Now that international business travel is on an upswing, it’s vital that global travelers understand the cultural environment of the countries they are traveling to and conducting business. After all, with increased travel during uncertain times comes increased risks, and an uninformed business traveler can get caught up in a legal mess or political unrest – or worse – before they even know it.

Companies seek to ensure that their employees show respect for local traditions and business practices to foster goodwill among all parties, leading to mutual benefits, notes Greeley Koch, managing director of 490 Consulting. “Companies also recognize the significance of their employees understanding cultural issues to avoid any actions that might breach the law or become a social media event,” Koch says.

While there are obvious differences such as language and dress, travelers also face the more subtle variables in etiquette, hierarchy and communication style. “Understanding the nuances of culture can be difference between success and failure – be it in a competitive sales environment where you need the edge, in a multinational implementation where you need to win the hearts and minds of individuals around the world, or simply to avoid embarrassing mistakes and reputational risks,” says Chris Weedon, vice president, global sales and services for GlobalStar Travel Management.

That’s why Weedon notes it’s imperative for every global traveler to take a step back and make the effort to understand the culture of the country they are visiting.

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To better protect employee wellbeing, and company reputation, John Keichline, CEO, US for Reed & Mackay, advises it is critical that businesses are aware of cultural sensitivities so that they can proactively inform and equip employees with the right guidance. “A good TMC will support their travel managers, so that they in turn can support their entire traveling employee base, ensuring all aspects of cultural nuance and DEI are considered and provided for within the travel policy and across every touch point of each individual’s travel journey,” he says.

While it has always been important for travelers to understand the culture and background as they travel internationally, this awareness is more important in 2023 than ever before, according to Brian Tanis, senior vice president of product marketing at Internet Travel Solutions (ITS). “Political, economic and environmental unrest and discourse frequently bubble up to the surface, and not just in locations that are historically on the radar but many times suddenly and without warning,” Tanis says.

ITS advises travelers to be aware and assist clients with many curated and focused sources of content. However, he says concepts such as “duty of care” frequently come down to communication and awareness. For example, he advises travelers to be sure their travel manager is aware of the trip. “There is a reason to work with your managed travel provider,” Tanis says. “One of the most important reasons is that your company knows where you are when bad things happen. In the ITS mobile app, we provide a ‘check-in’ option for the traveler to inform their company of their location at any time.”

Safe and Secure
Most companies provide security briefings and information on cultural norms for the destination at hand, and it’s important that they continue to update these procedures and ensure that their staff are following the guidelines. After all, employees are an organization’s most valuable asset.

“Major concerns include being able to take care of a traveler who is unwell, or subject to a crime, or taken hostage,” Weedon says. “Of course, all of these situations and how a company reacts to them have the potential to impact on reputation and corporate identity. But the behavior of travelers can also be detrimental to the corporate brand. It is critical that every traveler is respectful not only of culture but also of local laws.”

John Rose, chief risk and security officer for Altour, says fulfilling an organization’s duty of care responsibilities, as mandated by the duty to inform obligation, should be a top priority. “It is essential to thoroughly comprehend the destinations’ current geopolitical situation, religious aspects, laws, restrictions and overall climate toward visitors,” he says. “It is crucial to be aware of individuals’ travel patterns and motivations, including personal travel days associated with business trips. Informing travelers about all potential risks in the area and implementing a system to track their movements for immediate alerts in case of any impactful events is a fundamental requirement for any organization.”

Additionally, having a dedicated 24/7 response team capable of assisting, whether medical, travel-related or security-related, is imperative.

Frequent business travelers are exposed to stresses, strains, and risks that their non-traveling colleagues may not face. Also, business travelers are often counted among some of a company’s highest performing employees. Taking care of their health and wellbeing isn’t just the right thing to do – it makes good business sense.

“Numerous factors can make travel feel stressful,” Keichline explains. “For instance, potential security risks, whether to the individual’s safety or corporate data. Security concerns can create anxiety for travelers, and this impacts wellbeing. Additionally, industry-wide strikes and supply chain and labor shortages all impact travel experience and therefore wellbeing. A good TMC will have oversight of planned industrial action and will work to source an alternative route of travel, accommodation or a full reschedule where applicable. A great TMC will do that before you even have to ask.”

A trusted travel partner can also alleviate stress before departure thorough planning, sharing specific location insight reports, leaning into their expertise, and maintaining an accurate overview of international travel protocols in order to mitigate risk.

Part of preparing business travelers for international travel and the cultural differences those trips entail is knowing where travelers are headed before they go, says Matt Griffin, CPO/CIO of Traxo. It’s critical so travel management teams can implement the proper training and ensure employees have all the right contacts, such as the company’s duty of care provider, he says.

