Complex New Travel Risks Spur New Approaches for 2021

Business Travel News 2/22/2021

AAA World Article

"In the past, we had weather delays, natural disasters and terrorism," said Cardinal Health global security travel manager Jill Huffman. "We still have all that, but now you have to layer the pandemic on top. It introduces a lot of details. We have to work with much more complexity."

That complexity—and the risks that accompany it—will be the core story for travel management throughout 2021. And as more travelers, business and leisure, hit the road this year, risk for all will rise with it. Yes, risk of Covid-19 transmission. But other risks, as well, have emerged as a consequence of Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns, and travel managers will have to reckon with them. 

Consensus about rising travel risk has never been higher. About 79 percent of 1,425 risk professionals surveyed by International SOS in September and October said risk for business travelers will rise in 2021. Travel managers are aware of the increased risk, Huffman said, and many of their travelers are too. 

More Travel, More Risk

The rise in traveler volume will precipitate the risk of Covid-19 transmission, especially considering the spectrum of virus variants emerging alongside different levels of vaccine distribution around the globe, said Crisis24 SVP of global intelligence and information Mike Susong. Additionally in question is vaccine effectiveness against new variants in real-world conditions, he said, and how that may play out as travel activity becomes more robust. 

Sporadic border openings and a sprawling web of country-by-country entry restrictions will complicate international travel throughout 2021. 

Huffman cited visa approvals for international travel, which now can take up to three months instead of two weeks, along with additional documentation and business justification just to take a flight. And that doesn’t include Covid-19 testing or quarantine requirements. The Cardinal travel team now works more with government relations than any other department, said Huffman.

One international Cardinal traveler in early February who took a flight with a connection stop, Huffman said, "will literally have to go through six [Covid] tests [to complete] the roundtrip." The traveler had to take a test before he departed and in the connecting country, and another when he arrived at his destination airport, she said. He will have to repeat the process when he returns.

It’s Not Like It Used to Be

Once at their destination, business travelers may walk into a dramatically different experience even in familiar locations, said International SOS director of security solutions Jeremy Prout.

"The low-risk neighborhood I went into 2019 may not be a low-risk neighborhood in 2021," he said. "Restaurant activity and people openly walking around at night brings about a level of safety. Now, all those people [aren’t] out, so the dynamics of the neighborhoods have changed."

Prout pointed to increased street crime in historically touristy locations as one consequence of social restrictions precipitated by Covid-19. But he also pointed to an increased likelihood of civil unrest or violence. Lockdown protests in the Netherlands recently turned into a riot, for example. "Emotions are running high," said Prout. Civil unrest "is something to keep an eye on."

Border restrictions not only present increased logistics and upfront risk but also may present challenges should other crises occur, according to International SOS. In the event of an earthquake, terrorist activity or civil unrest, a traveler might need to be moved quickly to a third country prior to completing the journey home. Border restrictions could complicate that emergency response. "If you need an evacuation, it could be more difficult," said Prout. "There will have to be a greater level of preplanning and monitoring than we previously had." 

Every Step of the Way 

Cardinal Health moved its travel management beneath a security umbrella four years ago. It’s a unique structure that has created more robust protocols and a higher expectation of traveler compliance. In return, the program supports travelers through every step of the journey and, in the era of Covid-19, has safeguards adapted to each destination. 

"If a traveler tests positive, we make sure they have somewhere to go," Huffman said. "Even in Singapore, you have to have transportation ready at the airport to take them to quarantine. Because we have been dealing with Covid-19 for 10 months, we kind of know the foundations of what is needed and how to align them along the gaps as situations change."

Cardinal also monitors traveler whereabouts. "We have a system that tells us exactly where people are at all times," Huffman said. She works with Cardinal’s internal security operations center to alert and connect with travelers amid emergencies.

Even this may not be quite enough to get travelers confidently out on the road, though. With travel restrictions inconsistent and unclear, providing timely, accurate information is essential—and not just information that affects the traveler, according to Prout. 

Travelers are going to ask questions that are specific to their personal situation. Questions like, "What will this mean for my family?" said Prout. "There are so many impacts that exist now that didn’t exist before. People need answers to these questions if you want to get them back on the road."

Huffman has received questions from travelers. They are feeling the elevated risk levels that risk professionals are actively tracking. "I’ve already seen that uptick more than we ever have in the past," she said.

To help, "Cardinal Health provides an internal microsite for travelers to give [travelers] all the information they need. Information on anything they need globally is updated," Huffman said. "Right before the trip, if there’s anything that was changed, we’ll pick up the phone and call them. That awareness helps them know they are being taken care of."

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