Tracking Business Travelers

Tracking systems help employers stay connected with employees traveling worldwide.

By Jennifer Taylor Arnold Nov 1, 2008
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"It really all started after Sept. 11," recalls Terri Campbell-Teal, travel buyer for San Francisco-based apparel maker Levi Strauss & Co. On that infamous day, Levi Strauss had about 16 employees in Manhattan at various hotels. Campbell-Teal, along with thousands of other corporate travel managers at corporations all over the world, was frantically trying to locate her travelers. The process was slow and cumbersome: Levi Strauss staff members had to request information from its third-party travel agency, then call each hotel on overloaded phone lines.

Fortunately, by the end of the day, Campbell-Teal was able to verify that all of the Levi Strauss employees in Manhattan were safe. But the events led the company, and many others, to start looking for a better way to track business travelers.

Today’s technology is meeting that need. Web-based travel-tracking systems now allow employers to identify, monitor and contact business travelers in a few keystrokes—at surprisingly low cost.

Heightened Travel Risks

Experts agree that this niche market developed in response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Since then, many factors have contributed to its expansion. The London bombings and recent hurricanes reinforced the dangers of terrorism and natural disasters, even in areas traditionally considered low-risk. And globalization has led to an increase in business travel to volatile countries. "There’s always been risk in travel," says David Cheese, marketing manager for Traveler Security and Data Suite, a travel-tracking tool by Sabre Systems, based in Southlake, Texas. But "the frequency and severity of these types of events has increased."

Corporate leaders have become more aware of legal and ethical responsibilities for business travelers. And, legally, companies could be held liable for failing to provide adequate information and support. These capabilities are like insurance, says Cheese. "You have them so you can protect your employees and meet those duty-of-care responsibilities."

Since 2003, Levi Strauss has met that responsibility for its 300-odd daily business travelers using the Travel Locator Service provided by International SOS, a global medical and security assistance provider with U.S. headquarters in Philadelphia. Soon after implementation, the system was put to the test by the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) scare. As a precaution, Levi Strauss issued a policy asking employees to work from home for a 10-day incubation period after returning from a SARS-affected area. Within minutes, Levi Strauss travel staff identified 17 employees affected by the policy, without having to rely on third parties or make time-consuming telephone calls. "It took less than 10 minutes to identify and notify travelers by e-mail of the 10-day stay-at-home requirement," says Campbell-Teal.

Easy Access to Data

Travel-tracking systems work by tapping into global distribution systems, or GDS, the systems that underlie nearly all airline, hotel and car rental reservations systems. By establishing a data feed with a corporation’s travel management company, the tracking system can import data on business travelers’ itineraries and supply the information to users in a convenient, easily usable format.

Specifics vary, but tracking systems routinely provide snapshots of all corporate travelers’ locations at any time. Users then view specifics such as flight details, hotel and car rental information, and itinerary changes. Individual traveler listings include an e-mail link to allow immediate communication. Tracking systems also allow users to search by variables such as flight number, airport, hotel, city, region or event, such as a convention.

In many instances, tracking tools are bundled with other services, such as travel insurance or travel management. In those circumstances, the company contracts with the service provider, and the charge for the tracking tool is folded in with add-on fees. Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL), a utility company based in Alberta, Calgary, accesses Sabre’s Traveler Security and Data Suite through such an arrangement. "We secured the tool through our travel management company," says Shelly Lewchuk, supervisor of corporate travel for CNRL. The travel management company takes care of maintenance and support, Lewchuk says, "so it’s very easy." CNRL uses the Traveler Security and Data Suite to track 600 or so frequent domestic travelers; on a typical day, CNRL has about 60 employees on the road within Canada.

Tools and Training

Tracking tools help locate and contact employees quickly. But in some instances, that’s only part of the puzzle. Do employees know what to do if they are in dangerous situations while traveling? Do you know what to tell them?

These questions came up for Shelly Lewchuk, supervisor of corporate travel for Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL), a utility company, while she was attending a travel conference in Los Angeles in July, when the magnitude 5.4 earthquake occurred. The experience made her realize that her employees needed to be trained in emergency response.

Some travel-tracking system vendors provide 24/7 emergency response and assistance around the world. Services may include helping a traveler find medical care, facilitating evacuation after a coup, and responding to a kidnapping and ransom demand. Employees can call a toll-free number from anywhere in the world and receive assistance from trained representatives.

Such capabilities are offered by International SOS’s Travel Locator Service and iJET Intelligent Risk Systems’ WorldCue Travel Risk Management tracking tool. International SOS’s services focus more on medical emergencies, while iJET also provides other types of emergency response.

Medical situations are more common than kidnappings or coups. For example, software developer Adobe Systems Inc. in San Jose, Calif., began using International SOS’s Travel Locator Service in late 2007. Tony Mosunic, Adobe’s global operations manager for safety and security, describes a recent situation where an employee became ill on an airliner en route to India. The employee was able to contact International SOS’s 24/7 response line, and when the flight landed for a layover in Germany, International SOS representatives directed her to the nearest hospital. "In the last nine months, we have called them at least five or six times," says Mosunic.

