s Davidson. “Going forward, travel monitoring will most likely become the norm.”
This, he added, could include tracking capabilities and / or mobile apps, as well as limits on permitted leisure travel deviation during work and study trips. “Overall, we are seeing more caution placed on the ‘checks and balances’ of travel and are responding to this need through elevated levels of proactive intelligence, travel restart risk threshold analysis, pandemic-related response planning and testing, as well as corresponding technology solutions to support these endeavours,” Davidson told ITIJ.
Location-based monitoring, check-in and tracking tools are a big part of what TRM specialists can offer, and provide employers with ‘a bird’s eye view of global staff in the context of threats on the ground in different countries abroad, enabling travel plans to be adapted according to real-time pandemic risks and restrictions and staff to be located without delay’ said Smith. Mobile technology, she says, has never been so relevant: “Used effectively, it can help provide access to everything from intelligence on real-time Covid-19 travel restrictions and risks abroad, to wider medical and security intelligence and alerts. It’s now up to TRM specialists to ensure that bespoke technology solutions are available to meet the individual needs of clients – and that globally mobile employees feel safe.”
Abilities and limitations
Apps that track travellers are usually supplied by a global assistance partner through their in-house systems or a third-party specialist, but it’s not just this vital technology and destination-specific intelligence that such assistance partners bring to the table. So, how else do assistance providers add to a corporate TRM strategy?
“The role of an assistance specialist is to identify a TRM’s specific and changing needs and to provide bespoke risk management and assistance solutions to meet them,” said Smith at Charles Taylor. This often means supporting an organisation by ‘doing the heavy lifting, providing expert guidance, policy writing, travel risk awareness training, and ensuring policies and services are aligned between insurers, TRMs and the assistance provider’s services’ explains Taylor.
At the core of this is the assistance provider’s ability to bring centralisation and streamline inherent processes. As Judge told ITIJ: “We can take a lot of the labour elements away from the organisations and build processes that perform much of the legwork around the risk assessments for them as managed services. TRM providers can bring efficiency and a level of automation to the process but also oversee the due diligence requirements prior to trips commencing. Plus, we can be there to provide both proactive and reactive support for the organisation and individual travellers during the trip itself.”
However, making corporate TRM partners aware of what assistance providers can’t do is vital, Taylor at Securewest explained, as this can help manage expectations and avoid any disconnect. He cites the following areas as just some that could be explained to corporate TRMs:
- Information limitations: “There is sometimes an expectation that global assistance providers can deliver perfect knowledge and clarity in circumstances where information is unreliable or scarce if not non-existent; and [TRMs] often expect clarity on how situations might evolve, when conditions are confused, if not inherently unknowable.” Even the best assistance providers can only work within a range of possible outcomes rather than providing certainty.
- Legal constraints: “Remember, assistance companies obey the laws of physics as well as the laws of the land, the air and sea – they can’t fly black helicopters into countries with closed airspace.”
- Third-party ground providers: “Every global assistance company relies on a network of local service providers. Most of these local companies in turn provide services to multiple global assistance companies. This works well during normal times, but in the event of a crisis they are in high demand and prices will almost certainly increase.”
- Limited resources for support: “TRMs must accept that there are some places in the world, such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where there are very limited options for providers, and the few that are appropriate will be expensive.”
There can be no doubt as to the important role that global assistance providers bring to corporate entities in terms of shaping their TRM strategy and keeping employees safe when travelling across borders. Post Covid-19, where travel now comes with a more complex set of risk factors, the services of a dedicated, third-party assistance company will no longer be thought of as an expensive luxury, but as a business necessity, said Taylor.
Playing a proactive role, as opposed to being merely reactive, is also a fundamental shift that is now being seen in the provision of TRM by assistance companies. Pre-travel briefings, relevant health insurance coverage, and traveller tracking are key and front of mind when formulating TRM policies. Assistance partners will, thus, continue to provide a tailored and focussed approach for each client depending on their risk tolerance, which will always vary from organisation to organisation and from traveller to traveller, as Davidson at On Call International states: “Now, more than ever, TRM providers need to continuously pivot and adapt their strategies and solutions to align with their clients’ and travellers’ unique risk tolerance. If these needs are considered and responded to from programme inception, a mutually successful TRM programme can be achieved from both sides.”