Business Travel Risk

Risky Territory

As business travel increases, risk managers need intelligence and communication systems to keep employees safe.
By: | October 1, 2014 • 10 min read

In mid-August, Boart Longyear Co., a global mineral exploration company, removed nine employees from Liberia after the Ebola virus broke out in a nearby village.

“Our customer shut down operations, and we’re evacuating,” said Rob Osha, global director of risk management at the company in August.

“There’s a lot of talk about closing borders and not letting air travelers out, so we’re working right now to make sure our crews leave Liberia.”

Video: The Ebola crisis continues to worsen, with a “best case” estimate of 500,000 dead by end of January 2015.

It’s not just deadly diseases that worry risk managers.

“A few years ago,” said Jan Randolph, director of sovereign risk at IHS Country Risk, “I was stuck in Qatar, due to go to Bahrain to visit some banks. This is when Bahrain had quite a lot of demonstrations and rioting going on.


“We checked our website, and there was a UK travel government advisory that advised all UK nationals not to travel to Bahrain. That means if we went, our insurance cover was potentially not valid.

“In practice, it probably would have been okay, but that advisory made it a no go,” he said.

As economies become more interconnected, businesses expand globally and more employees are sent abroad, scenarios like Osha’s and Randolph’s may become the norm. Yet too many risk managers may be unaware of the risks involved with global travel or take the proper steps to ensure employees’ safety.

Growth of International Travel

According to the Global Business Travel Association, U.S. spending on international travel may jump as much as 6.6 percent, to $289.8 billion in 2014, while total person trip volume is expected to increase 1.7 percent, to 461 million trips for the year.

Charlie LeBlanc, vice president of security services, UnitedHealthcare International

Charlie LeBlanc, vice president of security services, UnitedHealthcare International

“In this world that is smaller and more mobile, emergency evacuations happen more often than they did 10 years ago,” said Charlie LeBlanc, vice president of security services at UnitedHealthcare International (formerly FrontierMEDEX).

“That also has a lot to do with the fact that the world, politically, is much more volatile than in the last 20 or 30 years. We have to be able to react quickly.”

Steve Kellner, global head of intelligence and risk assessment for Verizon International Security Group, said: “I saw a news article recently that said there are only 11 countries not at war. The same article also said roughly only 60 percent of companies monitor their employees’ travel. It’s a big world, and a lot to keep up with.”

Kellner’s team monitors 15,000 to 18,000 employee trips per year.

Many smaller businesses or nonprofit organizations don’t have the budget for a security department that can educate their travelers [about security risks], so they depend on others, Kellner said. Problems can easily arise with “the little things that you don’t plan on.”

“Mining and oil and gas people have this buttoned up pretty tight,” Osha said. “They work in some of the most remote, tricky areas of the world.

“But there are a lot of companies that send a lot of business travelers that don’t necessarily work in the field. Even if you’re just traveling for a business meeting, things can change on a dime,” he said.

Pre-Travel Risk Mitigation

Travel preparation should begin before a flight is even booked.

“For very high risk countries, it’s a no go unless you get approval from the executive committee,” Osha said.

“I would do research on the security environment where they’re going, what I think the relative risk is and what the mitigations might be. Is the trip business-critical? Do we need to put that person at risk? Are there other ways to mitigate or not?”

“The most important asset you can have is information intelligence,” Randolph said.

“You need to know if the risk level is green or yellow or red, or if a developing scenario could reach a flash point.”

Video: The families of expat employees may be more at risk than the employees themselves.

Bob Gill, vice president of global security for Quintiles, a consulting firm for the life sciences industry, said his team develops risk profiles for every country they visit or may visit in the future.

“We cover security and safety, health and medical situations, medical infrastructure, regulatory issues, human rights issues, economic sanctions, bribery and corruption. Those are the key areas,” he said.


Even when companies give the green light, travelers should receive safety and awareness training tailored to the area they’re visiting.

“We have to look at risk from a variety of angles,” LeBlanc said.

“We look from the perspective of, when do our travelers start to feel uncomfortable? What are their risk tolerances?”

Political stability, crime, and cultural differences should all factor into a risk assessment, he said.

“As companies and economies are growing, their workforces are going to countries they didn’t go to five years ago,” LeBlanc said.

