Focus on security: Keeping travelers safe

Focus on security: Keeping travelers safe
Photo Credit: Illustration by stscheb/

How do you keep a traveler safe? It's a simple question, but the answer is a complex mix of duty of care plans, intricately woven partnerships and advancing technology. It also varies a great deal between corporate and leisure agents.

In the corporate sector, duty of care is a top priority for travel management companies (TMCs) that have strict procedures in place with client corporations. It became front and center after 9/11 and has remained so ever since.

The leisure sector has been slower to adopt duty of care strategies. It's a delicate dance between adequately preparing travelers for potential trip disrupters on their vacation and scaring them away from travel. But, driven by the spate of terrorist attacks in popular destinations in recent years, leisure agents have increasingly been placing an emphasis on duty of care, often turning to agent networks like host agencies and consortia for information and help.

The technology behind keeping travelers safe has improved greatly in recent years as well. Most TMCs offer solutions that can pinpoint where travelers are, should a travel disruption occur, and leisure agents increasingly have the ability to put tools in their clients' hands to help if disaster strikes.

But as the technology evolves, it also raises questions. This is especially true of GPS tracking, which is becoming more common but is viewed by many as an invasion of privacy.

An example of Intelliguide’s country-specific information housed online.
An example of Intelliguide’s country-specific information housed online.

Alerted: learning about disrupters

Before either corporate or leisure agents can help clients when a disaster strikes, they need to know that a disaster has, in fact, occurred.

Most TMCs and corporate-focused agencies subscribe to reports from companies that specialize in intelligence, such as Global Rescue, iJET International, International SOS and Intelliguide. (Intelliguide is owned by Travel Weekly's parent, Northstar Travel Group).

The intelligence-gathering companies work in tandem with corporations and their TMCs, providing reports about countries around the globe. Some also offer technology solutions, such as apps on which travelers can receive messages and be tracked, as well as evacuation services.

Intelliguide focuses on sending subscribers emails about potentially disruptive events and providing updated safety and security information about countries around the world. It was founded in 2001, just prior to 9/11.

Sheila Rice
Sheila Rice

Sheila Rice, vice president of Northstar's Information Products Group, said, "It was data that was nice to have; it wasn't data that was must-have. And then 9/11 happened."

Bruce McIndoe, president of iJET International, said his company works with a number of agencies to provide access to security information, focusing on predictive intelligence: what will happen in a location in the coming weeks and months. He agreed with Rice that 9/11 spurred the duty of care conversation.

"It woke up corporations to understand that they really didn't know where their people were," McIndoe said.

Most corporations, he said, only focused on their duty of care responsibility when they sent employees to more dangerous or foreign destinations, such as Libya. That changed when terrorist attacks started occurring in popular business and leisure destinations in Europe in 2015 and 2016.

Matthew Bradley, International SOS's regional security director for the Americas, said the Paris attacks in 2015 were a particularly jarring wake-up call.

Matthew Bradley
Matthew Bradley

"A terrorist attack in a traditionally low-risk location, people wanted to know, 'Where are my people?'" Bradley said.

Attacks at airports in Brussels and Turkey again heightened the duty of care conversations corporations were having.

"These are transit airports, high-volume airports, cities where you have a lot of business travelers either working or training," Bradley said.

Dan Richards, CEO of Global Rescue, said that providing travelers with advance intelligence data is a key component of duty of care.

"Having good intelligence and situational awareness regarding events, or the possibility that there could be an event, is absolutely critical," Richards said.

In the past few years, travel risk management has seen a distinct shift, according to McIndoe. Corporations have moved toward a concept that he calls "people risk management," a much broader endeavor of which travel risk management is but one component.

For example, when the Brussels airport was bombed, some corporations were able to provide excellent service and support for their travelers who were affected, he said. But if the same corporations also had employees based in Brussels, those employees did not receive that level of support.

"Companies are realizing that travel is a modality," McIndoe said. "The asset they want to protect is the person, and so now we talk about people risk management more than we talk about travel risk management, which is just a subset of that."

GBT’s Expert Care platform, which helps track travelers.
GBT’s Expert Care platform, which helps track travelers.

Duty of care is top of mind

For corporate agencies, duty of care is a priority.

"We view that as being one of our core competencies as a major TMC," said Andrew Jordan, executive vice president and chief technology officer at Carlson Wagonlit Travel. "It isn't just about whether we can get cheap flights. It's actually that we can honor our duty of care to our travelers and make sure that when we put you on a flight that we've arranged to do it in the safest way possible. It's not a nice-to-have. It's actually something that we view to being core to our proposition."

Most TMCs partner with one or more companies that specialize in security intelligence to get alerts. Some TMCs, including American Express Global Business Travel (GBT), also have an in-house team dedicated to monitoring world events.

David Reimer
David Reimer

David Reimer, GBT's senior vice president/general manager North America, said the company's team monitors world events 24/7 and partners with iJET to get the most comprehensive view of potential travel disrupters.

