Exit Strategy Christian L. Wright, Conde Nast Traveler
When the boss says go, it's hard to say no—even if it means traveling to some of the less predictable corners of the globe. Christian L. Wright reports on the companies that spring business travelers out of tight spots and how to stay safe when work takes you far from home
When Justin Case (not his real name) and his brother found themselves in the middle of a violent protest high in the Andes in 2007, they called the emergency medical and security service International SOS for help. International SOS staffers immediately advised the brothers to fill the bathtub, in case a fire broke out; put money in their shoes, in case they had to run; and avoid the police station, since it was likely a target of the protesters. Within 48 hours, International SOS had returned the brothers to Lima, shaken but safe. "When I look at pictures of a war zone now," Justin says, "it reminds me of what it was like."
Between the narrowly averted military coup in Turkey in 2008, this winter's sudden cholera outbreak in Mozambique, the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, and frequent kidnappings from Mexico City to Kathmandu, it can look like a real jungle out there. In fact, the world's a pretty safe place, with only about three percent of travelers ever falling victim to a crime and far fewer getting caught up in civil strife or natural disaster. Even so, the security industry is growing apace as increasing numbers of companies are sending more employees into remote or unstable places and realizing that it's good business sense to contract an outside firm to help monitor their workforce overseas.
A range of U.S. security and risk management services consult with both multinational companies and individuals. For example, iJET Intelligent Risk Systems, a full-service security outfit, works primarily with corporations, tracking and supporting upwards of 400,000 business travelers in any given month (the company evacuated 186 clients from Haiti after the January earthquake). On the other hand, half the travelers who hire Clayton Consultants, which specializes in kidnapping, are private individuals. International SOS and Assist America are essentially medical emergency services—think of them as an international 911—sometimes working in concert with risk management experts. And then there are companies like Granite Intelligence, in New York, that offer executive protection—in other words, bodyguards. "It's not unlike what the secret service does for the president but on a much smaller scale," says Jeffrey Mueller, co-founder of Granite.
Still, despite the growth in the security industry, a 2007 survey conducted by the U.K.-based firm Control Risks revealed that half of U.S. business travelers polled reported that there was no clear travel security policy at their company and 23 percent said their firm provided no security support at all. Clearly, for business as well as leisure travelers, it's ultimately up to the individual to be his or her own best risk manager. According to Randy Spivey, CEO and founder of the Center for Personal Protection & Safety, the degree of risk abroad can be summed up by three factors. "Where you're going, whom you work for, and what you're doing there. If you're tied to the coffee industry," he explains, "in certain parts of Latin America that's a threat to the drug trade." In general, one of the biggest threats to the international business traveler is kidnapping—Clayton Consultants handled 40 cases worldwide in 2009—particularly in Latin America, where fully half of all kidnaps-for-ransom take place. Kidnap risk is also higher in oil-rich parts of Africa and the Middle East and in Southeast Asia, where growing economies are attracting more foreigners looking to drum up business. Threats of terrorism are particularly high in Afghanistan, India, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan, and Yemen. Civil unrest and natural disasters round out the list.
ALl in the preparation
You don't have to hire a security expert to reduce your chances of ending up in a tight spot overseas. In fact, a little preparation can go a long way in minimizing risk and putting you in the best position to respond to the unexpected. "Be a bit obsessive-compulsive" in your planning, advises James Moulton, field security officer for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, who has lived and worked in Haiti and the Niger Delta. Moulton and others recommend that travelers to off-the-beaten-path destinations study up on the history, culture, customs, government, religions, and possible risks (natural as well as man-made) well before departure. For instance, if you're scheduled to head to a politically unstable country and you learn that you'll be there during its national elections, you might want to change your travel dates. If your company has no library of dossiers on every place the boss might send you, or hasn't hired an outside company that does, you can refer to the U.S. State Department alerts and advisories online (state.gov/travel), and you can tailor daily e-mail digests from the Overseas Security Advisory Council (osac.gov) to stay current on regions that are of interest to you. To further understand conditions on the ground, some broad overview maps are available online, such as the Risk Atlas from the magazine Risk Management, and ASI Global's Kidnap & Ransom Threat Map (www.asiglobalresponse.com/downloads/KR_threat_map.pdf).
In an age when the ability to make a phone call or send an e-mail is taken for granted, it's easy to overlook the issue of communications on a trip abroad. Big mistake. "Your ability to communicate on a moment's notice could be the difference between life and death," says Alex Puig, a director at Travel Security Services, a joint venture between Control Risks and International SOS. The Global Fund's Moulton agrees. "During a coup or rumors of one, the first thing to go down is the telephone network, at precisely the time you need it most." The answer? A satellite phone, especially "in volatile environments or remote areas where power and cell phone coverage cannot be guaranteed," Moulton says.
In most parts of the world, though, even the humble cell phone can be a powerful tool in times of trouble. Text messaging, for instance, is still a viable way to communicate when phones are jammed and you can't make a call. There's even a 99-cent app called iWitness, available on iTunes, that works on the iPhone and BlackBerry and sends up to 15 contacts a distress signal, notifying them of your whereabouts when you activate the alarm.
Sometimes a phone call is all that's needed to get you out of a jam. A few years ago, when a car carrying some American businessmen in a remote part of India hit a rickshaw, an angry crowd of about 300 quickly gathered. Although the car was driven by an Indian, the crowd wanted to lynch the Americans. Luckily, they were able to phone colleagues in the vicinity, who quickly came and ushered them to safety.
THE BEST DEFENSE
Clayton Consultants Analyzes the risk potential for any given trip; offers skills training, including lessons in evasive driving and handling firearms; provides response teams for kidnap-for-ransom, extortion, and wrongful detention. Cost: $1,500-$3,000 per consultant per day.
Granite Intelligence Sends an advance team to secure the destination; coordinates safe transportation; vets hotels; provides bodyguards; conducts counter-surveillance and background checks. Cost: $5,000-$20,000 per day, depending on the destination and number of personnel.
iJET Intelligent Risk Systems Provides destination reports and safety advice; dispenses real-time alerts to e-mail addresses or phones; monitors airlines safety standards; vets hotels; staffs a 24-hour hotline; arranges emergency evacuations. Cost: $5,000 per year for an organization.
Insite Security Geared to top executives and high-net-worth individuals; sends an advance team to secure the destination; vets hotels; coordinates safe transportation; conducts counter-surveillance, emergency evacuations, and kidnap-and-ransom negotiations. Cost: From $6,000 for an individual trip.
Travel Security Services This joint venture between International SOS and Control Risks staffs a 24-hour security and medical hotline and arranges evacuations. Cost: From $435 per year for independent travelers.