Meetings Focus – Corporate & Incentive Travel

Traveler Beware

The U.S. Department of State’s Office of American Citizens Services and Crisis Management continuously updates travel warnings and alerts for countries across the globe. As of January 2015, the top alert listed was a “Worldwide Caution” regarding “the continuing threat of terrorist actions and violence against U.S. citizens and interests throughout the world.” The world today can indeed be a scary place. For meeting and incentive program planners, the first step to risk assessment is risk awareness. Two of the most feared, terrorism and disease outbreaks, have dominated the news of late:

The atrocities perpetrated by ISIS, an offshoot of al-Qaida formed in 2006, continue to make headlines as the group seeks to create an Islamic state across Sunni areas of Iraq and in Syria. The group’s activity shows that risk of a terrorist attack, founded in Islamic extremism, is still very much a factor that group travel planners must reckon with.

The Ebola Crisis

And in West Africa, the Ebola outbreak has had a documented impact on the meetings industry, with SITE board member Daryl Keywood, managing director of Walthers, a South Africa DMC, reporting that several incentive and meeting groups have cancelled their programs.

SITE member Adam Lawhorne, CITE, CIS, who serves as CEO of Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois-based Meeting Incentive Experts, notes that “Kenya right now is really hurting as far as trying to draw groups because it is close to some of (the affected) countries. In addition, Cape Town is losing some of its airlift from Europe because there’s not as much demand, and those are top places for safaris.”

According to Keywood, “Whilst Ebola remains a concern in parts of West Africa, there are signs that slowly but surely the health workers and government agencies involved are winning the battle. Nigeria, Congo DRC and Senegal have been declared Ebola-free, and infection rates are slowing.”

Keywood further observes that the understanding of the state of the outbreak has improved among travelers. “Although there were some cancellations to Southern Africa, we have seen bookings and enquiries increase now that travelers better understand the situation. Many are realizing that they have had more infections in their own country, e.g., the U.S., than, for example, Southern and East Africa, where there have been no cases whatsoever. We are confident that tourism to the non-affected countries is slowly returning to pre-Ebola outbreak levels.”


Gathering such in-depth intelligence on a potential meeting destination from reputable sources is the foundation for effective risk assessment. One of Lawhorne’s clients, a multinational, U.S.-based software company, routinely conducts risk assessment for group travel and “they need numbers, they need data,” he says. “For example, they did a program for 900 people in Los Cabos in May, and needed data from the Mexico Tourism Board on safety, including crime ratio per capita. That’s the kind of information that security looks for, which is now part of procurement’s buying habits.”

Apart from hard data, perception of the risk level also can factor into site selection. If attendees think the company is taking them to a destination where they will be at risk, the company will seem irresponsible to them and “they also might not see it as an incentive,” Lawhorne says. Partly due to the perception of the risk involved with travel to the Middle East, another software client of Meeting Incentive Experts recently moved the program to Riviera Maya in Mexico, he relates.

Even when a country, region or city is deemed to be generally safe, the operative word is “generally.” “Maybe a country or city as a whole doesn’t have a problem, but there are some pockets that do,” notes Lawhorne, who last year contributed to the SITE Foundation study “Incentives Move Business: Risk Assessment/Management for Incentive Events.” “There are certain places in Chicago I wouldn’t go to, for example, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t do a program on Michigan Avenue.”

Assigning Levels of Risk

Depth of investigation into a locale is key, but so is addressing the breadth of potential problems. Anne Daniel, senior manager of travel, meetings and events with Newport News, Virginia-based Fer­guson Enterprises, notes that “Political unrest, economic instability and crime rate are all taken into consideration when selecting an international destination.” That adds to health threats such as Ebola, SARs, swine flu, etc., extreme weather forecasts, and air/ground transportation disruptions. “From the assessment, we label the destination low, medium or high. Low risk level is usually given a green light. We evaluate the ‘potentials’ for medium risk and make a subjective decision. High risk is removed from consideration,” Daniel explains, adding, “Should a risk level elevate to high, we would work toward relocating the meeting before an outright cancellation.” To make the determination, the company uses “a multitude of information sources,” including the Department of State’s travel warnings, and security and safety firms iJet, NC4 Inc. and International SOS.

In the SITE Foundation study, global event strategist John Hooker, managing director of JHCP, suggests a simple quantitative way to make the risk-level determination for a given contingency: “Allocate between 1 and 3 to the harm/severity involved and between 1 and 3 to the probability of it happening. Multiply these two values to produce a figure between 1 and 9 — the risk factor. The range runs from low risk (1 to 3) to high risk (6 to 9). For low risk, no action may be necessary. For medium risk, look at methods to reduce the risk of the activity, if possible, and implement controls to minimize the chance for it to occur. For high risk, consider methods to reduce the risk or, if that is not possible, consider eliminating the activity from the program. If you cannot do so, tell the client and participants about the risk, in writing, and implement significant controls to minimize it.”

