Here we are again with another summer coming to a close. As our final travelers head home from their journeys, it’s a perfect time to launch my regular travel safety blog. What I want to accomplish with my new blog is to talk about travel safety and the many ways safety impacts travel, trends, learnings, and also to establish open communications with you.
This summer has been full of some unique challenges. I’m happy to say that we have risen to all of them, and learned a lot in the process. This summer was all about moving quickly to manage the Swine Flu (H1N1) and eventual pandemic along with the very individual ways different countries responded to it. We at People to People Ambassadors Programs had a very significant China program this year, our groups were traveling through China all summer. The Chinese government in general, had the most aggressive response to the pandemic of any major country, holding anyone with a raised body temperature for as much as 24 hours in a hospital or placing in quarantine for up to seven days anyone who may have been exposed to the illness depending on where they sat on the plane. More than one People to People group was impacted this summer. See our web site for People to People’s response and my regular messages on the subject at http://www.peopletopeople.com/alerts/Pages/swine-flu.aspx.
One of the most important things to do in a situation like the H1N1 pandemic is to maintain open channels of communication. Here are some of the procedures we immediately put into place to ensure that we did just that:
- We immediately sent a senior team to China to make sure we had staff on the ground to ensure the health and safety of our student ambassadors; I headed out to China immediately myself to access the situation prior to our first student delegation arriving.
- We immediately contacted the U.S. Embassy in China and worked with them throughout the summer.
- We contacted all parents of students traveling to China at least 7 to 14 days in advance of their student’s program to complete a questionnaire and ensure we never sent a student exposed to, or with H1N1.
- We immediately alerted all parents of anyone taken into quarantine or secondary screening at the hospital and maintained a 24-hour staff here in Spokane, which is standard procedure for the organization every travel season.
- Each family with a quarantined student was assigned a specific Family Liaison Team member who they could contact 24 hours a day for any need they might have.
- We alerted all parents with students traveling in the China program as to what was happening with the quarantine situation as it evolved.
- We provided the quarantined students with laptops and cell phones so that they could keep in touch back home and let everyone know they were fine and to keep the lines of communication open.
- Daily care packages were brought into the quarantine hotel to make sure the students had something to do, and brighten their day. I personally brought games, candy and other items in right away. We had so many gifts that the generous students shared with other people under quarantine!
Our leaders are world class! While not required to be there by the Chinese government, our leaders all volunteered to be quarantined to ensure the health and well-being of our students. In addition, nine other leaders volunteered to be placed with the 15 students who were taken to a local hospital for secondary screening.
Even though Chinese officials promised that we would always be able to have a student accompanied by a leader, in one case at a hospital used for the first time by the government they didn’t keep that promise. One of our leaders stayed directly outside the door to the quarantined student’s room to make sure that only the medical staff was entering. This leader is a great example of the level of commitment to the students of our extraordinary adults who lead People to People programs.
Beyond the international incident we tackled over the summer with the H1N1 virus, we also had one that was more of a personal nature. One unexpected incident that we handled this summer had to do with the brief disappearance of one of our students while in Paris, France. This student chose deliberately to slip away from the delegation to “explore independently.” As parents and delegates know, small-group exploration for short periods is a free-time activity for our older students only and much of the reason for our pre-travel screening of students; whether at home or abroad, teens need to make good decisions, follow the rules, and listen to those in charge. In this instance we did everything we could to ensure this student’s safety as quickly as possible:
- We made contact with the student’s parents within an hour of the student intentionally leaving the hotel.
- A citywide APB was put out within 2 hours.
- We involved the U.S. Embassy, FBI, Paris police, and U.S. police in the search.
- The Paris police requested a 24-hour period before the full search began, so we cooperated with the student’s parents instead to follow the student’s credit card use.
- We obtained photos of the student using the ATMs by herself and under no apparent distress.
- We sent staff to the locations where the card was being used to show photos of the student to the employees to see if anyone had seen the student.
- We sent the parents to get emergency passports.
- We arranged for the parents to be flown to Paris with a representative from our organization.
- Within 36 hours the student was reunited with the parents at the U.S. Embassy.
- The parents had their child formally apologize to our organization and the law officials for running away.
- The parents and student were returned to the U.S.
For other People to People parents, I want you to know that this type of concern and responsiveness are available to each and every student. We don’t just pay lip-service to the idea that our students’ safety is our first priority. We live it—in cases like these, on a moment-to-moment basis, with the care and concern nearly as great as that of the parents.
Though our first concern is always the safety of the student, it was gratifying to speak to the U.S. Embassy in Paris, where a representative told us that in 20 years she had never seen an incident like this better handled by an organization.
My sole focus at People to People, as well as that of my entire team, is to ensure the health and safety of every single delegate. We are very proud of our ability to do just that during the 2009 season, even with unexpected situations and unexpected choices from students. We continually improve our ability to expect the unexpected and be prepared for all situations. It’s why I’m here, the only person in the industry with my job title and description. And that’s why we are dedicated to being the leader in offering high-quality, safe educational adventures for thousands of students every year.
The summer has nearly come to an end for People to People Ambassador Programs, and what a summer it has been. We saw some fabulous People to People moments—including the return of a World War II battle flag to a Japanese widow. Moments like this are the very essence of People to People—bridging cultural and political borders, and making the world a better place for future generations.
Until next time - I’m wishing you safe and happy travels,