In a post-panic world, smart travel programs will work to anticipate – and mitigate – the risks
Looking ahead to the world as it emerges from the COVID-19 crisis, business travelers and the companies that send them face a daunting balancing act: managing current risks while working to reboot their businesses. So it’s more important than ever for travel managers to understand insurance needs, company risks and business continuity, and best practices for traveler safety.
While domestic business travel is beginning to open, international travel remains crippled and the notion of “getting back to normal” is still a far cry from reality. As it stands, shrinking economies around the world, along with bankruptcies and consolidation across the travel industry will necessitate a rethink of business travel policies and providers, which may create a “one step forward, two steps back” scenario for many months ahead.
The pandemic response is driving almost daily changes to travel providers’ policies and confusing (and sometimes contradictory) health guidelines from different sources. In such an environment, rebuilding trust in travel will be the primary driver behind decision-making.
“With a pandemic like COVID-19, employers and employees now have to assess a risk which is quite different than a political or natural disaster risk, and a risk that is worldwide, so employers need to exercise caution for domestic travel as well,” says Dominick Zenzola, vice president and senior manager of accident and health underwriting at global insurer Axis.
“There’s a lot of focus on best practices for staying safe, but it’s of paramount importance for travelers to also understand, in detail, how they individually – or how their company – will prepare to actually manage a health or safety event while traveling,” notes Michael Hallman, CEO of Birmingham, AL-based Medjet. “It’s especially important in rebuilding their own confidence in getting back out on the road,” Hallman adds. “Knowledge is power.”Actions & Reactions
Rebuilding the trust muscle takes time, patience and doing due diligence. “Until we have reliable, confirmed data from several trusted sources, its best to err on the side of caution,” prefaces Stephen Barth, founder of HospitalityLawyer.com in Houston, TX. “So before going to your destination, understand what’s happening in that place.”
But the good news, Barth explains, is that travelers and their travel managers don’t have to figure it all out for themselves. “You can access websites such as ISOS (internationalsos.com) where they track both medical and security conditions on the ground. For example, they know whether local laws require you to quarantine for 28 days or 14 or 3; whether you’re required to wear masks or if there is a curfew. Knowing the rules in advance is essential for “smart” travel risk management.”
The same advice applies to ongoing civil unrest in the locations where travelers are planning to visit. Advise travelers to sign up for State Department alerts, as well as encouraging them to book through approved channels and allow traveler tracking. “This helps ensure that your organization can easily track and locate you if there’s an issue – and should you need to change your plans, you can quickly get assistance in making alternative travel arrangements,” advises Koby Brice, vice president, global customer management Asia Pacific at CWT in Singapore.
And if civil unrest does break out, travelers should be thinking about what to do in advance. “First, immediately move away from the protest area,” cautions Bruce McIndoe, CEO of WorldAware in Annapolis, MD. “If you are boxed in, shelter in any place that does not contain valuables (for example, not in stores) or may be the target of the protesters (i.e., government buildings). If there is no place to go, move away from the line between protesters and the authorities and find a building or wall to protect you and sit – so as not to present yourself as a threat,” he says.Policy Questions
Part of the traveler’s preparatory homework also means reviewing his or her health from a holistic perspective. “What’s your physical health like? What are you doing to bolster your immune system? If you feel under the weather, at what point do you decide not to go into the office or travel? This precaution alone could make the most impact,” adds HospitalityLawyer.com’s Barth.
A comprehensive health review also means looking at insurance policy coverage when traveling. In fact, “business travel policies and the benefits they can provide were highly relevant prior to the pandemic and are only more relevant now,” states James Walloga, executive vice president, Chubb Accident & Health in New York, NY.
“If you purchased a standard travel insurance policy prior to March 2020 it likely did not cover travel cancellation due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” explains Michael McGarrity, vice president of global risk services for Global Guardian in Tysons Corner, VA. “This is because coverage for COVID-19 as an event depends upon whether COVID-19 was ‘foreseeable’ when the policy was purchased and whether the policy contains a pandemic exclusion. Since at least March 2020, and in some cases as early as January 2020, many travel insurers have considered COVID-19 foreseeable, in part due to world-wide travel alerts to include the State Department’s Global Level 4 Health Advisory issued on March 31, 2020 which advised US citizens to avoid all international travel due to the global impact of COVID-19.”
