Safety strategies

Dawn MacKeen talks with business travel expert Joe Brancatelli about safety tips for road warriors.

By Dawn MacKeen
Published July 23, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

"Life on the road stinks," fumed Joe Brancatelli in one of his recent rants for, where he writes a twice-weekly column. It's a funny statement coming from a guy who has made a business out of being on the road. A former editor of Frequent Flyer magazine and reporter for the Wall Street Journal, 45-year-old Brancatelli has been on the business travel beat for 17 years -- long enough that flying constantly around the world doesn't excite him anymore. "Business travel is not this all-day party that people back at the desk think," he said bluntly in a phone interview from Honolulu, on a day when his morning started at 4:30 with a phone call from one of those people back at the desk, working in Eastern Standard Time. "The perfect example is you trying to reach me: I had your call, the PR woman's call and an e-mail from her. There was no way that I could deny that I knew you were trying to get in touch with me." The days of disappearing into a foreign city while "away on business" are over, he lamented wistfully. This new age of technology is putting a damper on business travel, Brancatelli said, citing himself as a prime example.

On most trips, Brancatelli packs one suitcase for himself and one for all his technology -- a computer, an external modem, a power pack, two batteries, a spare telephone cord, an extension cord and a power converter -- just so he can do his work and access his three e-mail addresses while on the road. He also checks his voice mail constantly and has a fax-to-e-mail address.

But being wired while traveling, Brancatelli said, has also fostered a whole new problem: laptop theft. Not being concerned enough about the technology they carry is just one of many mistakes business travelers make while on the road, Brancatelli told Salon. Speaking with his heavy Brooklyn accent and tell-it-like-it-is candor, Brancatelli addressed what warriors can do to make life on the road a little less hazardous.

Business travelers are completely wired these days; they carry laptops, they carry PalmPilots, they carry phones. Does this create safety issues for them on the road?

I remember a year ago, sitting next to a woman who was flying back to Mexico City for the second time in a week because she had her laptop stolen right off her table in Mexico City -- at the Four Seasons -- and she had to go back to Detroit to get another one. Laptops are light and expensive, perfect for thieves. Business travelers make the mistake of carrying their laptop in a bag that is clearly a laptop bag, which resembles nothing else. It's like advertising, "Hey, I got $2,000 worth of technology that you can try to swipe off me!"

What kind of precautions do you take?

I carry my laptop in what would otherwise be a regular piece of luggage. If you're a thief, you're not going to steal somebody's hand luggage -- you don't know what's in it -- but you know what's inside a laptop bag.

There's another thing that just struck me. I've been in this hotel for three days and my laptop has been on the desk for the whole time. Now, I would never leave my wallet on my desk. This morning when I ran down to get breakfast, I hid my wallet in a bag -- but my $3,000 laptop has been sitting on the desk here for three days. Anybody could steal it. Think about it. Who comes in a room when you're not there? The cleaning crew who make minimum wage, the person restocking the minibar, the person returning your laundry. If you leave during the day, three or four or five people can have a shot at you right at the hotel. I'm pretty sure that laptop theft is something that's going to come into the radar because most people are not hiding them.

What are the most common mistakes business travelers make in regard to safety?

People go on the road and believe they're cloaked in this mantel of security. They suspend disbelief. They do not even take the simple precautions they take in their hometown. The biggest security issue facing business travelers is not the exotic stuff like, "Wow, you might be snatched off the streets" -- it's more like, "Hey, stupid, don't walk in that neighborhood at 2 in the morning or you might get mugged."

The second biggest problem business travelers have is they don't have enough information about the place they're going. They don't know, for example, which streets are dangerous and which ones aren't.

When people go on vacation, they tend to buy guidebooks and read up on a location. Do you think that the business traveler just walks into a city, not knowing what it's like, and that works to his disadvantage?

Business travelers do some homework -- they tend to know the best restaurant in town or what's hot -- but they don't do the right kind of homework. Business travelers also think they're not vulnerable because they blend in; they tend to look like the business community in that town. So they're not obvious targets, except then they go wandering into places that nobody in that town would ever go. They also flash too loud, "Hey, I'm at this hotel," and that's just as good as giving up your room number.

Is there any way to be safer while on the road?

First, get the right mind-set. You must understand that you are not exempt from the local conditions. In fact, the road is more dangerous because you are the stranger -- you are, by definition, the person with less knowledge of local conditions and local problems. Even the smartest business traveler is at a disadvantage on the road because they are on unfamiliar territory, they don't know the rules. Secondly, you must accept that you could be a target on the road.

The thing is, it's easier than ever to find out information about the place you're traveling to. For example, if you want to know what's going on in San Francisco today, you can get the Chronicle on the Web. You can get three weeks of newspapers and find out whether there's a serial murderer out there or if there's a whole bunch of robberies on Stockton Street.

You should also know all about your hotel. You should use your hotel as the safety zone because you're in a controlled environment. And if you stay at a better hotel, you can do more work at your hotel. You can entertain or hold meetings, and there's also a degree of safety there because you're at least known.

Are there any places that you would think twice about traveling to?

I'm worried about people traveling through Asia. To the everlasting credit of the average Asian citizen, who's being pounded by these currency devaluations, the region's been remarkably calm. But that may change. Look at Mexico -- which is suddenly being perceived as a dangerous place. This has come right on the heels of the currency devaluation. People who were just at the edge of surviving were suddenly thrust into a situation where they're stealing to live. Korea scares the hell out of me, because the won has gone from 880 to 1,500. There are going to be elements that are going to turn to crime. Think about it: If you are going to Jakarta on business and the rupiah goes down dramatically, there's a whole part of society that has suddenly become dispossessed. They will turn to street crime as they did in Mexico. The danger is not likely to be political terrorism or having your plane hijacked. You hear people talking about only the sexy issues, not the basic safety issues.

You don't need to tell business travelers to avoid mass transit because they tend not to [use it], so the tip for the business traveler is that in many destinations, it is probably not safe to hail a street cab. Business travelers are being mugged in cabs. You should only drive around in a cab arranged by the hotel and you should never hail a cab off the street.

Even if you're at a restaurant, you should still call your hotel?

People say, "OK, so now I got to the restaurant. How do I get back?" Instead of calling the hotel and waiting 20 minutes or being smart enough to call 15 minutes early, they wander out and hail a street cab and -- boom! -- suddenly they've got a gun to their head and they're off to the nearest ATM to empty their bank account. Of course, if you're working at a big multinational company, they tend to have people you can check with both before arriving and after to avoid having something like this happen.

So you recommend calling the company prior to arriving and talking about these issues?

Yes. Call either the client or your own company, and keep in mind that a huge amount of travel is intracompany -- I'm going to visit the branch or office. Well, if you're going to the branch office in Des Moines, Iowa, why aren't you asking the person in Des Moines whether there is a problem or not? The smaller the town gets or the more exotic the locale, the more at risk a person is because he or she is doing less homework. I hear more conversations of New Yorkers getting mugged in Des Moines than they do in New York -- and it's not because Des Moines is more dangerous, it's because those people in New York think that no one's ever been mugged in Des Moines before.

We're in a good period right now. Eighty percent of the travel in this country is domestic and virtually everywhere crime is down. We don't have a spate of terrorism going on right now; the bigger issue is not terrorism or kidnapping, it's the man-on-the-street crime. But, for example, you should know that a small portion of American executives is being snatched off the streets of Peru each year.

What can executives do to avoid something like this?

Take basic precautions. Vary your route every day if you're going from a hotel. Especially U.S. travelers or executive travelers overseas, they tend to be going from their hotel to their office, or whatever facility they're visiting. It doesn't take someone very long to figure out what their patterns are. So every day they've got to come back by a different route. Avoid riding in cars with vanity license plates because poor people don't have limos that say "Exec1" on them. Some people say that maybe they should be packing heat. I don't recommend this. Yeah, right, that's where you want to be, in a foreign country claiming self-defense.

Any particular issues for women business travelers?

Women business travelers should get a suite hotel instead of a regular hotel. This way, they can invite someone back to their room, close the bedroom door and hold the meeting in the living room. You can't do that in a regular guest room because somebody ends up sitting on the bed. When you're sitting in the living room, you're in control of the situation; they can't claim you're sending out the wrong message.

Also, if you check into the front desk and someone says, "Here you go Miss Smith, you're in room 212" -- you should be out of there. Just look at the person, put on your best steely glint and say, "Give me another room and if you call my room number out again, I'm calling the general manager." That's a big problem for women business travelers. The line between safety and plain old crime and being hit on once too often blurs, but hotels are the one place that women need to -- and do -- take more caution.

Are there any places that business travelers feel safe but that are actually common places for theft and other crimes?

Any place that looks like a resort. Now I'm sitting here in Honolulu, where there are no hotels in the business district; all the rooms are in the resort/vacation area. That lowers the business traveler's antenna even further. Suddenly, everybody is dressed down, they look cool. Everybody's going to the beach and you're not, so you must be safe -- but that's actually where it's more dangerous, in my opinion. There are a lot of cities where the downtowns aren't safe anymore. So that you go to the best hotel in town, the hotel whose name you know, but you're in a district that nobody is in after 5 p.m. and it's dangerous. Take a look at Cleveland, L.A. or South Africa, where the hotels in downtown Johannesburg have closed because it became so dangerous, nobody at all was there.

So should business travelers not necessarily stay closest to the office?

Find out what district the company is located in. Manhattan, with the exception of Wall Street, doesn't empty out; it goes 24 hours a day, so it's relatively safe. But in smaller cities, like St. Louis or Detroit, the downtown areas empty out after the classic business day. The department stores close, restaurants don't do business. So how do you know if that's the case? You've got to ask. It's always a matter of information; you could take all of these precautions and still get mugged. Business travelers need to reduce the risk. Don't carry wads of cash -- but then that brings up its own problems when you go to an ATM and walk out counting your cash.

How about theft on airplanes -- do bags get stolen from the baggage compartments overhead if you fall asleep?

Look, I flew 14 hours to get to Honolulu after working all day in Hong Kong -- what are you telling me, not to sleep on the plane? That's where you have to draw a line. Being worried about your wallet being stolen on a plane is paranoid, but sitting here worried about my laptop on the desk is not paranoid. But another person might think it is. That line is very fuzzy. It's a personal line that you have to draw.

Have you ever been in any dangerous situations?

I tend to be an explorer and a street person, so I always find myself wandering aimlessly around a city. But suddenly I look up and I'm the only one in a business suit in what is clearly a bad neighborhood. I've been very lucky. But I'm also 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds; I'm the kind of person people cross the street to get away from.

Dawn MacKeen

Dawn MacKeen is a former senior writer for Salon, and author of a forthcoming book about her grandfather’s survival of the Armenian Genocide, "The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2016).

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