When sending your students abroad, we all know safety is a top concern both for you and for parents. In this article we will outline the key components to look for when determining whether an organization has done their due diligence to keep your travelers safe. When looking at any educational travel program you should consider these categories before signing your students up: Hiring and Training of all In Country Personnel, Food and Water Safety, In Country Partner Quality Standards, Water Activity Protocol, and Last but certainly not least Emergency Protocol.
1.) Hiring and Training of All in Country Personnel
Hiring is the first step in creating a safe space for you students traveling abroad. Without an extensive hiring process, an organization is likely to hire a few bad apples. