Summer Review Part 1 - Travel Trends

Episode #34 of NAVIGATE reviews the 2023 summer travel scams and surprises.


Hi, everyone, welcome to navigate. I’m your host, Declan McDermott. I’m the operations manager in our London Command Centre. And joining me today is our security and intelligence lead, who’s in Brisbane – Paul Trotter. Hi, Paul. Thanks for joining us today.



Thanks for having me, Declan.



It’s good to have you on, it might remember that back in May, I spoke with one of your peers, Kate, our regional security director, here in London. We spoke about the upcoming summer travel season and what travellers could expect with this being the first proper summer after COVID. And it was such a popular episode that we’ve been asked to kind of circle back on that. But I’ve tagged you in this time, Paul, to go over some of the subjects that we talked about in that session. Some of the things that we talked about, on that episode was the numbers that we were seeing, and that we were slightly under those pre-COVID travel numbers. But we were heading back in that direction.

It’s interesting, because now we’ve got the August numbers in now. And it did track as we thought – it didn’t quite hit those same numbers. But I think probably, and you can touch on this as well, is that the key thing is that, although we might not be back there from a numbers point of view, across the industry, and not just across travel assistance, or medical assistance, or travel risk management, but also in all of these other areas throughout the world, but you know, it’s we’re talking about Europe here, the infrastructure in many, many businesses still isn’t back to where it was in 2019. Because there’d been no break or interruption in the way that the business processes happened for a long, long time. And then you had this huge kind of break over the COVID period. And I think that probably plays a part of why we might feel the pinch a bit more at the moment during summer, because teams are newer, or people are learning – relearning a lot of those things. So some of the experience that was maybe there previous to COVID. It’s not as rich. And so we need to rebuild in those areas. But we actually took in August, around 30% less calls than 2019 and open 16% less cases. But I think if you would ask our teams, they wouldn’t tell you that – it’s felt as busy and it’s felt like travel is back in full swing and what you think about that, Paul?



Yeah, I think it’s a situation very much that’s been driven by second order effects to an extent. An interesting idea that was posed to me today was that inflation globally, and cost of living pressures globally, are really driving a downturn in travel to an extent, which as you said, we’re still seeing the expected number of travellers, or close to the expected number of travellers. But when you factor in the actual groups of travellers, and the people that we’re seeing come in those cases, they’re typically older. We’re not seeing the young, early 20s to early 30s. Demographic, as much as we are seeing the over 65s than a mortgage free, they’re not encumbered so much by cost of living pressures. And as a result, they’re travelling more. But as we know, that’s also a demographic that’s particularly vulnerable to things like scams, pickpocketing, robberies, those kinds of things. They’re often more frequently targeted. And for obvious reasons, you know, your average criminal is going to preference targeting a 65 year old woman over a, you know, a 25 year old man for obvious reasons. But we are seeing, as he said, close to the numbers, but at the same time, there is still that downturn, the actual cases that we’ve seen, have been fairly consistent with what we expected, at least in that sort of the percentage of calls. And the percentage of requests for assistance that we received, the number of lost and stolen passports, for example, still met with the expectation there.



So yeah, that was one thing that Kate and I had discussed in our last meeting was that we’d warned listeners basically about the uptick in scams and tourists being pretty easy targets. So how did that actually progress? Because obviously, everything that we’re saying at the time was what we were expecting to see. What are some of maybe the trends that you saw over this summer?



Yeah, so the number is very much aligned with the expectation as did the actual situation on the ground or the feel of it, one might say. We sort of saw the scams that were targeting the tourists and those kinds of things, and they were probably a little bit more intense than pre-COVID era. There was definitely it felt like a higher frequency of those kinds of cases occurring and more complex scams as well. But at the same time, there was a lot of fairly baseline low level scams occurring.