“In corporate travel programs that are reliant on traditional TMC reports and credit card reconciliation, it’s impossible to have pre-trip awareness for trips booked through compliant and non-compliant sources,” Griffin says. “Traxo’s pre-trip data allows companies to identify future trips and provide educational resources that help employees prepare for cultural differences, potential hazards, and other travel-related concerns.”

Reducing Risks
If the events of the past two years have highlighted anything to the travel industry, Keichline notes, it’s how important it is to be prepared for external risks. Risks range from travel restrictions to natural disasters, and every risk has the potential to impact organizations and their employees’ safety while traveling on business.

“A crucial step is to make sure travel risk management programs have assessments in place that meet the standards of the ISO 31030 Travel Risk Management Standards,” he says. “Following this standard means businesses can work toward a universal standard of travel risk assessment. A travel policy needs to be carefully coordinated, whether your employees travel frequently, long haul or just take a single domestic trip. Every trip is different and will therefore generate different challenges and security risks.”

To reduce risks, Koch advises companies to prioritize comprehensive cultural awareness training for their employees, particularly those embarking on international trips for the first time. Such training not only enhances the employees’ personal experiences, but also contributes to the overall success of their business endeavors abroad.

During an international trip, business travelers are encouraged to be more aware of their local surroundings to help reduce risk. “Alerts and content from providers such as Riskline help, but awareness of the meeting location, transportation options to and from that location, and local options, which now include having a working knowledge of the safest ride-share programs, are important to consider,” Tanis says. “Many travelers assume that time zone changes and being away is a reason to not actively communicate with their office or travel manager. However, the exact opposite is true. Smart, timely and thoughtful communication is key to helping reduce a traveler’s risk.”

While travel risk management has been a key part of an organization’s legal, compliance and duty of care responsibilities for some time, Weedon says he still comes across companies that have nothing in place. “In today’s world, that is simply terrifying,” he says. “Every time employees travel, they are exposed to a wide range of risks that could impact their health, safety and security. Planning is a crucial part in reducing those risks.”

The first step to success, Weedon notes, is to develop a robust travel risk management plan that also includes a risk assessment framework for travel in higher-risk regions. Once the plan is in place, it’s important to communicate so travelers understand the risks and the measures in place to keep them safe should the worst happen. “It’s also critical that the plan is practiced with everyone who has a role to play in its activation,” Weedon says. “Not only does the team have a chance to practice, but it also allows the business to identify any gaps or areas where actions can be improved.”

For instance, GlobalStar has a comprehensive account management program to assist clients in developing a robust plan that will benefit them greatly, including reducing legal and financial vulnerability for travel to high-risk locations; improving employee confidence in travel-related health, safety and security arrangements; contributing to business continuity; and demonstrating the organization’s ability to control its travel-related risks effectively and efficiently.

Akshay Kapoor, head of sales, Asia Pacific for CWT says his company works with partners like International SOS and WorldAware to offer its customers a comprehensive suite of safety and security solutions. “One of the most important aspects of mitigating risk is arming travelers with reliable and timely information,” Kapoor says. “For example, the ‘destination intelligence’ feature in our myCWT mobile app gives travelers access to extensive health, travel, and security information on the country they are visiting, to help them be better prepared – everything from cultural tips to the availability of drinking water, the corruption situation, and the incidence of crime.”

The company also sends travelers itinerary-relevant safety and security alerts via e-mail and as push notifications through the mobile app. These alerts are issued for a wide range of incidents that may affect travel, increase travel security risks, or pose a health threat – from extreme weather to political unrest to disease outbreaks.

Costly Mistakes
International business dealings offer a lot of opportunities for travelers to make a faux pas. Sometimes, it can be something as innocent as taking a business card from a Japanese director and putting it directly into your pocket without looking at it first (a big no-no!). But other mistakes can have far more serious consequences. For example, a “thumbs up” in the US is an insult in Australia (especially with upward motion) and Nigeria.

Weedon recalls a marketing manager who traveled to Singapore with thousands of packs of branded chewing gum for a conference. The result was “an interesting exchange with customs officials on landing as chewing gum is illegal in Singapore.” He’s also seen two business travelers arrested in Dubai for kissing in public. “A lot of companies have a clearly defined travel and expense policy, but completely fail to address culture,” he says. “If a traveler is visiting a market for the first time, they need to learn and know the business and general culture in that country.”

For many countries, this information is available online (such as from a government’s foreign trade websites), but organizations should be offering a more comprehensive cultural briefing document to give travelers a complete overview covering general information, communication, etiquette, social order, public relations and doing business, Weedon says. “It’s not just about being polite – although that’s important too – but about avoiding misunderstandings that can lead to you losing a deal or ruining a relationship.”