Supporting Travellers During Critical Incidents

Why your organisation will struggle to assist travellers during critical incidents and need to instead focus on empowering travellers through effective training.

First published by Grant Rayner on 16 Oct 2023

5 min read

Travel Security

This essay was originally published in Dangerous Travels on 16 Oct 2023 and was updated on 12 Feb 2024

I’ve already written several articles focused on supporting travellers during critical incidents. One of these articles detailed best practices for handling first calls from travellers in distress.

In this article, I’ll discuss some of the challenges organisations will face when responding to traveller emergencies during critical incidents. I’ll then focus on the importance of empowering travellers through training, and how to improve how you approach this training in your organisation.

A useful approach will be to explore the topic of supporting travellers through the lens of a major incident. A good example is the Hamas attacks on Israel on 7 October 2023, focusing specifically on the first few hours of the attack. The same approaches will apply to similar incidents of a critical nature.

Let’s start with this: How would you respond if you received a call from one of your travellers during the initial stage of the attack?

What can you really do?

Let’s say one of your travellers called you and said they are visiting family in Israel and can hear gunshots and explosions. They’re scared and not sure what they should do.

How would you respond?

What would you say to them to help them?

The fact is, there actually isn’t much you (or anyone) could say in this situation to meaningfully assist the traveller. Should you advise the traveller to stay where they are and hide? That might be good advice in some scenarios. Or should you advise the traveller to flee? That could also be good advice. The fact is, without knowing the full context of the traveller’s situation, it will be impossible for you to provide advice that can actually help the traveller. You’re flipping a coin and hoping that the odds are in the traveller’s favour. In reality, by the time you’ve confirmed their name, asked them where they are, and asked them to describe what’s happening, you’ve probably wasted whatever time they had to escape.

Here’s the paradox: The traveller calling you (or the appropriate travel assistance group) would probably only make their situation worse. There are a few reasons why this is the case:

  • The traveller will waste critical time talking to you when they could be assessing their own situation, working out a plan, and taking action.
  • The traveller will have hope that you will be able to solve their problems. Once they realise that you can’t, that hope will be dashed.
  • As noted above, you probably won’t be able to provide meaningful support anyway. Any advice you provide will be naturally flawed due to your lack of understanding of the situation, with a high likelihood that it will only place them at even more risk.

Am I saying that travellers shouldn’t call for assistance during a travel emergency? Not at all. Rather, travellers should recognise the limitations of emergency assistance and should address the immediate risks to their safety before calling for support. This goes for all traveller emergencies. The traveller should get themselves out of immediate danger, then call for support if it’s still required.

Of course, the situation would be different if the calls were coming from employees in non-critical situations. For example, if you received a call from a traveller in Tel Aviv while attacks were occurring around Gaza, you should feel much more confident in being able to provide meaningful advice.

So, if we can’t rely on our capabilities to meaningfully assist travellers in critical incidents, how do we make travellers better prepared for such incidents?

Really, the only option is to empower our travellers through effective training.

Empowering Travellers Through Effective Training

Your organisation could have world class travel safety and security policies and procedures in place. That all falls down when a traveller is faced with a situation that places them at risk and must make a decision in the moment.

Training is the most important preparation you can provide your travellers.

Training should not only guide employees to be able to identify and avoid dangerous situations (which incidentally wouldn’t have helped in the context of the Hamas incursion) but should also guide them in how to respond to situations.

As many of you will know, training is not without its challenges, particularly in a corporate environment. Let’s explore some of the challenges related to training travellers.

The Challenges with Training Travellers

In my experience, there are three core challenges with providing training to travellers:

  • Inadequate content
  • Time constraints
  • Deferred responsibility

I’ll expand on these challenges below.

Inadequate Content

Unfortunately, a lot of security training only goes through the motions. While the existence of a training package may tick a box on a compliance checklist, the content of the package isn’t necessarily sufficient to give the travellers the knowledge they require to identify and manage risks.

Many training packages focus on company policies and arrangements with assistance providers (more on this aspect shortly). They don’t provide practical advice for travellers.

Sure, some training will have advice such as “avoid protests”, “be wary of pickpockets in local markets” and “watch for scams”, but this advice barely scrapes the surface of what’s actually required to keep travellers safe. In fact, such advice is more likely to insult their intelligence.