Couple of contributing factors there. COVID lockdowns affected everyone, including criminals. When your primary target base is tourists and there’s no tourists coming in – you don’t have an income for that period of time. And at the same sort of time, you know, you’ve got those Cost of Living pressures that are impacting everyone, including criminals. And you know, people that traditionally maybe didn’t resort to crime are now in a situation where that’s their only means of income. Not to say that you can justify criminal behaviour here by feeling sorry for them. But yeah, we definitely saw the expected numbers in terms again of percentages, and the types of scams, but we saw a lot of new and emerging types of scams as well. A lot more of the bump and lift style pickpockets, which have been decreasing for a long time, because people are so alert to it. So there’s almost a sense of desperation to an extent in some of these crimes as well.



Yeah, I wonder how we touched on the impacts not just on us here at WTP and other travel assistance companies, but the industry and the infrastructure across Europe. What’s your insight into how the police have been set up to handle this pre-COVID and how the police and in country security are now able to deal with these common types of things over summer? And I imagine with you know, reduced staffing, they will be experiencing greener teams within their security teams as well. Do you have any insight into that? 



Yeah, so I mean, I’m sure law enforcement faced similar downturns to things like the healthcare industry, where, as you said, experienced staff moved on to other things, you know, there was burnout rates, those kinds of things. One of the sort of considerations with this is that these are common events, as you said, like, we know that this is coming. But whereas a lot of organisations, a lot of industries had an opportunity to almost reset during COVID and rebuild the way that they do business and those kinds of things, law enforcement, just as much as any frontline service was sort of at the forefront throughout COVID dealing with all sorts of issues there. There was almost an expectation, at least from law enforcement officers have I’ve spoken to that the types of crimes that we saw, pre-COVID, the frequency, the tactics you use, were all going to remain relatively extent.

And the reality is that, as we’ve seen, they are becoming more desperate and becoming more complex, in some ways, the same as everything where you almost need the bad thing to happen before you can actually identify the bad thing as a threat. Whether 2024 is the year that suddenly, law enforcement is magically able to prevent an increased frequency or whether we’re still in the same situation, we’re in in 2023, where the frequency is high, and it takes a few years to catch up remains to be seen.



I wonder if you were able to touch on any case examples, obviously, at a high level that we might have seen over this summer period. And you’d mentioned trends, and perhaps how those trends from previous years, how they may have evolved over the past few months from previous years? And hopefully that could help the listener to try and avoid these types of things as much as possible when they’re travelling.



Sure. On the more extreme side of the scale, we’ve seen an increase in travellers picking up a car from a car rental place, driving down the road and being advised by passing motorists that they’ve got a flat tire or something similar. They get out to check it and then they’re robbed. Sometimes this is occurring with violence. Sometimes it’s very surreptitious, indicating to us that, you know, there’s potentially more than one group doing this. But the emergence of those kinds of things, it’s not something new. These tactics are always evolving and criminal groups are always looking to stay one step ahead of awareness wants to avade law enforcement. But it does indicate quite well that something like that potentially wouldn’t have been as successful pre-COVID. Because people were more aware and more wary of scammers, or, you know, in this case, just blatant thieves.

But we almost have to relearn to travel at the same time as travel assistance companies are relearning what it means to have an average case volume or baggage handlers at airports are relearning what it means to get the bags out on time. Every industry is going through that shift. And the traveller is essentially an industry when it comes to the travel industry as a whole. And they’re having to relearn how to travel at the same time. And we can put the information out. But at the end of the day, without the high volume of people accessing things like travel guides, and those kinds of things. And without these things happening, and getting published in those travel guides, the information just doesn’t exist. And people aren’t talking about it. People aren’t aware of those risks. And as a result, the scams and crimes keep happening.



