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Employee Safety: Travel Guides

Sep 30, 200414 mins
Business ContinuityIT LeadershipTravel Apps

You are responsible for traveling employees' safety. It's good to tell them what not to do. It's better to teach them how to be alert and anticipate and avoid trouble.

“Seventy-two hours to live.” the front-page headline in this morning’s New York Post on Wednesday, June 16, 2004, refers to Paul Johnson Jr., an American engineer for Lockheed Martin, kidnapped and threatened with execution by Islamic militants in Saudi Arabia. Johnson is shown blindfolded, helpless, vulnerable.

David Katz, the instructor of a class on Executive Travel Safety & Personal Security, holds up the paper in front of the small group gathered in a basement meeting room in the Flatiron District in New York.

Everyone stops smearing cream cheese on their bagels. Sipped coffee cups are set down.

As if anyone needed it, Katz’s gesture is a reminder of the potential overseas travel nightmares that these security executives are here learning how to prevent.

The instructors from Global Security GroupKatz, the CEO who has worked as a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration special agent and FBI Academy instructor, and Ilan Caspi, senior vice president who has served in the Israeli General Security Service and as an on-board security agent for El Al Israel Airlinesare about to lead the group through a thorough review of safety details a person needs to think about when traveling and working in an unfamiliar place.

Michael Castronova, director of security services for Tiffany & Co., is there, as well as Craig Sewell from Motorola’s global security group and Mike Belcher, the CSO of a Fortune 5 company. Bruce McIndoe, CEO of iJet Travel Risk Management, and security execs from Hydro-Québec, Kroll and Strategic Security Computing round out the class.

Katz conducts this class several times during the year, and says that requests are rising now, as they usually do when bad travel stories hit the media. Classes sometimes consist solely of security executives, but Katz also conducts training sessions for employees. He’s also setting up the first-ever travel safety online seminar for ASIS International in September.

Today, CSOs are often tasked with building their company’s corporate travel safety programs. The job calls for a proactive approach to educate employees about precautions they can take to stay safe, whether they’re the CEOs of multibillion-dollar conglomerates who fly on company jets that land on secured tarmacs or rank-and-file staff riding in commercial airline coach.

There’s likely to be more demand for such travel safety training as corporate America realizes that terrorism is a long-term risk, says Alon Stivi, a counterterrorism expert and CEO of Direct Measures International. “No one has a monopoly on controlling terrorists,” Stivi says. “We haven’t seen the last of this. When a terrorist group gets successful, they multiply their efforts in that area. They’re not as stupid as many of us would like to think. They have resources. We’ll eventually need mandatory regulations regarding travel safety.”

Early on in this session, I ask Mike Belcher if a course such as this is worthwhile for someone who has spearheaded travel safety at a large multinational company for the last five years. He says he is picking up some tips, and he emphasizes one of today’s core take-aways: It never hurts to get a refresher on this subject. Lesson No. 1: Blend into the Scenery and Stay Alert The class gets going with a vivid reminder that security for business people abroad begins with personal vigilance. To emphasize this point, Katz presents the group with a real-life, worst-case scenario: a slide that pictures four Union Texas Petroleum employees who were ambushed and killed by Islamic militants in Karachi, Pakistan, on Nov. 12, 1997.

“These men were not captains of industry,” Katz says of the victims, who were auditors for the company. “They were four guys who went to work.”

Katz explains that it’s typically midlevel executives who get sent to places like this, and he emphasizes that CSOs need to teach travel safety to everyone who travels, not solely to the higher-ups.

The victims in the Union Texas Petroleum case broke several rules by falling into routine patterns of behavior easily discernible by outsiders. These men had one route to work from their hotel. And they took that route every day. Always at 8 a.m. Always getting into the same minivan. Always together.

On the day they were killed, Katz says, they were followed by four men with AK-47s who trailed their minivan in a red Honda Civic.

“We can learn a lot from their mistakes,” says Katz. First, he suggests teaching employees to maintain a state of “relaxed alertness,” which he defines as being aware of your surroundings and taking note of what is out of place. The best way to avoid being the victim of an attack, he says, is to avoid vulnerable situations. Vary your route. Leave each day at a different time. And if you note the same red Civic with the bent antenna and the cracked windshield parked outside your hotel more than three days in a row, assume you’re being watched.

