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Traveling executives face a world of risk

Posted On: Feb. 15, 2015 12:00 AM CST

Traveling executives face many risks, ranging from fatigue to political issues, war exposures and kidnapping. Franc Jeffrey, CEO of EQ Travel, discusses what global travelers should watch out for and ways to lessen business travel risks.

It's easy to think of corporate travel as the epitome of elegance and luxury. But for the true corporate road warrior, business travel is stressful, exhausting and potentially dangerous.

It's not uncommon for a traveling executive to hit the ground running while crossing eight time zones and then be expected to nail down a multimillion-dollar business deal.

A study by the Global Business Travel Association predicts a 7.2% rise in business travel spending this year to $288.8 billion. And according to the association, a significant portion of that spending will be allocated to sending workers outside of their home countries, where global travel can be risky business.

The potential dangers of traveling to unstable or high-risk destinations are obvious: everything from terrorism, to political upheaval, to the unlikely event of your plane falling out of the sky.

But the key to safe travel is not to focus so much on the cataclysmic events which are highly unlikely to occur, but more on the risks most likely to happen in the course of a business trip — some as simple and seemingly innocuous as travel fatigue — because anyone who tells you they just flew 18 hours from New York City to India and walked off the plane feeling fresh and relaxed is lying.

That is just the time in the air. When companies create an itinerary for a corporate junket, they mistakenly think that travel time is all about departures and arrivals, never taking into consideration the hours consumed getting to and from the airports and travel to the hotels, among other things. What executive wants to walk into a business meeting on just a few hours' sleep, let alone get behind the wheel if a car is needed?

This all leads to a major risk: driving without a clear head in foreign countries, where the rules are already stacked against you because very often you are on the wrong side of the road, the traffic signs are in foreign languages and driver safety is not a high priority.

A study in February 2014 by the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan looked at global driving fatalities with up-to-date World Health Organization data. The report stated that around the world, the most deadly countries to drive in are: Namibia, with 45 fatalities per 100,000 individuals; Thailand, 44; Iran, 38; Sudan, 36; and Swaziland, 36. The safest countries to put your employees in a car are: Switzerland, with only five fatalities per 100,000 residents; and the Netherlands, Antigua, Tonga and Israel, all with four fatalities per 100,000. The world average is 18 fatalities from a car accident per 100,000 individuals. The U.S. is just under that figure at 14, compared with Australia at seven and the United Kingdom at five.

This is critically important information because legislation exists in some countries saying that if an employee kills someone in an accident, the employer is held responsible, especially if corporate responsibility acts have not been followed. It's also important for business travelers to have a clear understanding of the sometimes-volatile locations where they are traveling.

Risks are different for different types of industries. There are certain industries that need to send employees to work in the world's “hot zones,” such as the oil and gas industry. According to a USA Today report in 2013, three Americans were among 38 workers killed in the siege of an Algerian gas plant when Islamic terrorists used hostages as human shields after their attempted mass kidnapping for ransom went awry. Seven U.S. citizens survived the attack. And as the world goes more and more mobile, cellphone towers are sprouting up like redwoods. Many of them are popping up in deserts, underdeveloped nations and war zones, making the telecommunications industry extremely vulnerable. In today's mobile world, even Somalian pirates need cell service.

When traveling to the world's hot spots, it is important to use common sense. For instance, when you land at an airport stay in the airport until a designated driver approaches you. And companies should make sure they hire proper security, people who know the layout of the region and the political climate. Also, there are apps that can be downloaded to computers and smartphones that give continual updates to any potentially dangerous situations that might arise.

Kidnapping is always a risk when traveling to unstable nations. In some countries it's simply a way to fatten a bank account, and in others it's all about making a political or religious statement. No matter the reason, it is a global epidemic and one that should be addressed before any corporate travel is undertaken.

Corporate travelers also need to realize that a flight on a major airline to get into a somewhat unstable country isn't the problem, it's traveling within the country when there is usually just two options to get 350 miles inland. The quickest option is to take a local small airline which could reach their destination in about 20 minutes. However, these smaller airlines may not comply with the strict safety and service precautions applicable to Western airlines. The alternative is a seven-hour car ride, which will likely take you through a number of security checkpoints manned by people with automatic weapons. Not easy decisions to make.

Fortunately, the recent boom in technology has helped executives travel more safely, as they can now receive electronic alerts regarding risks such as natural catastrophes, labor strikes and changes in flight schedules. And we have not even discussed the one hardcore disruption guaranteed to happen every year in many parts of the world — severe winter weather.

Between Jan. 3 and Jan. 6, 2014, at the height of the polar vortex, U.S. airlines were forced to cancel more than 16,000 flights, or about 17% of flights scheduled, leaving travelers stuck, some for multiple days. And other parts of the world don't fare much better. Less than an inch of snow caused over 300 delayed flights in a single day at Heathrow Airport back in January 2013.

The cost of finding solutions to these situations often can be crippling and costly to a business, both in terms of valuable staff time wasted and the difficulty in finding the time or the resources to source viable, inexpensive travel alternatives.

A large number of companies will enlist a travel management company to monitor global weather conditions so employers can respond quickly when they are alerted to major disruptions in travel, ensuring their employees make it to their destination or can be evacuated as quickly and safely as possible.

Executives should not be afraid to undertake worldwide trips to benefit their businesses. There's a huge chasm between fear and awareness, and that awareness comes through pretrip education, in knowing what the potentials dangers are in advance when traveling and how to deal with them should they arise. The key is in the steps you take to minimize your company's travel risks. Here are a few important tips:

• Know as much about the region as possible before arriving there.

• Make sure your employees use common sense about how to travel safely inland from an airport, what to do at an airport and how to dress so they don't attract unwanted attention.

• Take advantage of latest technology to potentially monitor volatile situations at the tip of your fingers.

• In known dangerous countries, protect your top managers, and those most vulnerable, with kidnap and ransom insurance.

Franc Jeffrey, CEO of EQ Travel, with offices in the United Kingdom and Boston, has over 25 years experience in global corporate travel. He can be reached at fjeffrey@eqtravel.com and 617-535-7524.