I think, for me, as an occasional business traveller, knowing what is available to me through my work policy when I go travelling is a really important thing. And so I know that if I go away and something is to happen to me that I can reach out for some kind of assistance in those situations, but what would be your advice to people that are going out there? They’re travelling, because summer is not over yet. You know, we’re still seeing large numbers and There’s a lot of business travel still happening. Those people, they’re still targets. Obviously, from WTP’s perspective, for our travellers, we have things in place to help them as much as we possibly can. So we have our pre-travel briefings for people who are going to difficult places or places where they may be vulnerable. We’ve got our Travel Assist app, which is backed up via live Riskline information. And that can really assist people. But generally, what would your advice be?



Yeah, so it doesn’t matter, the destination. At the end of the day, the number one thing that people need to do is be aware of their surroundings. Understand the environment that you’re going into, understand the common types of scams and threats, whether that’s through accessing information from a travel assistance company, or from a travel intelligence company, or whether it’s, you know, having a look at the Reddit feeds from expatriates and other travellers. Being aware of your surroundings is the very first step in protecting yourself. And in line with that, understanding things like what the local law enforcement contact details are and what their response is likely to be. Knowing what you’re going into is the first step in being aware of the potential threat that you could face and forewarned is forearmed.

In line with that, being prepared for eventualities, which isn’t to say that, you know, you need to be running around with a helmet on in case a satellite dish falls off a building. But being an active participant in your own survival is the way that I always like to frame it. So if you’re going to take a money belt and have it concealed under your clothes, that’s great. Don’t put it in your backpack, the number of people that we see having their money belt stolen, that’s got their passport, their credit cards, or cash, their driver’s license, whatever happens to be all in this convenient pouch in their backpack, ready to be stolen by someone who, you’ll never feel them touch your backpack. Being aware of those kinds of things and being prepared? Do I need to carry my passport on me? If I don’t need to carry it, can I secure it safely in the hotel instead? Do I need to carry 1000 euro in my pocket? Or can I get away with carrying 100 euro in my pocket. It’s that kind of preparation that you still might be targeted. And it’s one of those things that if you’re targeted for pickpocketing, it takes a pretty switched on person to even notice it – it really is something that can get any of this. B

ut if you’re pickpocketed, and you’ve got $10 in your pocket versus $100 in your pocket, it’s all about scaling that level of risk and exposure that you have. And by extension, scaling the level of impact that it has on your travel, your holiday, those kinds of things. There’s nothing more heartbreaking than hearing people say, you know, I just got all of my holiday savings out of my account. And then I was pickpocketed by someone 10 minutes later, I’ve got nothing left. Which isn’t to say that those people were at fault for being robbed. But you know, degrading that risk and appreciating that it can still happen. Whether you’re in London or Kabul, the level of risk from different types of events may change, but there is always still going to be risks. And understanding those risks and understanding how to mitigate them. And then actively mitigating them is the best step that any traveller can take.



Something that you commented on there of you know the scenario where somebody is in a situation where they’re without anything really, you know, they kept all of this stuff in one location. And then because that bag or wherever everything was has been taken, then they’re in a pretty difficult situation for themselves. And something that we’ve definitely seen in operations and then has been escalated out of operations is the mental health impact that that has on the individual that’s travelling, they’re in a strange country to them, they don’t necessarily speak the language. And now suddenly, they’re in a situation where they don’t have their own phone, they don’t have access to their own money for a while they may have pre-existing health issues as well, which can exacerbate what’s happened. What have you seen in that space? And I’d be interested to learn how you’ve managed to work collaboratively with us in operations and medical team in order to get the right outcome for some of these people.



Yeah, so it’s something that’s always existed, right, where someone has a negative event impact on them, and it has a negative outcome on the mental health. But post COVID I think we’re seeing a lot of cases where people have been standing by the door waiting to be able to travel again, and they get to the point where they’re able to travel and then this bad thing happens. Their life isn’t in immediate jeopardy, they’re not going to die because of this event. But it has a profound impact on them. After all this time of being trapped in doors and wanting to travel, then this happens. It’s almost like the straw that broke the camel’s back for some people.

