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.


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.”


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?


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

High Net Worth

High Net Worth Clients Live in CAT Zones. Here’s What Their Resiliency Plan Should Include

Having a resiliency plan and practicing it can make all the difference in a disaster.
By: | September 14, 2018 • 7 min read

Packed with state-of-the-art electronics, priceless collections and high-end furnishings, and situated in scenic, often remote locations, the dwellings of high net worth individuals and families pose particular challenges when it comes to disaster resiliency. But help is on the way.


Armed with loss data, innovative new programs, technological advances, and a growing army of niche service-providers aimed at addressing an astonishingly diverse set of risks, insurers are increasingly determined to not just insure against their high net worth clients’ losses, but to prevent them.

Insurers have long been proactive in risk mitigation, but increasingly, after the recent surge in wildfire and storm losses, insureds are now, too.

“Before, insurance was considered the only step in risk management. Now, our client families realize it is one of the many imperative steps in an effective risk management strategy,” said Laura Sherman, founding partner at Baldwin Krystyn Sherman Partners.

And especially in the high net worth space, preventing that loss is vastly preferable to a payout, for insurers and insureds alike.

“If insurers can preserve even one house that’s 10 or 20 or 40 million dollars … whatever they have spent in a year is money well spent. Plus they’ve saved this important asset for the client,” said Bruce Gendelman, chairman and founder Bruce Gendelman Insurance Services.

High Net Worth Vulnerabilities

Laura Sherman, founding partner, Baldwin Krystyn Sherman Partners

As the number and size of luxury homes built in vulnerable areas has increased, so has the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events, including hurricanes, harsh cold and winter storms, and wildfires.

“There is a growing desire to inhabit this riskier terrain,” said Jason Metzger, SVP Risk Management, PURE group of insurance companies. “In the western states alone, a little over a million homes are highly vulnerable to wildfires because of their proximity to forests that are fuller of fuel than they have been in years past.”

Such homes are often filled with expensive artwork and collections, from fine wine to rare books to couture to automobiles, each presenting unique challenges. The homes themselves present other vulnerabilities.

“Larger, more sophisticated homes are bristling with more technology than ever,” said Stephen Poux, SVP and head of Risk Management Services and Loss Prevention for AIG’s Private Client Group.

“A lightning strike can trash every electronic in the home.”

Niche Service Providers

A variety of niche service providers are stepping forward to help.

Secure facilities provide hurricane-proof, wildfire-proof off-site storage for artwork, antiques, and all manner of collectibles for seasonal or rotating storage, as well as ahead of impending disasters.

Other companies help manage such collections — a substantial challenge anytime, but especially during a crisis.

“Knowing where it is, is a huge part of mitigating the risk,” said Eric Kahan, founder of Collector Systems, a cloud-based collection management company that allows collectors to monitor their collections during loans to museums, transit between homes, or evacuation to secure storage.

“Before, insurance was considered the only step in risk management. Now, our client families realize it is one of the many imperative steps in an effective risk management strategy.” — Laura Sherman, founding partner, Baldwin Krystyn Sherman Partners

Insurers also employ specialists in-house. AIG employs four art curators who advise clients on how to protect and preserve their art collections.

Perhaps the best known and most striking example of this kind of direct insurer involvement are the fire teams insurers retain or employ to monitor fires and even spray retardant or water on threatened properties.

High-Level Service for High Net Worth

All high net worth carriers have programs that leverage expertise, loss data, and relationships with vendors to help clients avoid and recover from losses, employing the highest levels of customer service to accomplish this as unobtrusively as possible.

“What allows you to do your job best is when you develop that relationship with a client, where it’s the same people that are interacting with them on every front for their risk management,” said Steve Bitterman, chief risk services officer for Vault Insurance.

Site visits are an essential first step, allowing insurers to assess risks, make recommendations to reduce them, and establish plans in the event of a disaster.

“When you’re in a catastrophic situation, it’s high stress, time is of the essence, and people forget things,” said Sherman. “Having a written plan in place is paramount to success.”


Another important component is knowing who will execute that plan in homes that are often unoccupied.

Domestic staff may lack the knowledge or authority to protect the homeowner’s assets, and during a disaster may be distracted dealing with threats to their own homes and families. Adequate planning includes ensuring that whoever is responsible has the training and authority to execute the plan.

Evaluating New Technology

Insurers use technologies like GPS and satellite imagery to determine which homes are directly threatened by storms or wildfires. They also assess and vet technologies that can be implemented by homeowners, from impact glass to alarm and monitoring systems, to more obscure but potentially more important options.

AIG’s Poux recommends two types of vents that mitigate important, and unexpected risks.

“There’s a fantastic technology called Smart Vent, which allows water to flow in and out of the foundation,” Poux said. “… The weight of water outside a foundation can push a foundation wall in. If you equalize that water inside and out at the same level, you negate that.”

Another wildfire risk — embers getting sucked into the attic — is, according to Poux, “typically the greatest cause of the destruction of homes.” But, he said, “Special ember-resisting venting, like Brandguard Vents, can remove that exposure altogether.”

Building Smart

Many disaster resiliency technologies can be applied at any time, but often the cost is fractional if implemented during initial construction. AIG’s Smart Build is a free program for new or remodeled homes that evolved out of AIG’s construction insurance programs.

Previously available only to homes valued at $5 million and up, Smart Build recently expanded to include homes of $1 million and up. Roughly 100 homes are enrolled, with an average value of $13 million.

“In the high net worth space, sometimes it takes longer potentially to recover, simply because there are limited contractors available to do specialty work.” — Curt Goetsch, head of underwriting, Private Client Group, Ironshore

“We know what goes wrong in high net worth homes,” said Poux, citing AIG’s decades of loss data.

“We’re incenting our client and by proxy their builder, their architects and their broker, to give us a seat at the design table. … That enables us to help tweak the architectural plans in ways that are very easy to do with a pencil, as opposed to after a home is built.”

Poux cites a remote ranch property in Texas.

Curt Goetsch, head of underwriting, Private Client Group, Ironshore

“The client was rebuilding a home but also installing new roads and grading and driveways. … The property was very far from the fire department and there wasn’t any available water on the property.”

Poux’s team was able to recommend underground water storage tanks, something that would have been prohibitively expensive after construction.

“But if the ground is open and you’ve got heavy equipment, it’s a relatively minor additional expense.”

Homes that graduate from the Smart Build program may be eligible for preferred pricing due to their added resilience, Poux said.

Recovery from Loss

A major component of disaster resiliency is still recovery from loss, and preparation is key to the prompt service expected by homeowners paying six- or seven-figure premiums.

Before Irma, PURE sent contact information for pre-assigned claim adjusters to insureds in the storm’s direct path.

“In the high net worth space, sometimes it takes longer potentially to recover, simply because there are limited contractors available to do specialty work,” said Curt Goetsch, head of underwriting for Ironshore’s Private Client Group.


“If you’ve got custom construction or imported materials in your house, you’re not going to go down the street and just find somebody that can do that kind of work, or has those materials in stock.”

In the wake of disaster, even basic services can be scarce.

“Our claims and risk management departments have to work together in advance of the storm,” said Bitterman, “to have contractors and restoration companies and tarp and board services that are going to respond to our company’s clients, that will commit resources to us.”

And while local agents’ connections can be invaluable, Goetsch sees insurers taking more of that responsibility from the agent, to at least get the claim started.

“When there is a disaster, the agency’s staff may have to deal with personal losses,” Goetsch said. &

Jon McGoran is a novelist and magazine editor based outside of Philadelphia. He can be reached at [email protected]