Katz also instructs the class that it makes sense to try to blend into the garb and culture of the country you’re in. If you wouldn’t wear your Cartier watch in the lower west side of Manhattan, don’t flash it around a village in Bangladesh.Lesson No. 2: Everyone’s Safety Is the CSO’s JobIt used to be that CSOs worried about the itineraries of the top five executives; now they need to know where everyone is at all times. Not only that, employees approach CSOs more often now, concerned about their travel safety. “A couple of years ago, [employees] didn’t want to hear it from me when I’d brief them about security issues before they traveled. Now they’re paging me to ask for an armored car when they go to Colombia,” Belcher says.

McIndoe, who is here to talk about iJet’s travel safety alert service, says that until recently, most companies focused solely on the protection and safety of the top 1 percent of their employees as part of their business continuity plans. But companies understand now that they are liable for all of their traveling employees24/7, whether they’re in a business meeting or taking a side trip to run with the bulls in Pamplona.

CSOs need to give their employees safe travel guidelines before their next trip, says Paul Lunt, a retail loss prevention consultant and an alumnus of Katz’s travel safety class. Lunt says it can help to bring in an outside expert like Katz. If that’s not an option, CSOs can coordinate with HR or corporate travel to conduct a class themselves.

Katz, Lunt and students from this class offer these guidelines:

Conduct awareness training. Organizations need an awareness training program for their travelers to help employees develop an alert mind-set, Lunt says. Make a checklist of information that travelers need. Make the list quick and memorable, and in a format that’s portable. The list should cover hotel security, traveling by cab, renting cars and so on. (See Katz’s Travel Safety Checklist at Teach employees the importance of paying attention to their environment.

Perform risk assessments. The travel safety guidelines that you establish are directly proportional to the level of risk you’re comfortable assuming. Conduct pretravel intelligence. Do you need to accompany all of your employees on a private jet everywhere they go? Probably not. Katz says pretravel intelligence gathering would evaluate travel warnings at destination sites and surrounding regions, the level of local political instability, the activity of terrorist organizations, the region’s health hazards and the local emergency medical care, local criminal activity, and driving hazards.

Keep a low profile. Don’t flaunt money, jewels, or U.S. logos on clothing and belongings.

Avoid predictable behavior patterns. We all have daily routines. We drive the same route, in the same car, and stop at the same café for coffee and a bagel. These patterns are easily discernible to someone looking to kidnap or rob you. Alter your routine.Have a contingency plan. In an emergency, employees need to know what to do and where they can go to be safe. Give them phone numbers of the local U.S. embassy. Advise them whether the local police can be trusted. Remind them to be aware of emergency exits in hotels and other buildings they visit.

Avoid complacency. Bad things don’t just happen to other people. Complacency causes all of us to ignore basic safety rules, Katz says. Convince your employees that they can be victims if they don’t take precautions.

Keep in touch. Mike Belcher’s company has a dedicated travel website where its employees can log on to get daily travel information. But if they’re traveling to an area considered a hotspot, they’ll get that information pushed to them in an e-mail with hyperlinks to safety information on the company’s internal websiteplus a follow-up phone call. “If you’re going to Saudi Arabia, we’ll be calling you. And if you’re a single woman traveling to India, we’ll definitely follow up with you,” says Belcher.

Prevention is cheaper than a travel crisis. Tell travelers what is likely to happen, and you’ll both benefit. “If you tell an employee not to drink the water in Venezuela, you just saved your company $10,000 in medical bills for the employee who won’t get sick while he’s there,” says McIndoe. Lesson No. 3: Know Why the Fire Chief Likes Hotel Room 212Now it’s time for the class segment on hotels. Katz asks us to take note of the illuminated exit signs in our basement classroom so that we can get out of our training room in case of an emergency. Security tackles the subject of access control, letting the right people in to the right places. But for travelers, getting in is one thing. It’s even more important to know how to leave.

“I know a fire chief who won’t ever stay above the third floor in a hotel,” Katz says. He notes that fire ladders don’t go above the seventh floor, and if you have to jump, any jump that’s more than three times your height will result in serious injury or death. As the fire chief knows, you can survive a jump from the third floor window.

When you go to your room after checking in, take a minute to find the emergency exits and the stairwells. Start at your door and count the doors to the exit. In case of a fire, you’ll want to be able to get to that stairwell even if the smoke prevents you from seeing it.

It’s also best to choose a reputable hotel chain, whose security standards will likely be on par with those in the United States. Such a hotel would use passcard keys, as opposed to metal keys that thieves could copy and use to access your room at their leisure. The hotel would have a safe where you could lock your laptop, and it’d have locks on the windows. It would also not be a motel, where a thief or attacker could walk into your room from the ground floor without having to pass by a front desk or cross a lobby.