Incentive Travel Risks

Medium- to high-risk scenarios are perhaps more prevalent in incentive travel today due to the adventurousness of many groups, who sometimes heighten the risk of crisis — particularly medical emergencies — with activities designed to create an “out of the box” experience.

“We have younger, more energetic, more adventure-seeking clients now that go overseas and bungee jump off a bridge over a river, where there may be no emergency medical services available within three hours,” observes Kevin Mellott, president of Dallas, Texas-based Erase Enterprises, a safety and security provider that works with corporate clients. “Our job is to give them the best information possible so they can make a good decision on the risk.”

As Hooker suggests, groups that are considering medium- or high-risk destinations or activities should be aware of the controls they will need to have in place to minimize risk. “Every solution has a different financial commitment,” says Mellott. For those extreme physical activities in remote areas, “We make sure that our travelers have top-quality travel insurance, where we’ve got at least $1 million to extract them with. People don’t realize how much it costs to do a removal of an injured person in a faraway place in the middle of nowhere. If you don’t have any EMS in the area, we need extra equipment, vehicles and medics.”

“People don’t realize how much it costs to do a removal of an injured person in a faraway place in the middle of nowhere. If you don’t have any EMS in the area, we need extra equipment, vehicles and medics.” — Kevin Mellott

Once the planner is made aware of the risk level and costs involved in the contingency plan, there are “three possibilities,” he explains. “The client says, ‘Forget it, we’re not doing that.’ Or they say, ‘OK, we’ll do that but we’re telling our employees and our attendees it’s not an officially sponsored event, you’re on your own.’ The third version is that they sponsor it and pay to bring in the additional personnel or whatever we need to be able to properly cover a crisis that could occur.”

When the Show Must Go on

If the potential crisis entails the complete disruption of the meeting, the overall value of the meeting to the host organization must be considered. If “the show must go on” due to the value of the event, then a higher budget for contingency planning is often justified. “If the meeting doesn’t take place, if they have to evacuate the area or cancel, or if the area loses power, what’s the financial damage to them?” Mellott asks.

“For example, one of my clients does an annual meeting that has to go on because after the meeting they have a spike in the hundreds of millions of dollars in sales for the next couple of months. So because that meeting is so critical, there is a large budget for hiring companies like ours, or buying generators to have on standby and fly in from another city. But if the meeting is not that critical, let’s say it’s an incentive trip, then if something bad happened, we can reschedule a trip for 50 people. So it may not be worth spending all that money to have resources ready for a ‘what if.’ ”

Meetings with very high, proven ROI can thus be considered part of a company’s assets that must be protected. Its human capital is another kind of asset that can be put at risk during meetings-related travel, and not only by safety/security threats at the destination. “I have some clients who do risk management for flights,” says Lawhorne, “where only a certain number of people from the company can be on each flight.”

Information Security

A third kind of capital is information, and while companies have become more savvy about information security, Mellott has not seen employees generally getting better about data protection during offsite meetings.

According to a study conducted a few years ago by the Ponemon Institute, 78 percent of the 709 IT and IT security professionals surveyed indicated that their organizations have experienced a data breach as a result of negligent or malicious employees or other insiders. The study identified losing laptops and mobile devices as being among the root causes of data breaches.

“Everybody today wants to click a button and make it happen right now, and if security takes an extra step, they think it’s inconvenient. We try to make it as convenient as possible,” Mellott says. “For example, at a social event after a presentation, we’ll have a room with our security personnel where someone can drop off their laptop bag. Our guys can check it in and hold it while they’re at the social event, so it’s not sitting on the floor in a bag where someone walking through the convention area can pick up that bag and walk out with it. We also do a lot of education by sending out bulletins, and we’ll even have signs on easels reminding attendees that they’re dealing with sensitive data.”

Attendee Education

The attendee education component must not be left out of any contingency plan. The host company can do its best to select low-risk destinations and recreational activities, and to supplement medium-risk scenarios with spending on security/safety resources. But contingency plans work best if attendees themselves understand what to do in an emergency and how to avoid risk in the first place, whether that means safeguarding a laptop, staying hydrated during physical exertion, avoiding certain areas of a city during free time, and so on.

And if attendees do not have contact information for all local authorities that can assist during a crisis, then they should at least be able to easily reach event support staff who do have those contacts.

Daniel notes that Ferguson Enterpris­es has increased staff training on risks and contingency plans: “The onsite staff receives a full country briefing from our Security and Risk Management group, along with contact information for various assistance groups, such as medical, police and local embassies.” That briefing may turn out to be the most important pre-con meeting of all. 

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