Companies Play It Safe

Corporate travel to 'high-risk' countries being curtailed

By: Jerry Chandler

A significant new survey by the National Business Travel Association shows American businesses are already adjusting their travel policies in preparation for a potential war with Iraq.

While a survey of some 150 corporate travel managers indicated that 60 percent of the respondents had no immediate plans to reduce travel, 62 percent of them were evaluating trips on a case-by-case basis and a full 49 percent are restricting travel to high-risk areas.

The Houston-based corporate security and intelligence firm, Air Security International, identifies the high-risk countries as Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon, Pakistan, Indonesia, Egypt and Indonesia. But the potential for encountering problems is literally global. “There are potential conflicts, at a street level, in other regions of the world,” said Charlie LeBlanc, ASI’s managing director. So strong is the opposition to war, that your client could be walking down a street in Manila, or even Munich, and be confronted by anti-American crowds.

“Each corporation is different in terms of when they want to move people out; when they want to ban travel to countries,” said LeBlanc. “Depending on the corporate culture, some will do it very early in the process. I have clients who have been banning travel to the Middle East and certain other regions, for the past two months.” Or, they have been “encumbering” that travel mandating that any employee going to risky regions get an approval from executives higher in the corporation.

While the marching (or retreat) orders are increasingly coming from high within corporate hierarchies, travel agents have a real role to play in the ensuing weeks. “In times of crisis, or times of uncertainty, that’s when travel agents really shine,” said Richard Copland, president of the American Society of Travel Agents.

They shine by keeping the lines of communication open. Copland and LeBlanc believe that agents should work actively with corporations to strengthen communications protocols the NBTA indicates that 38 percent of companies responding to its survey are already doing just that.

“After Sept. 11,” Copland said, “the world was in chaos. Travel stopped. All over the world, people couldn’t get home. Talking to airlines was useless forget about it. Ultimately, it was travel agents who got all these people home safely.”

It would be a mistake, however, to rely on those tried-and-true methods of getting in touch with clients, or for getting them home. It’s important to develop multiple channels of communication with your client, directly, using: cell phones, pagers or e-mail. LeBlanc said that it’s equally critical for corporate agents to have a contact within their client’s company someone they can work with, in times of crises.

Should a serious situation occur, “airlines will move around flights,” said Copland. “They’ll have to cancel flights.” He said that it’s incumbent for agents to keep clients in the loop. “I recommend to all my clients that before they go, even if it’s a leisure trip, that they leave information as to how they can be reached.”

Once you reach them, better have some alternate routes to offer. LeBlanc said that a corporate client’s preferred airline may have yanked service from the region.

It’s important that up-to-date itineraries be waiting on the shelf: alternate airlines and alternate airports. And don’t get hung up with air. Explore ground exit options as well.

“Now is the time we can really show the value of using a travel agent,” said Copland.

“The message to the traveling public and corporate travel departments is: ‘This is the time you need travel agents more than ever. Without a travel agent, you’re on your own.’ “

Ironically, the exceedingly public preparations for war make it easier for travel agents and corporations to get ready for exigencies. From that perspective, things differ significantly from 9/11.

“The key here is that we have a looming crisis,” said LeBlanc. “We actually get the benefit of knowing the potential is there.”

LeBlanc admits that all of this worst-case preparation banning travel, developing back channels for crisis communication can run counter to a travel agent’s inclination. After all, agents are in business to promote travel.

“Short-term, this could result in a potential revenue loss,” he said.

“In the long term, though, I think it helps cement the relationship between a corporate travel agent and that corporation. It shows they’re not just interested in selling tickets. They’re interested in taking care of their travelers.”

Information on NBTA’s recommendations on preparing for a potential war, log onto

ASI’s Web site: