Track me if you can

September 19, 2011

Corporate travellers’ journeys are able to be ever more skilfully tracked by travel management and security companies on behalf of concerned employers – but are our personal devices a help or a hindrance?

Not-so-smart phones
Now that our luggage can be “bugged” with a chip, could not our lives, and that of those who endeavour to track us, be made much easier if we were also chip carriers, or at least app-equipped on our ubiquitous smartphones?

Security assistance firm International SOS (ISOS) conducted a survey last month of 4,700 international business travellers about the way they use mobile devices, and the types of travel-related info they are willing to receive from their employers.

Some of what they found surprised them. Respondents who travel to “high-risk destinations” (which was 60% of them) indicated by a towering 82 percent that they are comfortable with having their location tracked via their mobile device. Questions of privacy appear to go out the window for travellers if it means avoiding or escaping sudden geologically and politically inspired storms.

What did surprise the security firm was the 80 percent of respondents who carry a smartphone while travelling, of whom 73 percent said they do not use travel-related applications before or during travel. Tim Daniel, an ISOS EVP, dubs these the not-so-smart phones: “Most business travellers are BlackBerry based at the moment; a lot of its users have no idea you can put a travel app on it. The iPhone has a higher [app] adoption rate.”

A world map, with the Korea peninsula marked in red, is seen as a hotel receptionist talks on the phone in Rason city, northeast of Pyongyang, August 29, 2011. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Are you a high-risk traveller?
For every security evacuation, there are hundreds of medical incidents, car accidents and the like. Daniel distinguishes between active journey management which would apply in risky or remote locations that require a number of extra layers of scrutiny and tracking – and everyday business travel.

Tracking for the latter is mainly a function of an employer’s duty-of-care obligations. For Nigel Turner, a programme director for travel management company Carlson Wagonlit Travel (CWT): “The factor in all of this is to have a managed programme. Everything that we’ve booked, or changed, will be within our data. If a traveller books something direct, normally a hotel, it’s off the radar.”

So what happens when trouble strikes? Let’s say a plane goes down. Turner takes me through the process:

“The first thing an organisation wants to know is: ‘Were any of my people on that plane or not?’ CWT Guardian [a travel tracking service] has been in play for a number of years and with that a travel manager can go online to our portal and narrow down who was on a certain flight or in a certain part of the world. The second part is potentially being able to contact them.”

ISOS’s Daniel adds that organisations typically have a crisis response plan. “If you have a local office you try to talk with someone there, do a health and welfare check, try to narrow down who’s in a location, who’s ok, who may need assistance. At some point they reach a number of people they can’t find… the biggest challenge is getting the list from 100 down to three.”

Have app, can be tracked?
When a crisis occurs, people just want a button to press, and to talk to someone who gets them out of dodge; but to help those who aren’t necessarily aware of a problem, Daniel thinks corporate travel managers and corporate security professionals need to educate their travellers on ways they can use their mobile devices more effectively.

For the 80 percent that carry a smartphone of some kind, travel and security companies have developed apps of varying degrees of sophistication. (The ISOS survey showed that a small but growing percentage of people travel with both a smartphone and iPad, but the latter can’t be relied upon as a primary source of tracking and communication as they often lack data plans.)

For example, CWT’s free new app for clients, “To Go”, sends alerts to the traveller if anything changes in their itinerary, e.g. a cancelled flight, and provides a contact facility. Turner sees the app as a big opportunity, but sees apps in general as a threat if it means travellers go off and do their own thing.

American Express Global Business Travel’s app “MOBILEXTEND”, launched last year, provides travellers support and relevant information based on the destination, including maps, currency conversions, tips on preferred ground transportation and negotiated hotel amenities, while automating the delivery of travel reservations directly to the mobile device. They have also launched a new service named Mobile Communications Management which offers direct assistance in times of travel disruption. The system communicates to travellers via SMS.

Tim Daniel takes a dim view of the “first-generation technology solutions” travel management products out there. “People are taking a parochial view, developing a tool with a very travel-management-centric view of the world. That breaks down when you start to use it in a crisis situation… simple things like the privacy issues around the phone; battery life; being able to report back on your location. The technology is there, allowing us to track and communicate with these devices pretty readily.”

ISOS’s app has been on the BlackBerry for over a year, testing with a dozen clients; in October, Android and iOS versions are rolling out, as well as an upgraded BB version.

The problem, and this is shared amongst the travel management companies, is travellers aren’t necessarily using these apps, or are not even aware of them. This is the last-mile problem; Daniel thinks you need 80-90 percent adoption rates or there’s no point in developing such technology in the first place.

Sharing is caring
Admitting that travel management is invisible to most people, CWT’s Turner stresses that travellers must take the responsibility to share their complete itinerary.

“With all security issues, the most important thing is to have their mobile phone numbers and email on their online profiles, and update them if they change. This was one of our main problems during the Japan earthquake and ash cloud eruptions.”

Main caption on blog homepage: A pedestrian checks his phone while crossing 34th Street in Manhattan as the sun sets on New York, June 8, 2011. REUTERS/Gary Hershorn

Post Your Comment

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/