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Road warriors beware

Critics like to hammer Wal-Mart Stores for what it pays some of its employees. But no one can say the company isn't doing all it can to ensure the safety of its traveling executives.
/ Source: Forbes

Critics like to hammer Wal-Mart Stores for what it pays some of its employees. But no one can say the company isn't doing all it can to ensure the safety of its traveling executives.

The world's biggest retailer announced earlier this year it will partner with the Safe Travel Institute, a four-year-old company founded by Defense Department veteran Randy Spivey that coaches business and government officials on safe traveling techniques, to produce a series of customized DVDs that Wal-Mart will distribute to its employees who travel on business.

"The safety of our associates is a top priority," says Eric White, Wal-Mart's director of travel safety.

As an industry giant that wields market power over the worldwide supply chain to keep prices low for consumers, Wal-Mart is largely the epitome of the American global business giant that terrorists and their sympathizers love to hate. In that sense, the company is similar to others on the Safe Travel Institute's growing list of corporate clients, including Exxon Mobil, Fedex and Boeing.

So it's no wonder that Wal-Mart management has stepped up efforts to teach its business travelers to research different cities, pick safer hotels, and to make themselves unattractive to terrorists and common criminals alike. Corporate executives, like politicians, can be vulnerable due to their relatively high ranking status and visibility abroad. Wal-Mart currently does business in 15 countries, including the U.S.

"Companies are looking at it from a liability perspective, so Wal-Mart decided to give everybody at least a baseline of knowledge," Spivey says.

Since starting up the Safe Travel Institute in 2002, Spivey, who previously did hostage crisis work for the Defense Department, has consulted with big government agencies like the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security on techniques like blending into foreign cities and researching safe hotels. He says that 3% to 5% of all travelers are victims of some type of crime, ranging from simple pickpockets to hotel room break-ins to abduction by terrorist groups.

Some corporations are taking out various forms of "kidnap insurance," policies designed to pay off a potential ransom or other costs associated with the return of an abducted employee.

But the most noticeable change in the corporate travel landscape in the last three years has been company efforts to closely track traveling employees wherever they go. Those who previously felt a sense of freedom from that trip away from the home office have watched their employers gradually morph into the ultimate control freaks. In this new era, the idea of getting the work done, then the rest of the time is your own just doesn't fly. The office now wants to know where you are at all times.

"Travelers can't make changes to their itineraries without contacting the office," says Jack Riepe, communications director for the Association of Corporate Travel Executives.

Terrorists, he says, are largely creatures of opportunity who will take advantage of any procedural flaw they see. By forcing their people to check in regularly, companies will usually know within a day or less if something is wrong. Meanwhile, travelers should avoid flashing their passport too often, or making themselves visible wherever they might stand out.

"If some type of incident happens in the street, don't stand and watch as part of the crowd," Riepe says. "Just get back to your hotel."