When multiple bombers attacked Brussels this week, few were prepared for the damage, the carnage or the panic.
In November, concerted, well-planned attacks left hundreds dead and still more wounded on the streets of Paris, shutting down the city for days. In the aftermath of both attacks, people were confused, afraid and uncertain.
The ease of international travel and the Internet marketplace are benefits to American businesses wishing to expand products and services overseas — but the prospect of prosperity comes with risks as terrorists target high-profile areas and natural disasters can decimate even the most modern city.
Business travelers must be prepared, said Bart Combs, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel. After leaving the military, Combs started SOLKOA Inc., a Colorado Springs firm that trains government contractors and business owners to recover, escape and survive in dangerous situations.
Combs spoke recently at the Colorado Springs Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints business meeting, the local branch of the Brigham Young University Management Society.
The group’s goal is to “foster professionalism in business and a passion for education,” according to the society’s website.
“Things aren’t getting better,” Combs said. “We have an adversary that’s way too trans-national now. They have tentacles everywhere, notwithstanding the online aspects. … There’s not a global police force. There’s not a Delta Force guy behind every tree. It’s much more on you.”
Business travelers and vacationers can’t always count on U.S. embassies for support in case of emergencies — but sometimes they can count on their foreign counterparts.
During emergency events, embassy staff sometimes must evacuate along with the rest of the city’s population, Combs said.
During the Paris attacks last year, some Americans did not feel safe returning to their hotels, so they went to the U.S. embassy, where they were turned away.
“People were disappointed and shocked that they couldn’t get help,” he said. “We want people to be prudent, be aware, especially given current trends, and have an exit plan at all times.”
Sometimes the exit plan can include foreign business owners, who have the necessary local knowledge to assist in an emergency.
“If they’re moving product or services, they have transportation networks; they have communications networks; they have financial networks; they have storage,” Combs said. “In other words, they have everything they need to take care of me in a pinch, and they’re slightly motivated by money.”
Based in Colorado Springs, Global Perspectives Consulting teaches business owners how to work with companies in other nations, covering both cultural differences and safety measures.
Managing Partner Robert Strauss has traveled to several continents conducting business. Part of GPC’s training involves making sure people are aware of necessary protocols and have developed an emergency plan.
“Everywhere is different,” he said.
The company recommends clients stay in a third-floor hotel room, travel in pairs and learn about local customs ahead of time. For example, in India, the left hand is considered unclean, so use the right hand in business, he said.
“If we’re in Buenos Aires, we may not be walking outside after 1 in the morning. In Bangalore or Mumbai, India, we avoid dangerous situations by taking transportation provided by the hotel or we make sure a local [resident] meets us at the airport,” he said. “If we didn’t follow these protocols, we might be in situations where we would find ourselves uncomfortable.”
Consultants with GPC always know the location and phone numbers of the American embassy and a trusted local citizen.
“At any time, if you feel like you’re in trouble, you have your phone with the international plan and you have options of numbers to call,” he said.
“We always have a plan. Our consultants are seasoned; they know their way around.”
Create a 72-hour kit
But sometimes the threat is larger — like the people in Paris trapped in a concert hall by terrorists.
Whenever there is an opportunity to escape, take it, Combs said.
“Don’t wait for someone to negotiate you out,” he said.
He discussed a hotel takeover in another country that included a hostage situation.
Suggestions for business travel:
• Pay for the taxi before entering it.
• Ensure the taxi’s back doors will open from the inside before entering the vehicle.
• Obtain local cash before leaving the airport.
• Stay in a third-floor room.
• Travel in pairs.
• Create a 72-hour kit.
The people who survived were the ones who “squirted out of the hotel and had a camping excursion under a tree across the street. You did what rabbits do. You hid,” he said.
Most hotel crimes take place at night, and require quick reactions to remain safe and in control of the situation, he said.
“People will make the bad decision to hang on to what’s deteriorating around them,” Combs said, “because they figure, ‘What else am I going to do?’ Many times, if you are prepared, you have so many more options than other people.”
Business owners who travel in high-risk areas should travel with a 72-hour kit that contains water purification tablets, water, compass, signal mirror, thermal blanket, antibiotic ointment, safety pins, a can opener, canned tuna and other meats, duct tape, cleaning supplies, shovel, a change of clothing and other survival items.
Not all emergencies are caused by crime and terror.
Strauss once experienced heavy rains during a cyclone in southern India. Traveling by car, his driver “felt incredible pressure to get me to my locale,” so he took risks driving through fast-flowing water.
“You want to rely typically on the locals, rather than be the bossy outsider,” he said. But this situation merited a different approach. “I felt I should step in and say, ‘I think we should stop and stay at higher ground.’” They arrived safely — but two hours late.
At another time, Strauss found himself approached aggressively by a man in India.
“I just walked into a local business and asked them if they would help me, which they did,” he said. “It’s very, very possible it was completely benign. People are always curious about the West.”
Know the danger spots
Some places on the globe are far more dangerous for Westerners than others, he said. Knowing the dangers is essential.
Globally, 30,000 people are kidnapped annually, Strauss said. However, because authorities estimate only one in 10 is reported, there could be 300,000 kidnappings every year.
In the United States, Phoenix reports more kidnappings than any other U.S. city, although most are gang-related, Combs said. Internationally, Mexico is the leading country for kidnappings.
During 2015, the highest number of terrorist incidents took place in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, followed by Nigeria, Iraq and Afghanistan, Combs said.
Countries listed as being at extreme risk of crime for business travelers include Africa and the Middle East: Nigeria, Libya, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Combs said.
The United States, Great Britain, Chile and New Zealand are among the safest places to travel, according to Combs.