Forging a career in Travel Risk Management

Ben Cooper talks to Sam Roper, Security & Resilience Manager at Google   •   September 2018

Tell me Sam, what did you want to be when you left school?

Like every kid, I had about 100 different ideas of what I wanted to be when I grew up; I would seesaw from wanting to be a vet (despite my dislike of science at school) to being an airline pilot (like my father).  I had always been fascinated by travel though – and different cultures and learning new languages so I knew I wanted to be able to combine all of that for a career but I had no idea as to what that could actually be..

What about when you graduated from University, same dream or had things changed a little?

After finishing my degree in French & Hispanic Studies, I was very sure about what I didn’t want to do (most things) but was still unable to figure out what I did want to do.  I liked the idea of being a foreign correspondent as I believed it nicely tied together my desire to travel, continue using my languages and my interest in current affairs – but I quickly realised how hard journalism is to break into.

So it was that specific interest then that lead you to your position and several years at Control Risks, tell us a little about your time there?

Yes, ultimately.  The world of security risk consulting offered up a similar mesh of my interests so it seemed like as a good a place to start as any! My time at Control Risks was good fun.  It was a huge learning curve, especially as I came into it with no prior background or experience in security, but I had the opportunity to take on several different roles whilst there, including a 2 year stint in Paris, which certainly helped to round out my overall knowledge and experience.

When you start to open the Pandora’s box of things that could reasonably and foreseeably go wrong for business travellers overseas, it all gets a little daunting. Where would you suggest people new to a travel risk programme start?

It’s always difficult to pull back from trying to solve the entire problem in one go by wanting to create a complete programme straight out the gate.  If my experience has taught me anything, it is to break it down and build it bit by bit. Start with the things you do know; the organisation’s culture, appetite for risk, travel policy, existing procedures and processes etc.  Map out what elements may already be there; i.e approval processes, crisis management plans, mitigation strategies, vendor support and so on. Then identify the gaps and start to build a structure that brings it all together.  A good programme is one that is functional but also flexible so that it can be adapted and iterated as the organisation grows and as the travel environment changes.

If you were going to hire a dedicated Travel Risk Manager for a large company, what profile would you look for?

Ideally someone who has a love of travel! I think there is a lot of value in having someone who can relate to the traveller and the reality of business trips, in addition to understanding the processes and ‘behind the scenes’ elements to travel risk management.  If the individual is able to speak to their own experiences, it can help to provide a layer of assurance to the traveller – at the end of the day, most travellers want to know how they will get from A to B and where they can eat dinner etc, instead of a detailed risk environment of the location.

If a company has never hired one before, where would you suggest they be positioned, report to, and importantly how would you empower them to have a voice and get things done?

I don’t think there is necessarily any right answer to where a travel risk manager should sit as every organisational set-up differs.  From my experience, typically a travel risk manager sits within the corporate security function but I don’t believe that is an absolute requirement. What is more important, in my opinion, is that regardless of where the position is, the individual has the right contacts cross-functionally, at the right level, from the beginning.  That means having a direct relationship with the travel team, HR, insurance, etc, – it removes roadblocks and speeds up processes if decisions can be made as a team rather than as silos.

Because to get things done, the ‘multi stakeholder’ problem of a big company getting a travel risk programme right has to be overcome, doesn’t it? Key areas like travel, insurance, HR, senior ‘buy in’ it all needs to come together. If you started a new job in a new company tomorrow, how would go about that?

I think that speaks to what I have just said – about ensuring the person or team responsible for travel risk management has access to, and contacts within, the various stakeholders at the right level.  If a core team are working together on developing a program, then it straightaway removes the siloed approach. The core team’s management should be removing roadblocks and socialising the program at the higher levels. They should be focused on gaining, and retaining, the top level buy-in, and I wouldn’t say this is unique to big companies only..

What was the most impressive assistance you ever saw given to a business traveller in trouble?

I’ve seen so many really great cases and you always remember the big ones like Hurricane Irma or the earthquake in Nepal but a stand out one for me involved a carjacking at gunpoint in Johannesburg.  The car was tracked and was fitted with a panic button so the local security team were notified as soon as the situation occurred. It was so impressive because of the speed at which it was all dealt with – no time was wasted, they just got on with it – and consequently, the driver & business traveller were safely picked up.

What was the worst?

The times when you call through to an assistance centre and the phone just rings…

And finally Sam, we were thrilled you came to last years ‘Beyond Duty of Care’ conference, will you be joining us again this year? And what hot topic would you suggest we shouldn’t miss?

I’d be delighted to.  I would suggest a topic that focuses on the evolution of travel risk management – how do the tried and tested strategies and programmes widely used by companies cater for the ever changing travel environment (diverse traveller populations, social media, ‘bleisure’, etc).

Great talking to you Sam, Good Luck