Avoid protests? No shit.

If the training package is developed in house, it may not have been developed by a travel security specialist. If developed by an outside party, the training may have been prepared based on a bad brief (the organisation may not really know what they want when commissioning the training). Alternatively, the training package may be too generic to be useful.

Online training is perhaps the worst culprit in this regard. In the quest for efficiency, the push to move all training into online formats has lowered the overall standard of training. You can’t prepare travellers to face complex risks with a few bland slides that they can click through in rapid succession just to hit their training credits.

Time constraints

Another challenge organisations face with training is time constraints. There’s only so much knowledge you can impart in an hour’s training. Many companies allocate less time for travel security training. Some online travel security training sessions take only 10 minutes to complete. One company I’ve worked with has a 2-minute video. That’s obviously not enough.

The other factor relating to time is the frequency and timing of training. Frequency of training helps with knowledge retention. While annual training may be sufficient for most requirements, frequent travellers to higher-risk locations may require multiple training sessions per year. Similarly, employees travelling to higher-risk locations should receive additional training close to their time of departure to ensure they can recall key details.

Deferred responsibility

I’ve seen quite a few travel security training decks that simply tell travellers that if they get into trouble, they should just call the company’s assistance provider.

Not terrible advice in principle.

However, no assistance company has the capacity to handle multiple simultaneous calls during a major crisis. To be clear, most assistance companies will be able to receive multiple calls at one time, but the bottleneck will be the availability of security professionals able to provide meaningful assistance to each caller.

Even then, what advice could these security professionals from the assistance company provide that could be helpful? The advice could only be generic. Move away from danger. Find a hiding place. Both good pieces of advice in the right context, but what option is best in this specific context? It’s impossible to know.

Unfortunately, transferring responsibility to assistance companies is viewed as a form of risk transfer. In reality, it’s risk avoidance. The organisation is transferring the responsibility for supporting travellers during a critical incident to an organisation that probably won’t have the capacity to meaningfully support them. Above all, this point reinforces the imperative to take a proactive approach by providing travellers with effective training.

Given these challenges, what options do we have to improve our approach to training our travellers in a way that empowers them to identify risks and respond to incidents?

Improving Training

Improving our approach to preparing travellers to handle incidents while travelling requires us to attend to each of the challenges described above.

Focus on good content

The content of the training matters. Spend the necessary time and effort to develop engaging content that’s relevant for your travellers.

There’s always value in applying a basic process of training needs analysis. What knowledge and skills do your traveller’s need to know to stay safe while travelling? The answers to that question will inform the training design process.

Similarly, if you have existing training packages, carefully review the content of these packages for relevancy to make sure your training is fit for purpose.

Don’t cut corners here. The training content is the foundation for effective training.

Tier content based on risk

As a principle for content planning, employees travelling to higher-risk countries should receive more training than employees travelling to lower-risk countries. Training modules can be developed for specific higher-risk locations, providing details on the risks and threats for each destination.

Ensure timely delivery

To ensure retention, training must be delivered at appropriate intervals. Refresher training should be provided at least once a year. Individuals travelling to higher-risk locations should receive additional training a week before their trip.

You can establish policies and procedures to ensure these timings are applied in practice.

Provide in-person training

While a significant amount of corporate training can be delivered online, you should deliver traveller security training the ‘old fashioned’ way. Have a travel security expert train your travellers in person (or at least, via video). These live sessions can be interactive and should include relevant case studies. Most importantly, this training format provides a forum for questions, ensuring travellers have the opportunity to seek clarification and advice.

Wrap Up

Supporting travellers during a critical incident is extremely difficult. The best approach is to empower travellers, so they have the necessary knowledge to help themselves as the incident unfolds. Once they’ve got themselves out of immediate danger, they can then contact the company (or an assistance provider) to request further assistance.

Effective training is the key to empowering travellers. For training to be effective, the content must be relevant and engaging, and the training must be delivered at appropriate intervals to ensure retention.

Finally, don’t disregard the importance of in-person training for these types of topics. Provided you get the right trainer and good content, it makes a huge difference in terms of learning quality.

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