"We want to make sure that we're not missing anything," Reimer said. "We need to know exactly what's happening and be proactive. We don't want to be in a situation where a customer's calling us."

TMCs also track their travelers on platforms that are either proprietary or designed by third parties.

Reimer said GBT's system works from "end to end," including pre-trip, on-trip and post-trip services, as well as tracking a traveler's itinerary and matching it with security notices. It also has the ability to request a traveler's exact geocoordinates via GBT's mobile app, something he said is unique to the company.

"It's really a multipronged strategy," he said. "It's not just one tool; it's multiple tools, depending on what the situation is."

BCD Travel uses a three-pronged approach, employing proprietary tools and platforms, according to senior vice president Kathy Bedell.

First, BCD has a traveler's data, including itinerary, and tracks them on behalf of the client company. Second, BCD communicates that data to any third-party security firms the client is working with (such as iJET or International SOS, which are often engaged directly by corporations). BCD also communicates data to the corporation, which is given the ability to log into a platform and see where their travelers are at any given time.

"We do see this as a partnership," Bedell said. "It's very important. We're kind of the gatekeeper of the data, but it's very important to have very strong partnerships with not only our clients, obviously, but whoever they are outsourcing their security for their travelers to."

Traveler security boils down to two points, in Bedell's mind: "Communication and education, and doing that over and over and over again. ... Everybody needs to know what to do in the time of crisis."

A growing focus for leisure agents

The way agents get travel disrupter alerts and approach duty of care is more fragmented among leisure agencies than it is in the corporate sphere, but many rely on their consortium or host agency.

For example, at CruiseOne/Dream Vacations and Cruises Inc., an in-house team crafts alerts based on news reports and sends them to agents.

"It's pretty much a 24/7 job when it comes to that," said senior vice president Debbie Fiorino. "Whether it's a weekend or night, we have an urgent-news distribution list. ... Then we have a crisis management plan that goes through who do we have to contact, what information do we need to give them."

The alerts include a synopsis of what happened as well as talking points to use with customers and tips to share with travelers regarding travel protection, contact information for local embassies and police departments.

The reports are useful from a reactive perspective, said Gary Smith, owner of a Dream Vacations franchise in Eugene, Ore. Once he or his agents receive word of a travel disrupter, they immediately pull a list of affected clients to contact.

Smith also takes a proactive approach in directing clients to resources such as the State Department and its Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).

But Smith faces the same dilemma that many leisure agents face: They want to keep their clients safe, but "it's a fine line," he said. "We don't want to make them nervous about something they don't need to be nervous about."

Travel Weekly columnist Richard Turen, managing director and owner of Churchill & Turen, takes a very proactive approach when it comes to preparing travelers for their trips. He reads a number of news sources each day, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, and also subscribes to the Week magazine, which includes updates on situations abroad. He then uses that information to inform his clients.

Regardless of how agents get information on travel disrupters or potential travel disrupters, the leisure segment has started placing more importance on the subject in recent years, likely spurred by terrorist attacks and natural disasters.

"In the leisure world, it's sort of evolving now, crisis by crisis," said Jean Newman Glock, managing director of communications and public affairs for Signature Travel Network.

For the past two years, Signature has operated a critical-alert system for which members can sign up. Glock writes the alerts, supplying agents with facts to share with clients who are either on the road or considering a trip. She uses a number of news sources and also checks in with the State Department regularly.

In addition, she said, on-the-ground suppliers are a great source of information for Signature. "We don't like to use them as the sole source to say, 'Oh, everything's fine according to this hotel or this destination specialist,'" Glock said, "but to use them as a source, saying, 'Everybody's good here.'"

About two years ago, Avoya Travel assembled an in-house team that acts as a hub for information gathering when travel disrupters occur. The team also identifies any affected Avoya clients and contacts their agents with the information.

"After we started to realize that this is going to be a bit of a new norm, that it wasn't going to be a one-off deal and it wasn't just going to be hurricanes and snowstorms, I think most sound businesspeople started to say, 'We need to develop a better way to react to that,'" said Steve Hirshan, senior vice president of sales support.

Hirshan called the spate of terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016 the "tipping point" for the creation of Avoya's team.

A screenshot of Virtuoso’s crisis response toolkit.
A screenshot of Virtuoso’s crisis response toolkit.

Virtuoso has also begun giving members access to crisis response toolkits, which detail resources and news regarding travel disrupters, according to Jennifer Campbell, managing director of professional development and agency services. Those resources include information about Virtuoso partners like Medjet, a provider of air medical transportation. Medjet also offers travel alerts for MedjetHorizon members. Agents can enter clients' itineraries and monitor any related alerts.

"When I was in the agency business 10 years ago, the notion of monitoring events for client safety wasn't even on our radar screen," Campbell said.

