25 April 2002
Since 11 September, security has been of paramount importance for travel buying in many major organisations. David Arminas asks how much of the burden should fall on travel managers
It is often forgotten that a travel manager deals in their company's most precious asset - its employees' lives. The buyer's decisions, including which hotel, airline or train to use, are of utmost importance to the company.
Since the 11 September terrorist attacks in New York, security has been a major concern for travel managers. So it is reassuring to know that influential figures such as Professor Paul Wilkinson, director of the centre for the study of terrorism and political violence at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, recognise the contribution that this particular area of procurement can make to the battle against terrorism.
In his keynote speech to this year's Institute of Travel Management (ITM) conference, Wilkinson threw down the gauntlet to travel managers. While they are recognised as being in the front line of corporate protection, they must be more demanding of their suppliers that security levels are the highest, he said.
Many companies, especially multinationals with big financial resources, have increased their corporate security departments that advise travelling executives.
Delegates at the conference heard from Ron Peberdy, head of Bank of America's corporate security services, how he works closely with its international travel department. His description of kidnappings, stolen briefcases and robberies is enough to give any senior executive a lasting belief in the benefits of videoconferencing.
And London is as dangerous as Lagos, Nigeria, he said. In Lagos, an executive's defences are naturally up, but in London they think "it couldn't happen here".
A traveller has a responsibility to assure their company that they are doing everything possible to reduce the risk of attacks or death.
But individual responsibility is one half of the corporate safety and security equation. The other half is the travel buyer ensuring they have taken all the necessary steps to reduce the risk of danger. As our news story shows, the entire industry is wide awake to this responsibility.
Louise Innes, chairman of the ITM, said that travel buyers are more receptive than ever to suppliers that have increased their focus on safety and security. But the issue is more complicated than it first appears.
Bank of America has the resources, both financial and personnel, to dig deep for information not readily available to many companies. Wilkinson advocates close co-operation with police and government agencies, which the bank and other large organisations certainly have the clout to do.
But what can reasonably be expected of travel managers in smaller companies without Bank of America's resources?
The real issue for travel buyers is how far they drill down to ensure they have done everything possible to fulfil their safety and security responsibility. The answer will be a function of money, personnel and time.
Ideally, a travel manager will have some idea of how safe certain airports and hotel chains are. Innes is wisely urging travel managers to talk to seasoned travellers within their company to find out what conditions are like where they've been.
In that sense, travel buyers must build up a picture of safety and security, even one based on anecdotal, if first-hand, evidence.
However, a lot of the information necessary to carry out a risk assessment, such as security breaches at airports, kidnappings at hotels or general dangers to executives, is not readily available. Travel agents may not believe it is their responsibility to have this information in the first place.
In that case, travel agents with good security connections and information will be first in line for working with a travel manager in a small business.
Travel managers embarking on safety and security assessments must decide how much information they need to ensure they have fulfilled their responsibility.
This is most important, as more than ever the travel manager will have to account for travel plans, including which suppliers to use, airlines to fly and hotels to stay in.