Education is key when preparing clients for high-risk travel. // © 2018 Getty Images
Feature image (above): All countries have been assigned an advisory level by the U.S. Department of State. // © 2018 Getty Images
It was Nov. 26, 2008, and The Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai, India, was under attack.
Michael Beagelman, CEO of London-based MB Private Clients, received an unexpected call with the news. Two of his clients — who were celebrating their honeymoon — were trapped inside the hotel.
As the seconds ticked by, more details started to flood in: The hotel had been bombed, then stormed by a group of heavily armed terrorists representing Lashkar-e Taiba, an Islamic militant group based in Pakistan. The newlyweds, who communicated with Beagelman via text messages, had barricaded themselves in a room with a hotel employee, who, in an attempt to lead the couple to safety, had been shot in a spray of machine-gun fire.
Beagelman’s next move would prove critical if he wanted to get his clients out alive. He alerted the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office of the couple’s whereabouts, called a crisis hotline and worked to orchestrate their safe release by the Indian army.
“During this, you’re sort of one step removed,” Beagelman said. “The key is being able to move very quickly — if you take on the stress, you can’t deal with the problem.”
Surprisingly, this was not Beagelman’s first rodeo in the art of crisis response.
Just three years prior, another client, top international lawyer Robert Amsterdam, was detained in Russia after testifying against the Russian government on behalf of billionaire oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. After an unexpected visit by Russian officials at his hotel, Amsterdam’s passport was seized, preventing him from leaving the country. With Beagelman’s help, Amsterdam retrieved his travel documents, boarded a commercial flight and safely returned home. Now, he credits the travel agent with saving his life.
Beagelman’s cases are extreme. But, as he puts it, “today’s world is extreme.”
Because of this, all sellers of travel should arm themselves with the tools, services and resources mentioned in this story to keep their clients as safe as possible while abroad.
Although there was little-to-no pre-warning in the cases of Amsterdam and the Mumbai attack, several controllable factors — including an open line of communication with clients, advanced preparation and a deep knowledge of emergency-response tactics — proved to be Beagelman’s best weapons.
“Things could flare up at the last minute,” he said. “So, it’s all about having information, having somewhere to go, having somebody know where you are and where you should be, and having someone who will worry if you haven’t gotten from point A to point B.”
A good path to preparedness should start weeks before a client ever sets foot on a plane. At Beagelman’s company, trip-planning protocol includes an initial consultation where staff members ask clients questions like, “Have you ever been refused entry at a border?” and advise them on the various travel dos (do keep cellphones charged; do keep travel documents secure and hidden) and don’ts (don’t lend your cellphone to anyone; don’t fudge an immigration form).
“Technology has really kicked in now, and it works for and against agents,” Beagelman said. “People’s whereabouts are very easy to trace. Today, the borders are very sensitive. In the past, people didn’t take visa and immigration documents so seriously. But you need to absolutely take them seriously. If you make mistakes, you could get refused. And once you’re refused, that refusal can rebound.”
After clients complete the initial consult, Beagelman’s team gets to work gathering intel on the destination, securing visas before arrival (if possible) and creating a trusted network of on-the-ground operators, including transfer services, hotels and tour companies that are booked through the company’s relationship with U.S.-based travel agency Altour.
No matter where clients are traveling, enrolling their information in the U.S. Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is also a good first line of defense; it is available online for free for both travelers and advisors. The program sends safety and security alerts for specific destinations; keeps a client’s contact information at the nearest U.S. embassy; and helps travelers contact their family should an emergency arise while they are abroad.
The State Department’s online travel advisory page was overhauled in January to eliminate confusion over the difference between a travel “alert” and “warning.” A new four-tiered system now assigns each destination a level on a scale of 1 to 4 (1: Exercise Normal Precautions, 2: Exercise Increased Caution, 3: Reconsider Travel and 4: Do Not Travel), which can be perused via a digital interactive map.
A visit to this webpage is one of the first things Don Capparella, CEO and founder of Phoenix-based Quality Travel Solutions, does when he meets a client who is interested in traveling to a high-risk destination — or just one that he is unfamiliar with.
“It’s good to make the government aware of your travelers,” he said. “I never want to scare my clients, but I want them to be prepared for what lies ahead. I want their experience to be an enjoyable and rewarding one, however, I make sure I do my due diligence to empower them by having the most recent information.”
Further, each State Department advisory now comes with a reason for its assigned level, which may include crime, terrorism, civil unrest, natural disaster, a time-limited event and more. And larger countries that have sensitive areas, such as Mexico, could have multiple rankings depending on the region, according to Michelle Bernier-Toth, acting deputy assistant secretary for overseas citizens services at the U.S. Department of State.
Another useful online tool is a State Department webpage devoted specifically to travel agents that provides intel on passport procurement, emergency assistance, TSA Pre-Check, Global Entry and more.
“We did over a year of benchmarking surveys and focus groups and came up with this new system,” Bernier-Toth said. “The messaging is now more accessible, it’s clear as to what we see as the threat or risk, and it is actionable.”
Although a valuable resource, the State Department’s system should be used as a guide, not necessarily the end-all-be-all in the decision-making process, Capparella says.
There are some destinations — such as Cuba, which is classified as a Level 3 — that the U.S. government cautions against, but agents still sell. For example, Capparella recently led a group of about 20 travelers there.
