With the vulnerabilities of soft targets continuing to be exploited in recent news headlines, there has been an increased focus on “situational awareness” and what this means for international travel safety. However, having a solid grasp on situational awareness entails much more than simply knowing where the nearest emergency exits and first aid kits are. In fact, best practice of situational awareness begins in the planning stages of a travel itinerary and continues throughout the duration of a trip. To further illustrate this point, let’s consider the following scenario which demonstrates how important it is to ensure situational awareness from the beginning stages of your employees’ travel plans:
Katie,* an associate at a large international consulting firm, has been tasked with developing a new marketing campaign for a gas station chain in Turkey, which requires an onsite visit to meet the key decision-makers for the company. This visit includes attending a high-profile retirement party for one of the organization’s longtime employees.
From the onset, Katie and her manager are situationally aware enough to understand the inherent risk in traveling to Turkey for this event. Katie immediately has reservations due to Turkey’s unpredictable geopolitical climate and her manager agrees—adding to this apprehension, Katie has never been to this region before and is unsure what to expect. Should Katie stay or go?
Unfortunately, there is never a one size fits all answer to that question, regardless of the destination or reason for the trip—but there are some strategies travelers and their organizations can employ to help facilitate an informed travel decision.
First, let’s consider Katie’s individual risk profile. What prior life experiences does she have that may be applicable to this situation? From what we know so far, Katie has little international travel experience and has never been to Turkey before, which is concerning. The realities of gender-based risk must also be considered. Further information can help build an accurate and comprehensive risk profile. For example, does Katie have any prior medical experience, speak any foreign languages, and was she provided any relevant travel safety trainings during her organization’s onboarding process?
Katie’s employer should also consider the specifics of her travel plans in order to get an accurate idea of the situation she will be facing. What is the duration of the trip? What is the main mode of transportation once in Turkey (e.g. public transportation or private care service)? What accommodations are available?
Upon further examination of Katie’s trip, one of the most important aspects to consider is the main event. Determining whether the retirement party she needs to attend will be a soft or hard target will have a significant effect on the overall risk assessment for her trip. Since the event is taking place at a hotel, it’s important to determine if the venue will have security measures in place such as cameras, doormen, and security guards. Will there be any additional private security put in place by the company hosting the event? What will the access control be for this event (e.g. will there be a bouncer at the door refusing entry to anyone not on the guest list)? Additionally, who will be attending this event?
For example, if there will be a number of high-profile guests, are there any politically or religiously motivated groups that may carry out an attack? What about the company hosting this event—what is their position in the oil industry? Does this add any increased threat from competitors or environmentalist groups? Additional concerns could also include whether alcohol will be served and how long the event will last. In Katie’s proposed itinerary, the dinner banquet itself is a vital component to consider in order to provide her with the appropriate advice.
After considering Katie’s individual risk profile, the geopolitical situation in the country and the event specifics, Katie and her company need to determine their risk tolerance. Meaning, how much risk does the company feel comfortable taking on considering all the information available to them? Would they feel more comfortable if specific security measures were put in place to reduce risk exposure? Upon examining the answers to these questions and the details of Katie’s specific situation, her organization may decide that they are willing to take on a bit more risk than usual considering the importance of the client—or maybe not.
Regardless of what Katie and her organization decide, this story helps illustrate how practicing situational awareness in the early planning phases of a trip can help organizations and their travelers craft meaningful risk assessments and, as a result, make well informed travel decisions along the way. In many cases, a resolution can be reached through a creative solution and/or adaptation of more stringent security measures that will help mitigate the overall risk of a trip. However, when travelers head to high-risk countries, an in-depth evaluation can easily fall outside an organization’s internal capabilities or resources. As such, organizations often seek support from external resources, such as travel risk management firms, who can provide this kind of analysis and corresponding advice within their core competencies.
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*Katie’s story is a fictional (but realistic) representation of the concepts of situational awareness and pre-travel planning/assessments.