First published by Grant Rayner on 02 Oct 2023
7 min readTravel Security
This essay was originally published in Dangerous Travels on 02 Oct 2023
Effectively mitigating travel risks requires an emphasis on risk avoidance.
Insurance is not risk avoidance. To be more precise, insurance helps the company avoid risk. It doesn’t, however, help the traveller to avoid risk. Avoiding risk for travellers demands a more proactive approach to risk management. Effective travel advice provides a proactive solution and should be an essential aspect of any organisation’s travel risk management programme.
Most large companies will provide travel advice to their business travellers as part of their approach to mitigating risk. If you work for a large company and travel for business, you’ve probably received such travel advice before. If you work for the security team or travel management team of a large company, you may have prepared such advice for your travellers.
Does travel advice actually mitigate risk? Of course, it should. However, in practice, it may not. In fact, it may provide a false sense of the effectiveness of mitigation. You may think you’re effectively mitigating risk for your travellers, when in fact you’re not.
The effectiveness of travel advice depends on four factors:
I’ll explore these factors one at a time in the sections below. I’ll also share some thoughts on how you might improve the quality of the travel advice you provide to make it more effective.
Travel advice is useful at different points of time in the travel process:
During planning, the traveller may benefit from some general background information and a list of major incidents that have occurred in the last five years.
While on the ground, the traveller will benefit from tactical information, such as reports on protest activity, transport strikes, bad weather, or terrorist attacks.
Critical information must get to travellers immediately. If there’s been a terrorist attack, for example, the traveller should receive a message on their phone within minutes of the attack. Not within hours. If a protest is being planned for tomorrow, the traveller should receive a notification today about the protest so they have time to plan and adjust their activities.
Why is timeliness important? If you allow time between the incident and the advice, the traveller will have time to formulate and execute their own response. In many cases, their response would only increase their risk exposure. Quite rightly, the traveller will also question the value of late advice.
Ideally, the objective is that they hear of an incident through a travel alert, and certainly before they’ve decided to take action (excepting, of course, a situation where the traveller is directly impacted by the incident).
Travel advice should be tailored to the requirements of the traveller.
A fundamental point to note here is that the traveller will typically not be the decision maker. They do not implement travel restrictions. Rather, most travellers are told to go to a particular location. It’s not the traveller’s responsibility to assess the risks associated with travel to that location. Rather, they should assume that someone else—who is in expert in such matters—has done the necessary assessments and has made a decision as to whether travel should proceed.
It follows that the information being provided to travellers doesn’t need to be designed to enable them to make an objective assessment of the risks. Instead, the information should provide an overview of the risks, providing context for the risk mitigation measures they need to apply once on the ground. Links can be provided to “learn more” about the history of a specific threat group, for example. However, it’s not essential that the traveller knows this information to effectively mitigate risk.
What the traveller does need to know are the following:
The emphasis of travel advice should be on risk mitigation measures that are specific to the local environment. This aspect is where a lot of travel advice falls short.
Most organisations rely on third-party service providers to provide travel safety and security advice to their travellers. Such advice will almost always be generic. The reality is that these service providers have many clients, and each client will have different travel profiles and needs. They therefore need to target the median customer.
Making travel advice generic allows it to be automated. If it’s automated, the corporate security or corporate travel team can just do nothing in the knowledge that the service provider will send out some form of travel advice.
I can appreciate the desire to automate travel advice. However, the practice of issuing bland travel advice based on generic templates (that is probably also late) will have negative repercussions.
Firstly, travellers are more likely to simply ignore the advice. After reading the first few lines of the email, travellers will realise no effort has been put into the travel advice and will just ignore the rest of the details. Sure, you can ask them not to do that. But you shouldn’t really have to ask.
Second, and of more concern, over time your organisation’s travel safety and security programme will be seen as irrelevant. More correctly, it will be seen for what it is: an attempt to do the bare minimum for ‘duty of care’.
A last point on intent is that, when providing updates and alerts, there’s no need to provide detailed analysis.
For example, if a terrorist conducts an attack on a particular location, the traveller doesn’t need to know the details of the terrorist group’s history and their motivations. Rather, they need to know what to do in response to the attack.
In another example, if protests are likely to worsen, just say that: “Protests are likely to worsen over the next 24 hours.” Don’t provide detailed analysis as to why.
Detailed analysis provides the basis for disagreement. The traveller will have their own opinion on the situation, but won’t have the same level of experience as a seasoned intelligence analyst. Given detailed analysis, the traveller may decide they disagree with the analysis and therefore the risk mitigation advice.