—Jennifer Taylor Arnold

How HR Fits In

Web-based implementation is relatively quick and painless. Usually, data feeds can be established in a few weeks, and the systems are intuitive enough to minimize training. No special hardware or software—other than a high-speed Internet connection—is necessary. Because of privacy concerns, system access is usually restricted to a few key users. "We hold travelers’ information as confidential," Lewchuk says of CNRL’s approach, which mirrors that of most users. "We have strict privacy policies."

Typically, the corporate security or travel management department owns the system. "HR is only the buyer about one-third of the time," says Tim Daniel, executive vice president of International SOS.

Still, HR has an important role to play in making sure that the company is meeting its responsibilities to employees. "It’s rare that HR is not at the table with travel and security," says Marty Pfinsgraff, chief operating officer of iJET Intelligent Risk Systems, a company in Annapolis, Md., that offers a travel-tracking tool called WorldCue Travel Risk Management.

Even in environments where HR professionals don’t have direct access to the travel-tracking tool, the system can benefit the department. The responsibility for communicating with traveling employees and their families during crises often falls to HR professionals; having immediate, convenient access to relevant information simplifies that difficult task.

Tracking tools also demonstrate a company’s commitment to the safety of its employees. "It helps us with recruitment and retention," says Kent Piper, vice president for financial planning and analysis at Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI), an international development firm in Bethesda, Md. DAI has hundreds of employees in high-risk areas around the world and uses iJET’s travel management tools. "When [a candidate is] deciding whether to work for us or someone else [in our industry], they look at the total package," Piper says.

The system’s reporting capabilities can also provide valuable data. Lewchuk says CNRL’s HR department uses annual traveler data from the Traveler Security and Data Suite to inform insurance decisions.

A Proactive Approach

While these capabilities were initially developed to help employers respond to widespread emergencies, many users have found them useful in daily operations. "If I see in the morning that the airlines are having irregular operations due to weather, and I determine that an employee is scheduled to fly into that affected area, I can inform [the employee and offer] the option of rebooking," thereby easing frustrations, says Lewchuk.

Lewchuk notes that proactively managing employee travel can also translate into efficiency and cost savings by helping to avoid additional hotel overnights, missed client appointments and unproductive hours spent sitting in airports.

The proactive approach applies to security threats as well. Some systems include a news feed providing up-to-the-minute information about potential threats around the world. Weather events, political unrest, acts of violence, even worker strikes are displayed continually, along with custom alerts that warn the user if there are travelers in a danger zone.

The biggest value, according to Pfinsgraff? The notification capability, which enables companies to proactively try "to notify employees before something happens to help them avoid the situation."

Knowing what is going on in a given area can also help travel managers prepare employees appropriately before a trip. Jennifer Plotke, senior security and safety specialist for Levi Strauss, says she uses International SOS’s system to brief employees before they travel to locations with identified health or security risks that have the potential to disrupt business travel.

Some providers offer tools to support expatriates. In addition to standard tracking functions, such tools capture information about relocated employees and family members, including health conditions, vehicle information, skills such as emergency medical or pilot training, and even vacation travel plans.

DAI managers use iJET’s WorldCue Expatriate Risk Management tool to help support the company’s 150-plus expatriates in locations such as the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. iJET’s tool allows DAI home-office staff to monitor threats as they are developing and proactively reach out to affected employees. Piper cites a recent situation involving civil unrest in Sri Lanka. With early notification from iJET, DAI managers activated a security plan and moved expatriates and their families to a more secure area before events escalated.

‘Peace of Mind’

In today’s environment, international business travel isn’t just for Fortune 500 companies. Small and mid-size companies are affected by globalization, too, and because of their size, their exposure to risk may be even greater. Such employers "may need the services more," says Pfinsgraff, because "they may not have the infrastructure to help take care of their employees."

Moreover, tracking tools can be surprisingly affordable. Most travel-tracking systems charge an upfront annual fee, with a tiered pricing structure based on the average number of travelers booked each year. Fees range from about $5 per trip for companies with low travel volume to as little as $1 per trip for those with frequent travelers. Fees for tools bundled with insurance or travel management packages vary greatly, so buyers are wise to compare.

Experts say the prevalence of travel-tracking tools will continue to spread as globalization continues and liability concerns increase. In addition, capabilities are likely to expand, with HR priorities gaining prominence. "HR is saying these systems fall short in their ability to track populations who are under the radar," says Daniel. As an example, Daniel cites the challenge of keeping track of expiration dates for expatriates’ immigration paperwork. "We may be able to help HR with those types of problems. We see that as the future."

Even without those capabilities, today’s tools represent a step forward, users say. They place "control of a consolidated search into the corporation’s toolkit," says Campbell-Teal. "We don’t have to wait for our various travel agencies around the world to query their systems and report back to us where our employees are on any given day. It brings peace of mind to know we can reach out and know where our travelers are. I can’t imagine that a week goes by that we don’t somehow tap into the system."

The author is a freelance writer based in Baltimore.

Web Extras

SHRM research: Crisis Management in Today’s Business Environment: HR’s Strategic Role (Research Quarterly)

SHRM web page: SHRM Online Safety and Security Focus Area home page

Web site: International SOS

Web site: iJET Intelligent Risk Systems (SHRM Online Compensation & Benefits Focus Area)
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