“That means a lot of novice travelers. For some, it may be their first international trip. And it’s not to London; it’s to Bangkok.”

Pre-travel training should cover basic “Safety 101” principles — like moving in groups and not opening the hotel door if no visitors are expected — but it should also include general background information on the destination country.

Travelers should know everything from what weather to expect, to what behaviors are acceptable in different cultures, to what inoculations they may need. Gender-specific training may also be necessary; women face greater risk in certain places, LeBlanc said.

“We have a traveler tracking system that is tied into our corporate reservation system,” Kellner said.

“When employees book travel, my group is alerted two weeks to 30 days ahead of time. We meet with them, whether they’re a naïve traveler or a group that goes constantly.”

At Verizon International Security Group, the company organizes a “meet and greet” program through its local offices to pick up incoming travelers or arrange transportation for them. Boart Longyear coordinates with their customers to see if they can provide transportation.

Traveler Tracking

Some risk management and security departments utilize traveler tracking software to centralize employees’ flight and hotel reservations, so they always know who is in what part of the world.

Being able to locate people anywhere in the world in real time allows risk managers to focus their attention and resources where they’re needed. Ensuring safe travel on the ground requires coordinated efforts and constant communication.

additional photo for webFor example, if 18 out of 20 employees are accounted for in a region hit by an earthquake, more time and energy can be devoted to tracking down the last two, instead of everyone in the group. If no employees are in the area, then attention can be focused elsewhere, to the next evolving crisis.

Travel assistance companies like UnitedHealthcare International (UHI), iJET and Europ Assistance offer software programs that not only track where employees are, but can push out automatic communications notifying them of potential threats in the area — like earthquake or tsunami warnings — or reminding them to check in.

Typically updated at least once per hour, the systems provide real-time data that is so crucial to crisis response.

“In the really risky countries, we establish check calls,” Osha said, “where an employee checks in every few hours to our outsourced security company’s operations team.

“In some places in Africa, they actually hire military to follow their company convoy,” he said, “or we see if they can fly point-to-point to cut out some of the risk of traveling on the ground.”

The advent of advanced cell phone technology has made the job of employee monitoring and communication much easier.

“As little as 10 years ago,” LeBlanc said, “I’d be carrying four or five different cell phones depending on what country I was going to. Now I just need one. That kind of power is extremely beneficial; risk managers need to be able to account for their people in a very short period of time.”

Call centers that operate 24 hours a day — also manned by third party travel assistance providers — help ensure that employees can always reach someone if they run into trouble.


“Communication is your lifeline in many cases,” Randolph said. “You have to think, as an employee, what would you expect from your company? Who would you want to contact in an emergency?”

Boart Longyear’s crisis hotline, provided by iJET, routes employees’ calls to the appropriate department, whether it’s a medical emergency, security issue or internal problem. More often than not, though, simple text messages or emails suffice to keep everyone connected.

“The best part of working for a telecommunications company,” Kellner of Verizon said, “is that most of our travelers go with a global phone. We can always text or call them to check on them and make sure they’re safe.”

Crisis Response

Sometimes, no amount of intelligence can prevent simmering tensions from bubbling over, and no amount of monitoring can keep employees away from a natural disaster. Travel risk management should include policies and plans for when companies need to pull their people out of harm’s way quickly.

The most common reason for evacuations is a medical issue, rather than violence or political unrest. Travelers, rather than their employers, usually make the call as to whether they will abandon their travel due to a health issue.

“In medical situations, there tends to be a wider circle of hesitance to go,” LeBlanc said. Potential for violence doesn’t seem to stop travel as surely.

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa, for example, posed a relatively small risk to Western travelers but still sparked a worldwide scare. Flying out of the affected countries of Liberia, Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone became more challenging as other countries were unwilling to take on the risk of accepting any visitors from those areas.

Luckily, governments rarely set strict travel restrictions in such situations, so while evacuations can get tricky when a pandemic hits, it is still possible to leave the country.

Nita Madhav, analyst and researcher, AIR Worldwide

Nita Madhav, analyst and researcher, AIR Worldwide

“In today’s world, economies are so interconnected that complete isolation isn’t feasible,” said Nita Madhav, analyst and researcher at catastrophe modeling firm AIR Worldwide.

