ROBERT YOUNG PELTON ISN'T SCARED OF MUCH. In the course of his adventures abroad, he has survived a plane crash, typhoons, Marxist rebels, Scud missile attacks, a head-on motorcycle crash, kidnapping, killer bees and being hunted by an Algerian death squad - not a shabby resume for a guy who says he used to work in a corporate marketing department.
Pelton left the world of brand image and product launches when he realized he had much more enthusiasm for his annual vacations to high-risk locales. He made a new career turning out The World's Most Dangerous Places: The High-Octane Guide to Surviving Hotspots, War Zones, and the New Hidden Dangers of Global Travel, now in its fifth edition (HarperCollins, 2003). Pelton's book is a guide for businesspeople, journalists, unusually brave vacationers and armchair adventurists on negotiating the pitfalls of travel into turbulent areas. Pelton's vocation is no Disneyland trip; several of his collaborators have been killed over the years. However, Pelton also proves that it is possible to laugh in the face of death, providing a witty deconstruction of the social and political accelerants that fuel the fire in the regions he visits.
Pelton spoke with CSO Senior Editor Daintry Duffy about keeping travel and business safe in the face of the new global dangers.
CSO: What risky behaviours do travellers engage in that open them up to threats?
Pelton: I think the most dangerous form of travel is business travel. You tend to be in a bubble. You go to a Western hotel in a foreign country and you eat in nice restaurants. There really isn't that much difference [between that place and home] except what you see outside your taxi window. So a traveller may not be clued in to the big headlines in the local newspaper that say a bomb campaign is under way in the city. Backpackers and people who travel more on the backstreets usually have a better idea of what's going on in that country than somebody who
So what can business travellers do to make themselves safer?
Stay out of the tourist industry. The tourist industry is there to tell you the wonderful good things that are happening in the country. But, if you read Yahoo news or Google news and search under "tourist killed" or "tourist kidnapped," you might get a completely different picture of a place. So staying out of the tourist industry is a healthy way to start. The second thing is to access sources that will give you specific information about a place, not just the general warnings.
For security executives who want to contract with companies for daily updates and travel warnings: How do they tell a good service from a bad one?
Actually just last night, I was going over all the various warnings that security services, the government and the UN provide, and it's hilarious - because they're all laced with the limitations of the organization that issues them. So in some cases, like the State Department, it's just a cover-your-ass approach: "Don't go there, and if you follow our advice you'll be safe." Some companies give you massive amounts of totally useless detail, such as a 13-year-old kid threw a rock at a vehicle that passed by this street on that day. How would you even know how to deal with that?
The best security report has two basic elements: One is that it has on-the-ground reporting; it's not secondhand. The other is that it's applicable to your needs. Typically, your world is a lot different than that of a military person in Iraq. So if you have to go to Iraq on business, you don't really care that there are 20,000 people shooting at troops; you want to know what it's like getting from the airport to the hotel. Is that neighbourhood safe? When you go from this point to that point, what should you do to stay safe? Is there a better time to do this meeting? Information like that.
Are there companies that do this well?
Sure. AKE Group, Control Risks Group, Centurion Risk Services: These are all companies that basically use military thinking in covert operations to help businessmen, journalists and other people think a little smarter when they're "in country." Things have changed dramatically just in the last two to three years. The world is a completely different place. A few years ago, it would have been almost unthinkable for someone to be walking down the street and be gunned down because of what their country did. Now, that is the target. You are a soft target because of your country's actions. You are now part of the front line regardless of what country you're in.
Given the shift in targeting, do you recommend that travellers try to look less Western as a precaution?
That's kind of a myth. I'm 6 feet, 4 inches and weigh 220 pounds; if I was to tell people how to disguise myself as an Afghan, they'd pretty much laugh. And even if you're an Australian or a Canadian, people are going to assume that you're an American. The real key to staying safe when you travel and move around is to pick up local friends. Find people who can give you advice, arrange things for you, warn you off certain things, make sure you have a good meal. Those are the very things that we often don't do because we don't trust [foreigners]. I put myself totally at the mercy of local villagers or local people; consequently, I don't have a care in the world.
Transportation can be risky. . .
Transportation is the riskiest thing. If you look at what people get killed from abroad, it tends to be the same thing that people are killed from here: accidents. I think the single most dangerous thing for a traveller is riding a moped in the Caribbean. That'll kill more people than planes flying into buildings. Flying is very safe. Not as safe as they make it out to be, but I think it was last year, for example, that they had no fatal crashes on major routes, which is pretty darn good. I fly a lot and most businesspeople fly a lot, and I think it's one of the safest activities if you're flying between major points on a reputable airline.
What kinds of equipment should travelling business employees carry?
The number one thing that you have to have at all times is a communication device such as a GSM phone. If something does happen, having a phone and being able to talk to someone makes a big difference. There are all kinds of security services you can hire that can patch you over to someone who speaks the local language. Let's say you get pulled over by a cop for a traffic violation in Syria and he starts jabbering at you and gets mad: If you had a phone, you could access someone who can speak English and things get smoothed out. But if you don't have a phone, you're screwed.
In your book, you warn travellers against carrying firearms into dangerous places. Why?
It depends on the threat level, of course, but I always recommend hiring 20 people with machine guns rather than carrying a pistol. It's a much more intelligent approach to security.
