On the Road Alone: Travel Safety for WomenJanuary 1, 2017

Solo Women Business Travelers Face Special Risks — Here's How to Mitigate Them By
January 1, 2017

On the Road Alone: Travel Safety for Women

Solo Women Business Travelers Face Special Risks — Here's How to Mitigate Them

285_2688628Women have fought long and hard for equality — deservedly so. But women are not equal in some critical ways, including size and strength typically, making them more vulnerable to certain crimes and other safety concerns during travel, here and abroad.

“I wish travel safety was gender neutral but it is not,” says Erin L. Wilk, global travel safety and security program manager for Facebook, where she is developing and implementing a comprehensive travel risk management program. “There are major differences between the risks a male traveler faces and those faced by women travelers.”

At the 2016 GBTA convention in Denver, a panel of experts tackled this issue in an education session, emphasizing that there are gender differences related to risk that corporate travel programs should address.

“In certain countries…reporting sexual assault to the police can actually make you guilty of a crime yourself.”
— Sophie Harwood 

“Travel managers need to be aware of risks that women face and book their travel accordingly,” says Wilk, part of the GBTA session panel. “Arriving during daylight hours, ensuring pre-arranged ground transportation and providing travelers with pre-trip information, both security and medical, are all best practices.”

Know Before You Go

Krissy Herman, another GBTA panelist and vice president, program management, at KesselRun Corporate Travel Solutions where she consults with clients on the strategic framework of their travel programs, vendor sourcing and more, stresses education of travel managers and employees.

“Education plays a major role in this process,” she says. “Work with your TMC to encourage agents to not book flights that arrive late in higher-risk areas. Set alerts to receive itineraries when employees are traveling to certain cities or regions so you can reach out and provide guidance. Encourage the use of scheduled, reputable ground transportation that doesn’t use traveler first names on signs at the airport.”

While scheduling arrivals only during daylight hours might add to flight costs, Wilk and Herman agree it makes no sense to compromise safety for cost. “In my professional opinion,” Wilk says, “the price paid if something bad happens will far outweigh the cost of any preventive measure.”

Benefits come in other ways, too. “If employees don’t feel safe when they’re on the road,” Herman says, “there’s more chance they won’t be as productive as you’d like them to be. By contrast, if they know they’re being looked after and that the company cares about their well-being while on the road, they’ll be able to focus on the work they need to do on behalf of their company.”

The task of understanding how and when risks differ for male and female travelers and how to mitigate those risks falls on the shoulders not just of corporate travel managers, but also of meeting planners and employees themselves.

So what types of risks are at issue? Sophie Harwood, specialist in travel risk mitigation strategies for women and LGBT travelers for beTravelwise, creator of online and face-to-face courses to educate corporations and individuals about the risks travelers may face and how to avoid them, says petty crime is the primary risk for male and female travelers, but perception changes the odds.

Soft Target

“Women are often perceived as an easier target for petty crime and are therefore at more risk of incidents such as pick-pocketing, handbag theft or mobile-phone theft,” Harwood says. “Women are also more likely than men to be victims of sexual harassment or violent sexual crimes, and men may be more likely to be involved in more violent crimes such as GBH (grievous bodily harm) or carjacking. These more violent incidents are quite rare and infrequent compared to petty crime.”

In addition to theft and sexual assault, Herman says, “Women are also targets of harassment, cultural discrimination, local regulations and bias in business settings.”

Sometimes, Wilk points out, an asset also can be a detriment. “Women are great at multitasking, yet when traveling this can make them a ‘soft target.’ Being unaware and unfamiliar with surroundings, being distracted (or focused on a mobile device), burdened with multiple bags, not speaking the local language, not looking confident and not blending in can create situations where women are at higher risk,” she says.

Joan Morgan, director of analytic personnel at iJET, which provides intelligence-driven, integrated risk-management solutions aimed at helping multinational organizations operate globally with confidence, also notes that petty crime is the greatest risk for travelers globally, but says, “Truly, the greatest risk begins before travel: being unprepared.”

According to Morgan, researching a destination before departure is the single most important thing a woman can do to mitigate risks. “Female travelers should know: What are the primary security risks in the country/city I will be visiting (petty crime, scams, kidnapping, sexual harassment/assault)? Are the police and security responders trustworthy? What are the health risks associated with the destination? What areas of the city should I avoid? Is my hotel in a safe location? Do I have safe transportation arranged in advance?”

Conferences and Conventions

When it comes to conventions and conferences, meeting planners have a role in mitigating safety risks for attendees. In addition to travel arrangements, there are issues related to the destination, convention facilities and host hotels that should be addressed on site visits and in hotel RFPs.

“Meeting planners should consider such things as where restrooms are located in relation to the conference facility, e.g. are they in a secluded area?” Herman says. “How frequently does security patrol the conference area, inside and out? If there’s an offsite contracted meeting hotel, are there free shuttles to and from the conference/meeting location and how often/late do they run? If the conference is held in the same hotel as guest stays, are guest floors only accessibly via room key?”

Wilk, like Morgan, emphasizes pre-trip education. “For any large event, pre-trip education is critical. Event organizers need to understand known risks in the destination area (areas to avoid, common crimes, cultural sensitivities) and adequately communicate advice and guidance to ALL attendees.”

Wilk also advises bringing women into the safety and security conversations “so they can provide specific observations and ask tailored questions pertaining to women’s safety concerns.”