Even if the traveler is generally “healthy,” revising insurance policies is important. “You’d be shocked at how many people have never actually looked into their company’s BTA, or their health insurance, their travel insurance or their credit card travel benefits (which we find a lot of small business owners and self-employed travelers rely on),” notes Medjet’s Hallman.
“They just assume things will be handled should they get sick on the road. But a lot of those coverages fall short. They cover medical costs of treatment in another state, or abroad, but don’t get you transferred home. In the case of a COVID case that results in longer term complications, or an injury that requires surgery and extensive recovery, being able to get home becomes incredibly important.”On the Road Again
It’s important to remind travelers that travel insurance only provides financial protection against disruption. “Look for financial protections from supplier failures, such as using a credit card that provides some protection and exploring travel insurance options on a site like insuremytrip.com,” advises McIndoe.
Thinking about contingencies during a quarantine is vital, especially if the employee does get sick. “Healthcare resources in some cities could be overwhelmed due to the coronavirus, making it difficult to get access to medical assistance should you need it,” Brice emphasizes. This risk is amplified when placed in the context of new COVID-19 outbreaks.
That will likely mean the face of business travel will change, at least for the immediate future. “When meeting with clients something as common as a handshake may not be the norm anymore,” Zenzola predicts. “Business lunches and dinners may not be as routine and will most likely be held to smaller groups. For the immediate future I also cannot see any large conferences occurring where hundreds or thousands of people are together for an event,” he adds.
“In the short term, many corporations may place limitations on business travelers in terms of the trips they take and how they take them. Over time, if infection rates continue to decline and there is confidence in the society’s ability to manage future outbreaks whether through a vaccine or other control measures, business travel will increase,” adds Walloga.
The travel industry understands that doing its part in limiting the spread of the virus is critical. For this reason, “airports will develop touchless check-ins, food and beverage service and seek to push baggage drop-off further out towards the parking lot or front door to minimize lines and ensure adequate social distancing,” says McGarrity. “Individuals will be responsible for bringing their own masks and sanitizers, and maybe even their own food to eat during transit to limit the need to interact with airline attendants.”
And on a global level, “some countries may incentivize or penalize carriers based on their inbound passengers testing positive for COVID upon entry. This could shift the responsibility to carriers to test before boarding,” McGarrity continues. “More developed countries like Vietnam, South Korea, and Hong Kong will conduct temperature screening and possibly testing upon entry; other nations will require self-quarantine for 14-plus days upon entry. More developing countries will likely require ‘immunity passports’ documenting the traveler passed a test within 24 to 48 hours prior to entry,” he adds. Clean Sweep
Rebuilding trust in travel will need to be done thoughtfully and strategically (especially with the possibility of second and third waves of the virus rebounding), as hospitality and travel companies show business travelers they are serious about providing healthy and safe accommodations. For example, how will a traveler know the last time a hotel room was cleaned and disinfected, especially in more out of the way locales where hotel choices are more limited and cleanliness protocols might not be as stringent?
Global Guardian’s McGarrity explains: “In an age of social media and awareness, hotel and airline reputations will be positive or negative based upon how cleaning teams and front-line employees treat customers and ensure their health and safety. Planes will board seats at the rear of the aircraft first and premium seating last to avoid passengers passing by each other. Premium class passengers would likely still depart first with passengers sitting in the rear of the aircraft still departing last.”
In the end, brands that exhibit a willingness to be transparent will win.
“Confidence will be predicated on several factors including a health response, and measures that the travel industry and governments put in place to ensure travelers’ safety,” says Michael Becker, CEO of GeoSure, in Boulder, CO. “Expressing safety in a way that empowers travelers with the information they need, instead of heightening anxiety, helps to regain trust in travel and is true as much for business as for leisure.”