Things are different today. For example, she said, Virtuoso is launching a member program for emergency response services later this year. While Campbell could not provide details about the program yet, she said, "We launch new programs in response to what our advisers are asking for, so I think that's a clear indication of the importance of emergency response information and this security topic."

Jay Johnson, president of Coastline Travel Advisors in Garden Grove, Calif., said his agency monitors a number of news agencies for travel disrupters, but it has also found Virtuoso's alerts helpful.

"A lot of leisure travelers have detached themselves from the world news while on vacation, so we make an extra effort to let them know if there is a possible travel-related issue, ranging from natural disasters to airline strikes," he said.

An example of the email alerts Intelliguide sends subscribers whenever a potential travel disrupter occurs.
An example of the email alerts Intelliguide sends subscribers whenever a potential travel disrupter occurs.

Northstar's Rice said that Intelliguide has seen a bump in interest from leisure agents. While it hasn't been a mass movement, "they're starting to really seriously look at this content as important to have, in whatever customization would be right for them," she said.

Intelliguide's GoAlert and GoBase products can be white-labeled. And while leisure agents might not want travel disrupter emails going directly to travelers, as many TMCs do, they are increasingly interested in receiving such warnings themselves.

"They recognize that they can utilize the data in some manner," Rice said. "They may not want a subscription going out to their traveler, but they can really value add and help a traveler in a situation that might be weather related or transportation related. This is becoming more and more important now in the leisure retail travel sector."

Agents who subscribe to Travel42 (also owned by Northstar) get access to alerts powered by Intelliguide when they log into the Travel42 website.

Insurance companies are also putting security information directly into the hands of agents' clients. For example, Travel Insured International recently introduced an app that enables users to get push notifications about disruptive events based on their itineraries.

Isaac Cymrot, the company's vice president of industry relations, said, "A big part of what we're doing now is encouraging our agents to encourage their clients to download it. Obviously, we're making it a big part of our marketing and our push."

The insurer Allianz Global Assistance has plans to add travel alerts to its TravelSmart app later this year, according to director of communications Daniel Durazo.

"We expect that travel agents offering our products will encourage their clients to use the app to access real-time information about events at their destination," he said.

GBT’s app can request a traveler’s exact geocoordinates.
GBT’s app can request a traveler’s exact geocoordinates.

Technology progression

The technology behind tracking travelers and putting tools into their hands continues to steadily progress. For one thing, the ability to message potentially affected travelers is getting better all the time.

"It's more evolution than revolution," Carlson Wagonlit's Jordan said. "And some of it is a factor of advances in mobile technology."

Contextual messaging -- reaching travelers with messages that make sense based on where they are, at what time -- will likely get better and better, according to Ted Brooks, executive vice president of service optimization at HRG.

"It's something that's kind of an evolutionary process, but as the tools get better and technology obviously moves forward, we'll be doing more and more of those things," Brooks said.

TMCs will also benefit from being able to incorporate more pieces of a traveler's trip into data sets, he said. GDS bookings used to make up the majority of a trip, but distribution today is more fragmented.

A question going forward, Brooks said, will be, "How do we make sure that we capture all of that, however it's coming in?"

One of the more pressing questions being raised is about GPS tracking. Many technologies, like GBT's app, already have the ability to identify travelers' exact coordinates, but they require the user's permission before revealing his or her location.

Technically speaking, Jordan said, GPS tracking is easy to do. Travelers could be tracked from the moment they leave their front door until the moment they return home.

But will GPS tracking ever become the norm, something travelers are willing to have on at all times? It's not likely, except in rare situations.

"It's always going to be a balancing act," Jordan said. "You can ask that question with a lot of things to do with data: Just because you can, does it mean you should? And you've got to remember that the vast majority of trips are incident-free, so you're compromising a fairly significant element of data privacy, or personal privacy, for the off chance that something may happen, but it probably won't."

Mike Koetting
Mike Koetting

Mike Koetting, executive vice president of supplier and TMC services at Concur, predicted that widespread GPS tracking in the future is unlikely.

"Location services are definitely an additional source of information with your GPS," he said. "I would say it's difficult to envision a future in which automated location reporting is always on for every traveler all the time. It just is something that many individuals have reasonable objections to."

There could be some situational cases for using GPS to track travelers, according to Victor Johnson, solutions portfolio director for Atlas Travel in Marlborough, Mass.

For example, a group of high school students traveling together abroad with a school club could be required to install an app and turn on GPS tracking for their trip.

"We have the technology," Johnson said. "It's whether or not it's considered too invasive and too much of an intrusion into your privacy."

GBT's Reimer said corporations likely will encourage traveling employees to agree to GPS tracking going forward, but data privacy concerns will likely remain a barrier to constant tracking.

Even so, he said, "I do believe that a greater proportion of people will start to opt into these things, because we know that with the increase in [travel disrupting events], people are generally more concerned, and travel managers are more concerned. I think travelers will be receptive to allowing these types of tracking technologies to be turned on, because they know it's there to help them."


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