While being part of a large conference group may offer some risk mitigation itself — the “safety in numbers” theory — it also can be a problem. “Large crowds are a challenge,” Morgan says. “Maintaining situational awareness is essential.”

Harwood says the makeup of the group matters. “If those you are with are all known and trusted colleagues, there is an additional layer of safety as you are able to look out for each other. However,” she adds, “if they are unknown to you, then there is still risk in terms of safety; instances of petty crime are known to occur at conventions and conferences, especially as delegates often carry high-worth items such as laptops and smartphones. Sexual harassment or assault can still happen at such events.”

Herman suggests having a conference buddy. “While there is generally safety in numbers, incidents can occur anywhere — when you’re alone or when you’re one of hundreds, especially if you’re just an anonymous face in the crowd,” she says. “If you’re at a convention, have a buddy or two whom you hang with. Make sure you have awareness of where that person is, and vice versa, and check in with each other throughout the day when you’re not physically together.”

Sometimes, Wilk says, the characteristics of a convention and the activities around it can add to risks. “At a convention with a large number of attendees, and where socializing, alcohol and late nights may be involved, it’s even more prudent for women to be aware of their surroundings and take appropriate precautions.”

Hotel Security

Nowhere is that more true than in hotels. “Top-tier managed travel programs will address both physical safety/security and fire safety/security in hotel RFPs,” Wilk says. “The current challenge with hotel security is that no industry-wide standard exists. Great progress has been made in a collaborative effort by the Overseas Advisory Council (OSAC) and the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA), yet there is still much work to accomplish. I am seeing a shift in the industry where companies are requiring more attention to this topic of hotel security, and hotel properties are adjusting their security offerings and standards accordingly.”

In the meantime, all parties should be aware of the options. Herman says hotel RFPs should address such things as:

  • Are all parking areas patrolled?
  • Is there video surveillance in all public areas?
  • Do all the guest room entry doors have viewports?
  • Is Identification or validation required for replacing a guest room key?
  • Does your hotel have a secure floor only accessible via guest room key?
  • Do health club facilities (pool/gym) require key access for entrance?

Morgan adds that security should be visible at the hotel door and in the lobby; hallways, elevators and parking areas should be well lit; and there should be concierge services to arrange for safe transportation and dining for travelers who don’t know the area.

Women-Only Floors

Some hotels offer women-only floors, which experts agree can provide added security — but don’t always. “Too often the execution needs improvement,” Herman says. “Rather than female-focused amenities or ‘touches,’ hotels should focus on the security aspect. Does that floor require key-access in the elevator? Is it always a female-only floor or just when the hotel isn’t at full capacity? Are doors, windows and locks strong? Perception is reality, and I’ve stayed in four- and five-star hotels where the doors seemed pretty flimsy.”

Harwood points out that some hotels, for example those in countries with high Muslim populations, have women-only floors not for additional security but for women who may be uncomfortable or unable to be in the presence of men alone. At other hotels the focus is security. “These floors may include enhanced safety and security features such as CCTV cameras, better locks on the doors and windows, and 24-hour security presence.” She advises travelers to check with individual hotels to learn details about women-only floors and what security measures are in place.

While Wilk believes the jury is still out on women-only floors, she says, “An increased industry-wide focus on hotel safety and security for all guests is encouraging.”

Taking Responsibility

When it comes to personal safety, the onus is to a large extent on female travelers themselves. One option is to take a safety or martial arts type course — not necessarily because it will turn students into Bruce Lee equivalents.

“It probably won’t make them less vulnerable to being targeted in the first place,” Harwood says, “but it may give them more options for dealing with a potential assailant. It may make them feel more confident in themselves, and this confidence may be transmitted in such a way as to make them appear less of an easy target.”

Morgan cautions that in most cases women should not fight back and should simply hand over their property. However, she adds, “Taking a physical safety class could help allay the potential to panic. Keeping one’s wits about them in the event of an emergency is key; training is always beneficial.”

Wilk believes in travel safety education and training. “I have seen the positive impact of travel safety training for our employees and have experienced it myself, most recently on a trip overseas when I was able to apply recent training to an unplanned situation that could have escalated quickly to be unsafe. Preparation pays for itself, and as my grandmother used to say, ‘An ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure.’ ”

Training on Cultural Norms

In the end, it comes down being well prepared before ever leaving home. “Female travelers need to know what the cultural norms are, especially if traveling for business,” Morgan says. “Is it appropriate to shake a man’s hand? Should she look a business contact in the eye? What hand do you eat with? These are all things that should be researched ahead of time to make the most of the business relationship.”

Harwood would like to see companies provide guidance for employees on local customs and the business environment, such as in pre-travel training sessions. “For example, are there specific dress requirements: do knees, shoulders, arms or hair have to be covered? Are there restrictions around working or interacting with members of the opposite sex, such as shaking hands or being alone in a car? Who can the employee contact in case of emergency or incident? In certain countries, for example, reporting sexual assault to the police can actually make you guilty of a crime yourself.”

Wilk advises making sure mobile phone and data plans are activated for international coverage, and pre-programming company resources for security and emergency medical assistance into mobile devices. “Over 50 percent of travelers will experience some type of illness or injury on an international business trip,” she notes. “Knowing in advance who to call for help is critical.” C&IT

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