Business Travel Risk

Beyond Brussels: Employee Crisis Communications

Emergency notification "handshakes" are an increasingly popular way for companies to stay in touch with employees in conflict zones.
By: | March 29, 2016 • 4 min read

John Persons (not his real name) was in the Brussels airport around 8 am on March 26, 2016 when two bombs detonated, killing 31 and wounding around 300.

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Fortunately for Persons, his family and his employer, a large U.S. insurance brokerage, he was not among the dead or injured.

His employer knew he was safe almost immediately. Expert Care, a service of American Express Global Business Travel, saw from his itinerary that he was scheduled to be in the Brussels airport.

Risk managers confirmed it by geolocating Persons through an app on his smartphone, then sent him a Short Message Service (SMS) message.

He texted back “1,” code for “I’m OK.” Expert Care immediately forwarded the good news to Persons’ employer.

A response other than “I’m OK” — say, “2” for “I need help,” “3” for “I’m not sure” or, more ominously, no response at all — would have triggered a much different scenario, said Evan Konwiser, ‎vice president, digital traveler, American Express Global Business Travel.

“Travelers in the red column of the dashboard may need help,” he said.

Their companies’ crisis and travel managers would next decide how to proceed: phone call, follow-up texts and/or alerts to local authorities. As responses trickle in from travelers who had no or spotty mobile broadband connection, and those who were separated from their devices or were nowhere near the trouble spots, the travel manager would focus on the smaller group who really did need help.

Emergency Notification System “Handshake”

This kind of SMS “handshake” is high among companies’ preferred methods of communicating with its employees who get caught in crisis areas, said Matt Bradley, regional security director for the Americas, International SOS, because it’s fast, requires few keystrokes and transmits more reliably in low-signal situations than more data-hungry methods such as email and social media, although they also have their place in crisis communications.

Travel risk programs and emergency notification systems should deploy on smartphones, the technology every business traveler carries, said Hart Brown, ‎senior vice president, practice leader, organizational resilience, HUB International.

“Local employees know the crisis response plan, but travelers are often left out of the briefing.” — Matt Bradley, regional security director for the Americas, International SOS

“Travelers leave other devices in their bags or forget to charge them.”

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Smartphones can contain numerous mechanisms for locating and alerting travelers: GPS, apps, a programmed or installed panic button, email, social media and voice communications, Brown said.

“Every tool has strengths and weaknesses, so we pull in as much data as we can from every source,” Konwiser said. For example, “if a traveler missed his flight to Brussels, the itinerary data might not be updated, but we’d know he’s safe if he swiped his Amex corporate card at a concession stand in Heathrow 10 minutes before the explosions.”

Although social media, including Facebook and Twitter, can help break news — the suspicious package in the Atlanta airport that led to an evacuation on March 23, 2016, for example — it can also broadcast unverified information, such as the tweet about shots fired in the Atlanta airport during the same incident from someone claiming to be there, said Bradley.

International SOS, which provides medical and travel security risk services to many Fortune 500 clients, monitors Twitter for incidents, seeks verification and then takes action if appropriate.

Action may include sending information to clients’ travel managers or directly to travelers about an incident, always accompanied by advice.

During the terrorist shootings in Paris in November 2015, for example, “we told people, ‘Seek shelter. Don’t go back to your house or hotel. Get off the street.’ ” Information without advice, Bradley said, creates counterproductive anxiety and panic.

For those times when smartphone communications fail, companies should have a backup plan that includes instructions to go to a pre-determined rally point, such as a hotel or supermarket that provides shelter against rain, is usually open for business and that cab drivers can find easily. Rally points are never monuments, train stations or office buildings, which may themselves be targets, Bradley said.

Best Practices in Mature Global Travel

Companies whose employees travel extensively should have “overarching” crisis management plans, either housed at corporate headquarters or regionalized to branches, Hart said, and travel risk management plans that include a travel portal that aggregates flights, hotels, meeting times and locations, and arrival/departure dates.

“We want to see that aggregated data bundled and visualized on a map so risk managers can see where their people are.”

Of course, preparing employees before they leave should be part of the plan, said Bradley.

“Local employees know the crisis response plan, but travelers are often left out of the briefing. Before they leave, employees should know where hospitals are. Where the rally point is. Where the backup rally point is.”

Companies should be aware of risks — political unrest, infectious diseases, cultural flashpoints, weather — before they send employees, and those with major operations in a region should also invest in a journey risk plan that probes a region’s details: Is it safe to hail a taxi on the street? Does the employee need a driver? Where does she go and who does she call if there’s an issue?