In short, detailed analysis is useful for security professionals to determine whether to apply travel restrictions. Detailed analysis is less useful for travellers.
Just tell them what to do.
Travel advice must always be contextual and relevant for the traveller. If not, there’s a risk the advice will be ignored.
Let’s say there’s been a terrorist attack in a hotel in a city. The company should know the hotels used by its travellers, allowing it to issue a contextual message to travellers in the city.
“If you’re staying in Hotel A, it’s safe to remain where you are. If you’re staying in Hotel B, you should move to Hotel A or a different hotel in either District 3 or 4. If you require assistance changing your reservations, please contact the corporate travel team for assistance.” Or words to that effect.
Even better, a phone call to the traveller saying: “Due to the attack on Hotel X in your city, we need you to change hotels. We’ve booked you into Hotel A and have arranged a car to pick up at 2pm.”
Another important aspect of context is where travellers are in a country. If an incident occurs in one city, don’t just send alerts to people in that city. Also send alerts to other travellers in the country. Your travel tracking system (if you have one) won’t necessarily capture the full details of the plans of different travellers. An effective approach is to separate your advice for people in the city and people in the country. For example, “If you are in Istanbul, you should do the following… If you are in other cities in Turkey, you should avoid travel to Istanbul for at least the next 48 hours until we have a better understanding of the security situation.”
To be useful, travel advice must be convenient to access. Travellers shouldn’t have to mess about with logging into different applications.
Ideally, travellers shouldn’t have to find the information themselves. Rather, the necessary information should be pushed to travellers at the appropriate time. When a traveller books travel, that process should trigger an email with the current travel advice for their destination and links if they want more information.
The medium of delivery should also relate to the importance of the message.
When it comes to incident alerts, the alert should be pushed to all of the traveller’s devices by multiple means (i.e., message and email) to increase the probability it will be received.
Messaging applications such as WhatsApp are an ideal medium for time-sensitive travel advice and are better than proprietary applications.
Before wrapping up, let’s dig a bit deeper into incident updates and alerts. Here’s a few thoughts on how you can improve the information you provide to your travellers after an incident.
Advice provided in alerts or updates should tell travellers exactly what they need to do to mitigate risk.
Don’t just say “avoid protests”. Explain exactly where the protests are. Provide context by naming nearby landmarks. List the company hotels near the protest area or along the protest route so these can be avoided. Explain which roads to be avoided, particularly if these are main roads or routes to key locations, such as the airport.
Similarly, after a terrorist attack, don’t say “maintain a low profile.” This advice could be interpreted in a dozen different ways. What travellers need to know is whether it’s safe to leave their hotel and move around town. Effectively, is it safe for them—as a foreigner—to be visible on the street. “It’s safe to move around town on foot” or “if you’re moving around town, only move by vehicle.”
“Be alert to your surroundings” is obvious advice but is also not useful. Will being alert to their surroundings prevent a traveller from being killed in a terrorist attack? A better approach is to guide travellers to minimise their risk exposure. You might guide them to avoid popular tourist areas (if relevant to the current risks) or not to loiter in specific areas.
Telling travellers what they shouldn’t do forces them to work out for themselves what they should do. Their decisions could place them at risk.
For example, if a major route is blocked due to a protest, don’t just tell travellers to avoid the route. Provide alternative routes. Alternatively, be specific about the impact of the route closure. For example: “Movement to their airport is still possible via Route 1 and Route 3.”
“While protests may affect your safety in District 1, there are no known protest activities occurring in Districts 2 or 3, so they are considered safe for the moment.”
Each time you issue travel advice, you have a unique opportunity to educate your travellers to the risks and the why specific actions are necessary. A key benefit of this approach is that it creates a ‘muscle memory’, ensuring that travellers will become conditioned to responding to different types of incidents.
A good way to achieve this effect is to provide context. If a similar situation has recently occurred in the location, explain what happened then as a justification for your recommendations. “We recommend avoiding Martyr’s Square. While we’re not aware of any protests occurring there right now, this square has been focal point for protests after similar incidents in the past.” This additional context not only educates the traveller but helps to build confidence in the fact that the people issuing the travel advice or restrictions actually know what they’re doing.
This approach also helps to build confidence and trust in your organisation’s travel safety and security programme. This trust will be essential in a major incident where you’ll need travellers to believe you and follow your recommendations.
Travel updates and alerts are a critical aspect of an organisation’s travel safety and security programme. When used correctly, updates and alerts provide a proactive approach to mitigating risk.
A parting point is that travel advice and updates are no substitute for effective training. Do both.
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