In stops and starts, domestic and international travel is opening up again. For the first time in two years, Australia’s insurance industry professionals can plan face-to-face international meetings with some confidence.
As the industry and its clients adjust to these travel possibilities, what should brokers be mindful of?
In recent weeks, Rodger Cook (pictured), World Travel Protection’s (WTP) general manager of global security services has held Zoom sessions advising brokers about the risks they need to take into consideration. More than 300 brokers from Steadfast and Aon have attended these Return to Travel sessions.
A vaccine passport and a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test are now top of the travel prep list. However, Cook said there are also a range of ongoing COVID-19 factors and general safety tips that should be taken into account.
And pandemic issues can still torpedo overseas trips.
“We had a senior executive travel to Europe to conduct some face-to-face meetings and unfortunately with the new cases sweeping through Europe they were confined to their hotel room,” he explained. “So those face-to-face meetings were suddenly on Teams.”
Cook said the new COVID testing requirements can also add costs to international travel that need to be considered before you step on a plane.
“We had one senior executive who was out of pocket $1,000 above and beyond normal travel costs just for doing PCR testing,” he said. “So, moving through two countries and multiple states in America required multiple PCR tests and an extra $1,000 on top of the budget for that trip.”
He said failing to read the fine print is catching out a lot of travellers.
“We had one traveller fly from Australia to Toronto via San Francisco. They arrived in San Francisco to be told that their PCR test that they’d had in Sydney 72 hours prior to departing was no longer current,” said Cook.
Under Canadian entry requirements, said Cook, the 72-hour PCR test is measured from the last direct flight into the country.
“So, they missed it by about 10 hours and were fortunate to get a PCR test at the San Francisco airport. If they’d arrived at an odd time, or if their transit was shorter, they would have missed their flight because they wouldn’t have been able to get a PCR test in time.”
Part of the problem, he said, is that airlines are also adjusting to these new COVID requirements and their role checking new documentation.
“We’re learning to travel again and the airlines play a major role in that,” he said.
At present, wait times at airports can be hard to predict. Cook said an executive he knows was told to turn up four hours before his flight. It only took him 20 minutes to reach his boarding gate.
Even when industry professionals navigate the new COVID-19 travel rules successfully and arrive at an international destination without incident, there are different COVID cultures to consider.
“Cultural awareness is something we’ve talked about for decades as something that business travellers need to understand and pick up quickly. It helps with understanding the environment and providing situational awareness. So that cultural awareness has now transferred to understanding what’s acceptable under COVID culture,” said Cook.
Even travelling interstate in Australia brings this issue into focus. Cook said it’s possible to identify COVID culture differences even between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Throwing an international destination into that mix can result in a form of culture shock.
“We think nothing of going to a pub and sitting with 15 of our best mates shoulder to shoulder here in Brisbane,” he said. “That’s not going to be the same overseas.”
Cook gave the example of mask wearing, which is considered a normal precaution by most Australians in public situations when social distancing is not possible. However, that’s not the case in some parts of the United States.
“In Houston, there’s a sign that says if you’re double vaccinated throw your mask away, you don’t need it,” he noted. “This was an official government sign.”
Cook said people have reported being in capital cities in the US and because they’re wearing a mask they’ve been criticized for being anti-vaxxers – even though they’re double vaccinated.
“So COVID culture, even between states in America, is so vastly different and how you’re received by how you personally react to the pandemic can be quite extreme,” he said.
In Italy, where pre-COVID it was customary for men and women to greet each other with a polite check kiss, Cook said, today, even reaching across a café counter is considered risky and impolite.
“It’s really curtailed them,” he said.
Being prepared for significant COVID cultural differences can be the difference between a successful international business trip or a minefield of pandemic related embarrassments.
As industry professionals refamiliarize themselves with the process of travelling, Cook recommends brokers and their clients also be mindful of other general safety tips. He said discretion and awareness of surroundings is especially important in more complex countries.
“You can sit in a hotel foyer in Indonesia for example,” he said. “There will obviously be the people that check you in, there’s probably a driver over there, there’s a concierge desk over there, but there’s three or four people who probably don’t belong and they blend in and they could be guests but they could also be people that are watching. We know that criminal groups conduct surveillance.”
He gives another example: the recent shootouts between drug cartels in Mexico tourist resorts, including one near Cancun.
Read more: What has COVID-19 done to travel insurance?
“This is a result of COVID,” he said. “The cartels are moving closer and closer to tourist destinations. They’ve been starved of cash for the last couple of years and they’ve changed the way they conduct their criminal activity.”
But crime related travel problems can arise in any country.
“In the US there are a litany of cases where people are robbed in their hotel rooms while they sleep,” said Cook.
He said this threat is worse if you are a female or an LGBT traveller. Cook encourages female travellers, for example, to take male clothes with them and hang them over a chair in their hotel rooms.
“It’s all about making a deterrent and not making yourself a target,” he said.
However, he said, an individual’s risk could include their gender, ethnicity, sexuality, age, experience or a pre-existing medical condition. He said WTP’s focus is understanding the risk of the individual, the risk presented by their destination and the risk of the activity.
“We look at what they’re doing, where they’re going and really make sure that their risk profile is understood and that we have the mitigation strategies in place. That’s really how we support the traveller,” he said.