Women face unique safety risks when they travel. Though great strides in security have been made in recent years, danger still lurks, demanding  greater awareness on the part of both the industry and the traveler.

By Jamie Biesiada

It’s happened to Jackie Friedman three times: The president of Nexion Travel Group, a frequent traveler, checks into a hotel at the front desk. She proceeds to her room and unlocks the door, only to find someone else inside.

One time, it was a man clad only in socks.

Thankfully, each occasion was an honest error on the part of the hotel, and none escalated to a point of danger. But it’s an illustration of one of the many situations that leave women travelers with a sense of unease.

According to a Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) and AIG Travel survey released last fall, 83% of women reported having had concerns about their safety while on a business trip in the previous year.

Scott Solombrino, the GBTA’s executive director and COO, said, “I really believe people have to say, ‘Wait a minute, how is this happening? Where’s the reporting? Where’s the follow-through, and what are we as corporate America doing to ensure that women don’t have these types of concerns at that high a percentage level?’ That’s pretty scary stuff.”

Women’s safety while traveling has caught the attention of the industry. Solombrino contends that if the GBTA’s study had been conducted 10 years ago, its findings would have been far more alarming.

The issue has also sparked interest outside of the industry. 

Former President Barack Obama addressed it at the World Travel & Tourism Council Global Summit in Seville, Spain, last month, noting that unfriendly attitudes toward women could negatively affect a destination.

“I think young women, because I have daughters, I think travel for them poses some specific interesting issues around safety and security and the attitude of men in places,” Obama said. “So if you are part of a tourism council in a city or a nation where young women feel uncomfortable when they’re traveling, that will probably reduce your market because they don’t want to have to put up with stuff that maybe their moms were putting up with.

“They’re smart, and they’re not going to put up with that stuff. They don’t need to be harassed or feel unsafe when they’re traveling.”


Leisure travelers are also concerned

In recent years, safety has also become more important to women when taking a leisure vacation.

According to MMGY Global’s Portrait of American Travelers, 64% of women in 2019 said safety was extremely desirable when taking a vacation, up from 51% in 2014. Safety concerns are second only to cost when it comes to obstacles to taking a vacation, according to the travel marketing agency.

And MMGY’s Travelhorizons survey, released earlier this month, found that 28% of U.S. adults surveyed said they are less interested in traveling internationally now than they were at the same time last year. Among their reasons, the most cited was that they would feel less safe in international destinations.

“Based on this, we’re hypothesizing that the safety of the destination is becoming more of a desirable factor when vacationing,” said Chris Davidson, MMGY’s executive vice president of insights and strategy. “We think this is being primarily driven by older generations.”

Travel Leaders Group has also identified a trend of more women traveling solo, further heightening the conversation around women’s safety, Friedman said. A survey by the group found that this year, 36% of consumers surveyed are planning solo trips.


Road warrior security

Safety is foremost on the minds of female business travelers and those who support and employ them.

In addition to its survey of female travelers, the GBTA also polled the travel buyer community. According to Solombrino, 61% felt it was important to consider female safety when implementing a risk-management program. 

“You would not have heard that 10 years ago,” he said. “Thank God people have kind of woken up to this, that female travelers have very different issues and certainly very different risk-management patterns than male travelers might have.”

Despite increased awareness, though, globally only 18% of travel policies specifically address female safety, something Solombrino calls “pretty tone deaf.” It’s an issue the GBTA hopes to bring to light by sharing its data and best practices as well as through WINiT, an organization dedicated to helping women in the travel industry propel their careers forward. The association acquired WINiT about a year ago.

Carlos Barron, co-founder of U.S. Traveler Assist — a service that connects travelers with local security experts in a destination if they find themselves in trouble — had a slightly different take on the association’s assertion that 83% of women have had some kind of security concern on the road.

‘People are conscientiously thinking about their security.’
Carlos Barron, U.S. Traveler Assist

“I teach awareness,” Barron said. “I teach the way you keep yourself safe is by being aware, by understanding the environment you’re going into. To me, honestly, that 83% of women say they’ve had a security [concern], that’s not a negative number. That’s good, that means that people are conscientiously thinking about their security.”


Who is responsible for safety?

When it comes to keeping female business travelers safe on the road, “it takes a village, if you will,” said Melissa Beauchamp, vice president of business development at American Express Global Business Travel.

Mirroring the GBTA’s research, Beauchamp said most of the large, multinational companies she works with don’t have separate policies in place for female business travelers.

It’s a challenge for businesses. Women travelers aren’t the only minority groups they serve, nor do they want employees to feel pressured to divulge personal information that would place them in a minority group. Instead, Beauchamp said, companies should focus on providing education and training for everyone across the board that includes information on the specific issues minority groups face.

“To uphold duty-of-care requirements, businesses need to provide training resources and support for minority groups — whether that’s women [or] LGBTQ employees — especially if they’re traveling to high-risk destinations,” she said.

‘Businesses need to provide support for women, especially if they’re traveling to high-risk destinations.’
Melissa Beauchamp, American Express Global Business Travel

While businesses should provide that training, Beauchamp said, travel management companies should work with them on a consultative basis as well as provide technology, data and resources to keep travelers safe.

From a liability perspective, a female traveler’s employer is the responsible party, said Brenda Rivers, president and CEO of Andavo Meetings & Incentives.

“It starts with knowing and conducting due diligence on where they’re sending their travelers, what destinations, what venue,” she said. “If they’re out of the country, there’s a heightened sense of being prepared in advance in terms of knowing the risks and knowing the patterns and knowing what’s going on in that country, in that city.”

Travelers are also responsible for their own safety, she said, by being situationally aware.

According to the GBTA, men are generally aware that their female colleagues face more potential danger when traveling than they themselves do. Solombrino said a survey of travel buyers found that seven in 10, or 69%, of those polled said female travelers face greater risks.

“So even the men know that the females have a greater risk in travel than they do,” Solombrino said. “We think that’s important.”

Krista Ercin-Maurer, manager of Christopherson Business Travel’s marketing department, has had two concerning experiences while traveling, both in airport parking garages. She felt threatened and afraid. Thankfully, nothing came of either incident, but she described them as “terrifying.”

As a result, under certain circumstances, she will choose a more expensive but safer parking location.

“Women’s safety on the road is everyone’s responsibility,” she said. “Women need to be aware of the safety issues they might face and be prepared to preempt them. Let me add, though, it is never a woman’s fault if she is assaulted, nor is it her responsibility to thwart an attack. But unfortunately, we women do have to be vigilant.”

Kim Albrecht, chief marketing officer at SAP Concur, agreed that it is incumbent upon the traveler herself to be aware of her surroundings when in a destination.

“When it comes down to it, I’ve learned that no matter the level of support I have for my business trips, it’s ultimately up to me to be an engaged, educated traveler,” Albrecht said. “The peace of mind I experience by prepping for potential risk is worth any investment of my time.”

That’s the right attitude to have, according to Erika Weisbrod, director of security solutions at International SOS and Control Risks, because preparation — including knowing the destination and the culture and selecting secure transportation and accommodations — is a large part of staying safe when traveling. 

As is awareness. 

Weisbrod said staying safe while traveling is a matter of employing the common sense most women employ every day at home, like not walking alone at night.

“A lot of those things are true in your day-to-day life as a woman,” she said. “It’s a reality, and so when you travel, that only becomes amplified.”

Kathy Orner, vice president and chief risk officer at CWT (formerly Carlson Wagonlit Travel), also said awareness is key to keeping any travelers, including women, safe.

“The more we can be aware, whether we’re traveling or in our daily lives, I think that’s important,” she said.

When she travels, Orner herself likes to use CWT technology that automatically alerts her to any safety and security issues that could affect her. For example, travelers would get notifications about protests taking place in a city they’re in. They could then avoid that area altogether. 

While travelers have to opt in to that service, Orner said most employees of CWT clients do choose to participate.

That kind of technology is a common offering from travel management companies, and Orner recommends that female travelers take advantage of any similar offerings.

“We treat safety and security as part of a responsible business program, so it’s a key pillar to being responsible in business,” she said.

‘Safety and security are part of a responsible business program.’
Kathy Orner, CWT

On the leisure side, preparation and awareness also take center stage when it comes to keeping female travelers safe.

Judi Wineland, co-owner of the tour operator AdventureWomen, considers preparing her travelers an essential part of her job.

“Women are totally capable of ensuring their own safety if they are armed with enough information and local knowledge to protect themselves from places and people that could place them in a position of risk, injury, crime or other type of harm,” she said. “Our job at AdventureWomen, as a travel company, is to arm our women travelers with sufficient information about other cultures, local traditions, lifestyles and destinations so that they can make informed choices.”


Expert security tips

From Carlos Barron, co-founder, U.S. Traveler Assist

  1. Always keep your head on a swivel looking around. It encourages alertness and deters criminals, who would prefer to attack someone who’s distracted.
  2. Trust your gut. If you’re in a situation that doesn’t feel right, follow your instincts. As Barron says, “Trust your spider senses. Don’t let your spider senses down.”
  3. Whenever possible, bring another person with you when you’re traveling. It lessens risks because someone is unlikely to attack a party of two.

Improving women’s safety

In the past decade, the industry has made strides in keeping women safe, but it’s still an evolving space with room for improvement.

That fact is further underscored by some more statistics from the GBTA: Ninety percent of women travelers said safety concerns impacted activities they have pursued during personal time when traveling for business. Eighty-six percent have seen impacts on their booking behavior, such as booking only daytime flights. Another 84% said safety considerations have had an impact on where they travel for business, and 81% said their travel frequency for business has been impacted by safety concerns. Eighty percent said safety concerns have affected their productivity on business trips.

“I think the travel industry is gaining greater awareness that there are unique risks to different profiles of travelers,” Weisbrod said. 

Organizations are taking bigger steps to address profile-specific risks, broadening their diversity-inclusion agenda, she said. And as more and more women take on management and executive roles, it’s becoming harder to ignore that they face unique risks.

It’s a move in the right direction. Weisbrod suggested that training specifically geared toward female travelers or at least integrating some of the risks women face into broader travel-risk training would help the industry improve on women travelers’ safety.

For Charlene Leiss, president of corporate brands at Flight Centre Travel Group, education and preparedness are the keys to avoiding issues on the road. Therefore, industry players should look at improving how they educate female travelers and how they prepare them for trips.

“Safety is never a one-and-done issue,” Leiss said. “Keeping travelers safe is an ongoing effort, and all members of the travel industry must continue to work together to further develop safety measures while increasing public awareness of pertinent travel issues and available travel resources.”

Ercin-Maurer said she believed that the landscape is, overall, getting safer for women travelers. She attributed some of that to the #MeToo movement shedding more light on the safety issues women face as well as on a greater awareness of those issues generally.

“But with awareness comes responsibility,” she said. “So, until women are completely safe in any space, there is work to be done. Companies need to prioritize that effort.”

She encouraged companies to talk with female employees and use that information to form or adapt their travel policies and risk-management safety training with women in mind. That should take into account everything from enabling the use of a car service instead of taxis and rideshare services to only booking secure hotels in safe locations.

Andavo’s Rivers urged women to advocate for corporate policies that actually address women’s issues.

“I think women today are taking more responsibility to ask for and to really demand cover by their companies,” she said. “And they should be.”