There are a couple of [alternatives] that are particularly useful for women. One of the most lethal things that you can carry is a ballpoint pen, and they'll never take it away from you at the airport. Mont Blanc has a metal refill that costs $5 and I always recommend that women buy three or four of these. Then if they get nervous, one of those stuck in a soft point is a pretty lethal weapon. The other thing is pepper spray. It's illegal in some countries. If you go through the airport in England, they'll take it away from you. But pepper spray is an excellent deterrent for low-level threats because it's nonlethal, and you can use it to incapacitate a group.
How effective are travel safety courses?
They tend to focus more on high-risk environments, and what they're trying to teach you is how to deal with the unknowns of a hostile environment, which can range from an ambush to what happens when you get stopped and people start shooting.
People are like animals when they are under stress. Any form of training can teach them to do the right thing, as opposed to what their instinct tells them to do. People do very dumb things under stress. For example, when I was ambushed, I was walking in the jungle and there was about six minutes of gunfire on the trail. When people ambush you, they typically want you to run away or run into a kill zone. So by just staying there, being very quiet, waiting and thinking things out instead of just reacting, you tend to stay alive. So I made the decision to walk into the ambush with the people I was with, rather than follow my first instinct to run away or hide; in which case, they probably would have hunted me down and killed me. Only one person got killed in our crew and that was one of the people who ran away.
Does instinct play a big role in staying safe?
You know with heavy weapons [involved], I don't think it matters.
But I think your instinct has to be honed on experience. Most people are scared [to death] when they go into a situation where there is a lot of shooting and people flying apart. Obviously, they're going to run around like a chicken with its head cut off. But after the seventh, eighth or twentieth time they do it, they're a lot more laid back and tend to do the right thing. Instinct can be both good and bad. And although the sixth sense about danger can be appropriate - if you don't know what to do with it, it can also be harmful.
Is it getting harder or easier to safely conduct business globally?
I think things are much more dangerous for business travellers now, because the corporate logo or your passport can make you a target. Obviously, nobody asks you for your passport before they blow you up, but working for an American corporation makes you a legitimate kidnap or murder target in many countries in the world. If you are the nicest guy on earth and respected and loved by your community, it doesn't mean anything. If someone hears that a bunch of American businessmen are staying at a hotel and drives a truck bomb up to the door. . . . It's that kind of random irrational violence that we have now that we didn't have before.
Part of the problem is when you make a decision to send people to a certain place, whether it's Iraq or Afghanistan, you really have to understand the complexities of what's happening on the ground, how to get people in safely, and how to minimize - and I think minimize is a key word - their exposure to risk. A lot of that is about changing the way you do business. Businesspeople pride themselves on perks and comforts, and a lot of times that's [what gets them into trouble]. It's the little things. Don't tell a taxi driver who you are or give too much information about where you'll be going - just say you're visiting a friend. You need to minimize your profile when you're a businessperson working for a well-known company.
How does terrorism change the game for security executives?
I think it's obvious that Osama bin Laden is a nonstate player with a private army that has waged war against corporations and infrastructure. If you own an American corporation, you're at war; you may not know it, but you are at war. So when you send your troops out, you are going to be attacked, because it is easier and more effective to attack symbols of America than the actual military or the government. I don't think most corporations have woken up to that. But everything from computer hacking to murders and the kidnapping of employees are part of a global military strategy by nonstate players. [CSOs need to consider] how their company presents their image, how they talk to the press, how their product is viewed - basically, trying to minimize their exposure as a potential target. Terrorists are looking for symbols. They are looking for tools of capitalism being foisted on the poor people of the world.
Bribery and extortion are common practices around the world. Should companies adjust their ethical compass to be successful globally?
Well, extortion is a lot different than patronage. Extortion is unwanted patronage. It's very normal in Pakistan to have a middleman in a business deal. You want a contract, he's buddies with the minister of whatever, and he gets 10 percent of the contract. If you meet with an African dictator about selling more product, it's normal to leave behind a laptop or an expensive plane ticket to Paris. But in places like Colombia where the rebels will actually call you up and say, Pay us $10,000 or we'll blow up your building: That's extortion.
Many companies pay those extortions because that's essentially protection. It's common in places like Russia and Colombia, where the criminal element is not controlled by the police. It's hard to come up with a one-size-fits-all answer. Each marketplace has different rules for success, and I think the CSO's main focus has to be, "Can we do business there without it being too painful from losses, damage or threats."
What's interesting to me is that places like Iraq are major centres of American business - even though roughly 20 percent of their investment is going towards security costs. It would be unthinkable a few years ago that a company such as Halliburton would have a list of 29 killed in action - and unthinkable that it would be a sustainable loss rate for a business.
SIDEBAR: Business Travel TipsSome of Robert Young Pelton's safety recommendations are common sense - while others seem to carry their own kinds of risk.
Carry a GSM phone
. . . and subscribe to a service that can quickly put you in touch with a customer representative who speaks the local language.
Stay tuned to local news
. . . and particularly avoid relying on information from the tourist industry.
Don't give taxi drivers more information than necessary
. . . just say you're visiting a friend.
Keep a low profile
. . . by not showing off corporate logos or flashy perks.
Find trustworthy local contacts
. . . who can provide detailed local information or help make safe arrangements.
Consider personal protection
. . . not firearms, but perhaps pepper spray (where legal) or even ballpoint pens.