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Most insurance policies that involve foreign and business travel have response capabilities embedded in them, such as who to call and how to get help abroad, Hart said, but clients aren’t always aware of the information. Brokerage houses, he said, should educate clients on what duty of care looks like and how to implement crisis and travel risk plans.

“The broker’s role is to make sure policies connect carriers with response partners so the crisis plan works efficiently from beginning to end,” he said.

Susannah Levine writes about health care, education and technology. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Risk Management

The Profession

Pinnacle Entertainment’s VP of enterprise risk management says he’s inspired by Disney’s approach to risk management.
By: | November 1, 2017 • 4 min read

R&I: What was your first job?

Bus boy at a fine dining restaurant.

R&I: How did you come to work in this industry?

I sent a résumé to Harrah’s Entertainment on a whim. It took over 30 hours of interviewing to get that job, but it was well worth it.

R&I: If the world has a modern hero, who is it and why?

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The Chinese citizen (never positively identified) who stood in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. That kind of courage is undeniable, and that image is unforgettable. I hope we can all be that passionate about something at least once in our lives.

R&I: What emerging commercial risk most concerns you?

Cyber risk, but more narrowly, cyber-extortion. I think state sponsored bad actors are getting more and more sophisticated, and the risk is that they find a way to control entire systems.

R&I: What is the riskiest activity you ever engaged in?

Training and breaking horses. When I was in high school, I worked on a lot of farms. I did everything from building fences to putting up hay. It was during this time that I found I had a knack for horses. They would tolerate me getting real close, so it was natural I started working more and more with them.

Eventually, I was putting a saddle on a few and before I knew it I was in that saddle riding a horse that had never been ridden before.

I admit I had some nervous moments, but I was never thrown off. It taught me that developing genuine trust early is very important and is needed by all involved. Nothing of any real value happens without it.

R&I: What about this work do you find the most fulfilling or rewarding?

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Setting very aggressive goals and then meeting and exceeding those goals with a team. Sharing team victories is the ultimate reward.

R&I: What is the most unusual/interesting place you have ever visited?

Disney World. The sheer size of the place is awe inspiring. And everything works like a finely tuned clock.

There is a reason that hospitality companies send their people there to be trained on guest service. Disney World does it better than anyone else.

As a hospitality executive, I always learn something new whenever I am there.

James Cunningham, vice president, enterprise risk management, Pinnacle Entertainment, Inc.

The risks that Disney World faces are very similar to mine — on a much larger scale. They are complex and across the board. From liability for the millions of people they host as their guests each year, to the physical location of the park, to their vendor partnerships; their approach to risk management has been and continues to be innovative and a model that I learn from and I think there are lessons there for everybody.

R&I: What is the risk management community doing right?

We are doing a much better job of getting involved in a meaningful way in our daily operations and demonstrating genuine value to our organizations.

R&I: What could the risk management community be doing a better job of?

Educating and promoting the career with young people.

R&I: What have you accomplished that you are proudest of?

Being able to tell the Pinnacle story. It’s a great one and it wasn’t being told. I believe that the insurance markets now understand who we are and what we stand for.

R&I: Who is your mentor and why?

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John Matthews, who is now retired, formerly with Aon and Caesar’s Palace. John is an exceptional leader who demonstrated the value of putting a top-shelf team together and then letting them do their best work. I model my management style after him.

R&I: What is your favorite book or movie?

I read mostly biographies and autobiographies. I like to read how successful people became successful by overcoming their own obstacles. Jay Leno, Jack Welch, Bill Harrah, etc. I also enjoyed the book and movie “Money Ball.”

R&I: What is your favorite drink?

Ice water when it’s hot, coffee when it’s cold, and an adult beverage when it’s called for.

R&I: What does your family think you do?

In my family, I’m the “Safety Geek.”

R&I:  What’s your favorite restaurant?

Vegas is a world-class restaurant town. No matter what you are hungry for, you can find it here. I have a few favorites that are my “go-to’s,” depending on the mood and who I am with.

If you’re in town, you should try to have at least one meal off the strip. For that, I would suggest you get reservations (you’ll need them) at Herbs and Rye. It’s a great little restaurant that is always lively. The food is tremendous, and the service is always on point. They make hand-crafted cocktails that are amazing.

My favorite Mexican restaurant is Lindo Michoacan. There are three in town, and I prefer the one in Henderson as it has the best view of the valley. For seafood, you can never go wrong with Joe’s in Caesar’s Palace.




Katie Dwyer is an associate editor at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]