And other people, you know, it can just be a really difficult situation and some people just don’t know how to respond to it. Some of the travellers that we get, it’s genuinely is heartbreaking to hear their stories. Generally what we try to do is that we talk through the initial impacts, you know, we make sure that that person is physically safe, we look at impacts to things like is that person going to be able to have access to the three big needs of food, water shelter. And then once we’re sort of past that, and we’ve confirmed that the person has those accesses and the things that they need, that’s when our medical team is able to provide the support that they need, in terms of mental health support from a clinical perspective. And then the operations team are able to provide them support with guidance on where to access different support networks, you know, how to speak to the police, what you need to tell them, and coaching them through the actual insurance side of it as well, which can be quite a daunting process for a lot of people, all those steps, collaboratively, making life easier, is going to go a long way to assisting them. And then the clinical stuff is on top dealing with the more nitty gritty mental health stuff.

But it’s absolutely a bigger contributing factor than I think a lot of people realize. A lot of people say to themselves, it’s not something I need to worry about. And then they get themselves into a situation and they realize that it’s compounding. And as I said, you know, we’ve been waiting so long to travel, and now we’re doing it. And we have this poor outcome on the first trip out the door. For some people that can have a lasting impact. Is that going to be the last time they travel and the last thing we want is for people to stop travelling. We’re here to to enable travel at all times, regardless of what it is that you’re travelling for. And that’s the core belief behind providing the support that we do is enabling that trouble.



Yeah, well, I think your kind of advice before about that proactive planning is staying informed about local conditions, local infrastructure, in whatever way you can, whether that’s through reaching out to your travel risk management advisory through work, or whether that is through planning yourself online – so that’s for the UK for the foreign office, or whatever way you access it. Any final tips or advice for anyone that’s still travelling out there at the moment?



Yeah, be alert, not alarmed. It is something that’s out there, and people do need to be aware of it. If something does go wrong, you know, if you’ve got travel assistance as part of your insurance, give them a call. There’s experts out there that can provide you the advice. If you don’t have travel assistance, Reddit forums are a great source of information on the different types of police and destinations. You know, they’re specialized police that deal with certain things. And some destinations, have toursist police, getting that information about where you can get that assistance, and then getting that assistance without trying to go it alone if things do go wrong. But prevention is always better than a cure. So be alert, be aware of your surroundings. Try to mitigate those risks where you can. And if things go wrong, give someone a call.



Yeah, brilliant. I’ll be using some of your advice in my upcoming travel as well so thanks very much. That’s all we’ve got time for today. It’s been a great chat about the impacts of the peak leisure period and the business travel period as well. Thanks Paul – I think we’ve probably touched on some subjects there that could lead into another discussion if you’re free. So maybe on our next episode, we’ll continue this discussion by expanding into other events that have impacted travellers over the last few months. So yeah, until then, thanks for listening, goodbye and safe travels. If you’re looking for the best travel podcast to inspire your upcoming adventures, whilst also helping you to travel smarter, listen to NAVIGATE the top travel podcast that enhances the way you explore the world found on our site under our travel assist hub. Thank you, Paul, for your time today.



Thanks, Declan.

Earlier in the year, we shared our summer travel trends predictions and this episode circles back to see what we got right vs what surprised us.

Operations Manager, Declan McDermott, and Intelligence Lead, Paul Trotter, look back on the top travel disruptors that our operations teams supported and compare assistance case figures in 2023 compared to pre-COVID numbers.

From organised scams to unnecessary mistakes, we cover what impacted leisure and business travellers alike. Paul also shares what you can do before your next trip to mitigate risk and avoid similar disruptors.

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Summer Review Part 2 – Travel Disruptors

Part 2 expands the discussion beyond travel trends to cover what other big events impacted travel this season.
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Summer Review Part 1 – Travel Trends

We circle back to see which travel trends and predictions we got right vs what surprised us this year.
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Safe and Sound Part 3: Planning for the “What Ifs”

CMO Dr Luke Banks covers the importance of planning for the 'what ifs' when travelling.

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