“The best way for companies to mitigate is to stay aware of the global situation and which countries may be at risk for circulating diseases, and make sure that employees are up to date on vaccines,” she said.

Madhav identified the Middle East and Brazil as up-and-coming markets for air travel, which could make them riskier from a health perspective as business travel picks up.

Political and social tensions also pose an evacuation threat, though those risks are more rare than a medical threat.

Maintaining intelligence and proactively removing employees from potentially dangerous areas allows employers to avoid last-ditch evacuations. Government advisories, data from third party security firms, input from local employees and even social media trends help to paint a picture of emerging threats and areas to watch.

Still, things can change in an instant.

“We had to evacuate our expatriate staff out of Mali when they had a coup,” Osha said. “You do have to watch country elections, because violence and protests could follow.”

“In Libya,” Randolph of IHS Country Risk said, “they’re having a drawn-out civil war, and oil and gas companies have been involved in drawing out their staff, leaving behind only key personnel.

“You have to maintain your asset and your security as well as you can, but otherwise de-operationalize. You have a duty of care,” he said.

The Trickiest Risk

Natural disasters pose the trickiest travel risks to mitigate and often require the immediate, emergency response that risk managers try to avoid. Once tracking systems identify who’s in danger, it’s up to crisis management teams to get them to safety.

“You really need the right people in the room that are experienced with the global operations of their company,” said LeBlanc of UHI.

“They need the authority to make decisions quickly, whether they’re legal, financial, or human resource related. And they have to work well as a team.”

When UHI trains its clients on crisis management, it typically spends half a day on team-building alone, and keeps the core team limited to about 10 people.

Rapidly growing companies will face challenges learning how to manage increased travel to all parts of the world, but the realities of travel risk cannot be ignored. The consequences of shrugging off safe travel preparations are too great.

“Colleagues I work with have a keen sense of how travel has changed since 9/11,” Gill of Quintiles said.


“That was the issue that brought travel security and safety to the forefront.”

But others say more progress is needed.

“I’ve given travel risk presentations at RIMS for a few years now,” Osha said, “and I’m shocked by the people who approach me after the sessions — large, brand name companies — saying their programs aren’t robust enough.

“It makes me think that there are a lot more companies out there that need to start working on this than you may expect.”

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

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Risk Report: Marine

Crewless Ships Raise Questions

Is a remote operator legally a master? New technology confounds old terms.
By: | March 5, 2018 • 6 min read

For many developers, the accelerating development of remote-controlled and autonomous ships represents what could be the dawn of a new era. For underwriters and brokers, however, such vessels could represent the end of thousands of years of maritime law and risk management.

Rod Johnson, director of marine risk management, RSA Global Risk

While crewless vessels have yet to breach commercial service, there are active testing programs. Most brokers and underwriters expect small-scale commercial operations to be feasible in a few years, but that outlook only considers technical feasibility. How such operations will be insured remains unclear.

“I have been giving this a great deal of thought, this sits on my desk every day,” said Rod Johnson, director of marine risk management, RSA Global Risk, a major UK underwriter. Johnson sits on the loss-prevention committee of the International Union of Maritime Insurers.

“The agreed uncertainty that underpins marine insurance is falling away, but we are pretending that it isn’t. The contractual framework is being made less relevant all the time.”

Defining Autonomous Vessels

Two types of crewless vessels are being contemplated. First up is a drone with no one on board but actively controlled by a human at a remote command post on land or even on another vessel.

While some debate whether the controllers of drone aircrafts are pilots or operators, the very real question yet to be addressed is if a vessel controller is legally a “master” under maritime law.


The other type of crewless vessel would be completely autonomous, with the onboard systems making decisions about navigation, weather and operations.

Advocates tout the benefits of larger cargo capacity without crew spaces, including radically different hull designs without decks people can walk on. Doubters note a crew can fix things at sea while a ship cannot.

Rolls-Royce is one of the major proponents and designers. The company tested a remote-controlled tug in Copenhagen in June 2017.

“We think the initial early adopters will be vessels operating on fixed routes within coastal waters under the jurisdiction of flag states,” the company said.

“We expect to see the first autonomous vessel in commercial operation by the end of the decade. Further out, around 2025, we expect autonomous vessels to operate further from shore — perhaps coastal cargo ships. For ocean-going vessels to be autonomous, it will require a change in international regulations, so this will take longer.”