While staying in a hotel, it’s also a good idea to ask the front desk not to release information about you while you’re there. You can have packages held for you, so don’t have them brought to your room. The hotel should have a secure parking lot that you can leave your vehicle in, and you should feel safe walking to that lot at night. Is it well-lit? Is there a 24-hour guard?

To get a good hotel recommendation, Katz suggests calling the local United States embassy when traveling overseas. The Regional Security Officer or a Diplomatic Security Service agent can tell you where to stay and where not to stay. “Call at night,” says Sarah Slenker, a senior analyst with iJet, sitting at the back of the class. “The guards at the embassies are chatty at night.” Lesson No. 4: Rent the Car with the Low OdometerAt lunchtime, a few members of the class run upstairs to catch an update on Paul Johnson Jr. News media report that the militants are demanding the release of al-Qaida members in three Saudi prisons in exchange for Johnson’s freedom. “It’s never a good sign when the demands for the victim’s release are unreasonable,” Katz says. (Johnson’s severed head was believed to be found about a month later, by Saudi security forces.)

It’s natural for people to be hyperaware of the horrors that garner media attention. After lunch, Katz reminds the group that a CSO’s employees traveling overseas are much more likely to be the victims of pickpockets, car accidents and assault than they are to be kidnapped. It’s essential to remind them to do little things to keep themselves safe. Things such as checking the odometer when renting a car.

“When you rent a car, you want it to work,” says Katz. He suggests choosing one with low mileage over a high-mileage vehicleeven if it isn’t the type you prefer. You can generally select cars with lower mileage when renting in other industrialized countries.

You should also remove, or ask the rental company to remove, any stickers or other markings on the car that signal it’s a rental. There’s no need to identify yourself as a visitor who may be unfamiliar with his surroundings (and an easy target for a thief). Get a car with power locks and windows, and make sure that the air conditioner and the heater work. You’ll want to be able to keep your windows up and your car doors locked for safety.

If you must drive a car that does not have an air conditioner, understand the risks of driving with your windows down. Be alert.Lesson 5: Know When You’re Being FollowedKatz’s caution to “Be alert” transitions into a discussion about kidnapping. He reminds us that the best way to survive a hostage situation is not to become a hostage in the first place. Then he reviews how to recognize whether you’re being followed.

Katz reiterates the three-times rule: If you see the same person or vehicle three times, separated by time and distance, you should assume you’re being followed. Then it’s time to check whether you can trust the local copsor if it’s time to head to the U.S. embassy.

Katz reviews basics such as making sure you know who to call in case of an emergency.

Then there’s the advice for what one should do if he does become the victim of an attack and kidnapping.

Katz talks first about not resisting an attack, unless you’re certain that you can escape. He emphasizes that there are several schools of thought on this, but for the most part, he recommends obeying your captors. You should remain calm and cooperative, quiet and undemanding. That said, you do have basic needs. It’s important to eat and drink when nourishment is provided, in case it’s withheld later. It’s also vital to maintain a sense of awareness and calm in all situations.

Katz ends this section where he started: Staying alert can prevent you from being victimized. “It’s always easier to avoid getting into a bad situation than it is to get out of one once you’re in it.” Lesson 6: Set Up Check-In Calls, And Don’t Forget Those MedsKatz concludes with a review of his travel safety checklist. It’s full of communications, common sense and backup copies.

Employees should leave a copy of their travel itinerary both at home and in the office. They should leave updated emergency contact information at the office. Employees should know to make arrangements for regular check-in calls at home and work. If they fail to call, you’ll want to follow up.

And don’t forget personal documents and health-care-related concerns. It’s good practice for travelers to photocopy the contents of their wallet, passport and visa. They should take passport photos with them, and bring a list of the phone numbers of overseas credit card contacts (to cancel them in case a wallet is lost or stolen). Keep these copies in your carry-on and checked luggage. And advise employees to check that their health insurance is valid overseas. They should bring prescription medications in original containers and extra containers and then keep them in two separate places. And take copies of the prescriptions too.

Seven hours have passed. I’m headed off to JFK to catch the shuttle back to Boston. Katz doesn’t miss the chance to tell me to move quickly through the airport. It’s not an overseas trip, but after this lesson, I nod knowingly and I tell him that I’ll be much more alert traveling this evening than I was this morning. n