“What we do is avoid the specific areas listed in the travel advisory,” he said. “Even if a warning is in place, we should still make decisions for ourselves on whether the risk is worth it; it is all about our personal comfort zone in selling the location and being equipped should anything go wrong.”
Other subscription-based services provide travel advisors with destination intel, including Intelliguide, Travel42 (both owned by Northstar Travel Group, the parent company of TravelAge West), iJet and others.
A relationship with an on-the-ground tour operator or specialist is also paramount, especially if a client is interested in a destination that tends to stay below the tourist radar.
When Shannon Stowell, CEO of the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA), took his 17-year-old son to Iraqi Kurdistan, for example, he found little information on the destination available online.
Researching the trip beforehand proved to be “a bit of a black box,” Stowell says, because “there were not a lot of ‘How to Travel in Kurdistan’ info pieces out there.”
Because of this, he turned to Kurdistan Iraq Tours, an on-the-ground operator and ATTA member.
“I strongly recommend building a relationship with a reliable tour operator — one with a well-known reputation and a history in the destination,” Stowell said. “The other option is to go yourself and become an expert in the region, but that will also likely end up with finding a good operator who has years in business, a solid risk-management plan and experience working with international travelers.”
Another ATTA supplier member, MIR Corporation, has specialized in destinations that are widely considered “obscure, remote, difficult or controversial,” according to its website. In addition to satellite offices in many of its exotic locales, MIR has a team of U.S.-based specialists in Seattle to address client and agent requests and concerns before and during travel.
“We provide content to agents that they can pass on to their own clients,” said Annie Lucas, vice president of MIR. “But, if agents aren’t as comfortable operating and lining things up and need a certain amount of information, we are quite flexible in working with them.”
MIR’s portfolio of destinations range from the five “stans” of Central Asia — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan — to Tibet, Turkey, Siberia and far Eastern Russia, among others.
“We try to make a region that most people are intimidated by accessible,” Lucas said. “That’s been our goal since the very beginning.”
To ensure the highest standards of safety and security, MIR staff regularly completes in-person inspection trips to the countries the company sells to ensure a unified set of standards practiced by on-the-ground partners. Many members of MIR’s U.S.-based staff speak the countries’ local languages, and the team researches news articles published both in U.S.-based media and in local outlets in the destinations.
MIR’s buyers tend to be “country-collectors,” Lucas says — savvy, experienced consumers looking for a unique experience far from the well-trodden path. However, that’s not to say that these destinations are off-limits to the more mainstream buyer; at MIR, special accommodations and customizations can be made for families with children, multigenerational groups or clients who take things at a slower pace.
Quality Travel Solutions’ Capparella spends a fair amount of time qualifying each of his own clients — especially for riskier destinations.
“I see if they are going to learn, to experience adventure, provide humanitarian relief, etc.,” he said. “It helps me know if I should send them with a group of folks with similar interests — there’s always safety in numbers — or if they should be traveling on this experience solo. If I feel that clients might not be up to the challenge of traveling to such an unstable country, then I like to provide them alternative destinations that might still provide them with a unique experience.”
He says other factors should also be considered: Would travel protection cover the client? If not, could the traveler come after the agent or agency? (Some tour operators, such as MIR, require travel insurance as a part of the total travel package.)
Capparella advises that if a client declines insurance, it’s a good idea to get that in writing.
He recalls one client who was traveling in a developing country and had a car accident in a remote region. She was taken to the nearest hospital, where it was determined she would need to be medically evacuated back to the U.S. — a cost that was in excess of $30,000.
“Had the client purchased the travel protection, this emergency evacuation would have been covered under the policy type that I offered her,” Capparella said.
MB Private Clients’ Beagelman also touts the benefits of travel insurance; one of his American clients had to be medically evacuated from France to the U.S. for emergency eye surgery. Luckily, she was insured, and her plan included reparation.
Sifting through and finding the right travel insurance plan for your client may seem daunting, but peace of mind makes it a worthy expense, says Megan Cruz, executive director of the U.S. Travel Insurance Association.
“Consider any non-reimbursable deposits and the costs of any cancellation, interruption or medical or other emergency that insurance can cover that a client would otherwise need to pay out of pocket,” she said.
Risks covered by insurance could range from the minute — a delayed flight that leads to the expense of an extra night in a hotel — to life-threatening emergencies requiring medical evacuation or treatment that a client would otherwise have to pay for in full.
Although many U.S. health insurance plans cover medical expenses incurred abroad, it’s important to understand what is and is not covered, Cruz adds. For example, with a few exceptions, Medicare and Medicare supplements generally don’t cover any expenses incurred outside the U.S., so travel insurance really is a must for those travelers.
“Agents should approach travel insurance as just part of the total travel package, and something that prudent and experienced travelers include,” Cruz said. “If agents have personally experienced clients who benefited from having insurance, they should share those stories. It’s a fine line for agents, because they don’t want to frighten clients, but they do need to make sure clients understand supplier cancellation penalties, and that suppliers enforce those penalties, regardless of the reason for canceling.”
Lastly, when it comes to selling off-the-beaten-path travel, Capparella suggests that agents weigh their knowledge of the destination, sense of preparedness and ability to provide a rewarding experience above the bottom line.
“Just because a destination exists doesn’t mean we need to sell it,” Capparella said. “We do not need to risk our livelihood and business just to make a sale. The last thing we need is for a client to come back and sue us for selling a destination that was unpleasant for them to visit. It is OK to say no.”