Once autonomous ships are a reality, “the entire current legal framework for maritime law and insurance is done,” said Johnson. “The master has not been replaced; he is just gone. Commodity ships (bulk carriers) would be most amenable to that technology. I’m not overly bothered by fully automated ships, but I am extremely bothered by heavily automated ones.”

He cited two risks specifically: hacking and fire.

“We expect to see the first autonomous vessel in commercial operation by the end of the decade. Further out, around 2025, we expect autonomous vessels to operate further from shore — perhaps coastal cargo ships. For ocean-going vessels to be autonomous, it will require a change in international regulations, so this will take longer.” — Rolls-Royce Holdings study

Andrew Kinsey, senior marine risk consultant, Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty, asked an even more existential question: “From an insurance standpoint, are we even still talking about a vessel as it is under law? Starting with the legal framework, the duty of a flag state is ‘manning of ships.’ What about the duty to render assistance? There cannot be insurance coverage of an illegal contract.”

Several sources noted that the technological development of crewless ships, while impressive, seems to be a solution in search of a problem. There is no known need in the market; no shippers, operators, owners or mariners advocate that crewless ships will solve their problems.

Kinsey takes umbrage at the suggestion that promotional material on crewless vessels cherry picks his company’s data, which found 75 percent to 90 percent of marine losses are caused by human error.


“Removing the humans from the vessels does not eliminate the human error. It just moves the human error from the helm to the coder. The reports on development by the companies with a vested interest [in crewless vessels] tend to read a lot like advertisements. The pressure for this is not coming from the end users.”

To be sure, Kinsey is a proponent of automation and technology when applied prudently, believing automation can make strides in areas of the supply chains. Much of the talk about automation is trying to bury the serious shortage of qualified crews. It also overshadows the very real potential for blockchain technology to overhaul the backend of marine insurance.

As a marine surveyor, Kinsey said he can go down to the wharf, inspect cranes, vessels and securements, and supervise loading and unloading — but he can’t inspect computer code or cyber security.

New Times, New Risks

In all fairness, insurance language has changed since the 17th century, especially as technology races ahead in the 21st.

“If you read any hull form, it’s practically Shakespearean,” said Stephen J. Harris, senior vice president of marine protection UK, Marsh. “The language is no longer fit for purpose. Our concern specifically to this topic is that the antiquated language talks about crew being on board. If they are not on board, do they still legally count as crew?”

Harris further questioned, “Under hull insurance, and provided that the ship owner has acted diligently, cover is extended to negligence of the master or crew. Does that still apply if the captain is not on board but sitting at a desk in an office?”

Andrew Kinsey, senior marine risk consultant, Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty

Several sources noted that a few international organizations, notably the Comite Maritime International and the International Maritime Organization, “have been very active in asking the legal profession around the world about their thoughts. The interpretations vary greatly. The legal complications of crewless vessels are actually more complicated than the technology.”

For example, if the operational, insurance and regulatory entities in two countries agree on the voyage of a crewless vessel across the ocean, a mishap or storm could drive the vessel into port or on shore of a third country that does not recognize those agreements.

“What worries insurers is legal uncertainty,” said Harris.

“If an operator did everything fine but a system went down, then most likely the designer would be responsible. But even if a designer explicitly accepted responsibility, what matters would be the flag state’s law in international waters and the local state’s law in territorial waters.


“We see the way ahead for this technology as local and short-sea operations. The law has to catch up with the technology, and it is showing no signs of doing so.”

Thomas M. Boudreau, head of specialty insurance, The Hartford, suggested that remote ferry operations could be the most appropriate use: “They travel fixed routes, all within one country’s waters.”

There could also be environmental and operational benefits from using battery power rather than conventional fuels.

“In terms of underwriting, the burden would shift to the manufacturer and designer of the operating systems,” Boudreau added.

It may just be, he suggested, that crewless ships are merely replacing old risks with new ones. Crews can deal with small repairs, fires or leaks at sea, but small conditions such as those can go unchecked and endanger the whole ship and cargo.

“The cyber risk is also concerning. The vessel may be safe from physical piracy, but what about hacking?” &

Gregory DL Morris is an independent business journalist based in New York with 25 years’ experience in industry, energy, finance and transportation. He can be reached at [email protected]