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A guide to managing the risks of business travel during COVID-19

Scott Sunderman, Managing Director, Medical & Security Assistance - Collinson
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Since spring, COVID-19 has overwhelmed businesses of every kind around the world and taken a stranglehold over the travel industry, causing mass restrictions and disruptions. Leisure travel was halted, as were the majority of business trips. However, we are now seeing a cautious reopening of travel, in conjunction with workaround strategies such as “travel corridors” and PCR testing in some locations to safely side-step border restrictions and quarantine periods.

While there may be questions surrounding its future, the gradual resumption of business travel is forthcoming, and for some organisations, it’s already here. Now is the time for companies to reevaluate their strategy for managing business travel risks.

Here are seven key factors for businesses to address, answering crucial questions to evaluate the best way to mitigate risk now and in the future:

  1. A Moving Threshold for Essential Travel

In the past, responsibility to determine which trips were deemed essential travel usually fell to department heads and travel managers; and now, the C-Suite is involved. With the complexities resulting from COVID-19, it’s even more difficult for internal stakeholders to understand all aspects of an ever-changing situation and make this decision. A company must consider not only the business case and various cost tradeoffs, but also the constantly changing landscape of COVID-19 safety risks, travel restrictions and border closures. This moving threshold for essential travel necessitates multiple approval points and multiple layers of risk assessment; transforming the question of essential travel from a permission-seeking process, into one where individual traveller needs and wellbeing are central.

  1. Individual-based Risk Assessments

COVID-19 serves as an important reminder that travel risk is not the same for every individual. Now, in addition to destination risk, businesses must recognise the importance of individual risk profiles before authorising travel. Individual risk may be evaluated based on pre-existing physical conditions such as asthma or diabetes, but mental health needs will also play a role. Consider for example how bringing spouses and children on expatriate assignments is now more difficult or even impossible amidst the pandemic, meaning that assignees are without the support of their family unit. Companies should tailor support to match these kinds of individual needs, whether that means counselling services or other tools to support on their assignment. At the same time, as an additional challenge, businesses must understand their employees’ health risk profile without violating workplace privacy law; explaining why many turn to an independent medical assistance provider.

  1. Robust Scenario Planning

Companies with employees who travel have always needed emergency response plans, but as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, scenario planning will need to be far more robust and detailed. Contingency plans must be in place to accommodate unexpected closures of airspace or borders, and on-the-ground support and evacuation must be ready to go, no matter the scenario, if a situation does change suddenly. Indeed, with the strong potential for situations to shift without warning, businesses can no longer simply look at key data at the moment of travel authorisation. Instead, they will need a means to continually track the situation; managing large amounts of intelligence to understand what’s happening at any given moment, and with absolute clarity on roles and responsibilities to ensure nothing falls through the cracks.

  1. Safety at Every Touchpoint

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the need for intelligence across the entire supply chain of the journey. Safety risks are not unique to the travel destination alone. Instead, travellers need to know that they are protected at every step – from airline, to taxi service, to hotel and beyond. Companies must demonstrate that they are reviewing the safety of all these touchpoints and doing so continuously, including the collection of post-trip feedback. After all, if a hotel is approved based on its world-class hygiene standards, but ground transportation puts the employee in dangerously close quarters with other passengers, then the travel risk hasn’t been properly managed. All decisions must stand up to scrutiny and businesses should be prepared to evidence why they’ve made each and every decision.

  1. Outsourcing Travel Risk Management to the Experts

 As the management of corporate travel becomes ever more complex in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, in-house travel managers and security directors are asking for more resources and support. Many of these personnel don’t have experience dealing with complex medical scenarios – and certainly not with an unprecedented global pandemic. We can therefore expect to see more and more businesses outsource to a TRM provider that in addition to security, also has in-house medical expertise to support corporate travel needs in a comprehensive way, or take on one or two critical elements. The right external partner can offer a modular approach, delivering a solution that’s tailored rather than one-size-fits-all.

 

  1. A “Carrot” Approach to Compliance

Compliance has long been a key challenge for travel risk management policies. When employees don’t book in-channel, it’s much tougher to communicate contingency plans, check up on traveller wellbeing, and ensure safety and security if something goes wrong. With COVID-19, the need for compliance will be even more critical, but luckily, employees are likewise more tuned in to the importance of keeping safe on the road. Taking a “carrot” rather than a “stick” approach can be particularly useful – encouraging travelling employees to book in-channel by offering associated travel benefits. Premium lounge access, for example, is now even more in demand as lounges offer a well-maintained space to relax away from the crowds. A travel policy that provides premium lounge access will not only encourage compliance, but also help travellers feel safe and looked after throughout their journey.

  1. Communications

A survey prior to the COVID-19 outbreak found that while half of business travellers said their employer had invested in medical and security assistance to support them, 51% of those weren’t sure what it means or offers. Now is a critical time to communicate to employees what the company’s travel policy consists of, what assistance is available, what’s been updated as a result of COVID-19, and the value it brings. Businesses must demonstrate their commitment to duty of care, while also instilling confidence in employees about safe travelling for business in the future. Across the board, communication will be critical to show how the company is doing things in the right way.

Companies that get a head start on implementing the right travel risk management strategy will be best positioned to enable the safe and confident restart of business travel the soonest – giving them assurances that their people are protected, not to mention an advantage over the competition, and boost to the broader travel recovery.

 

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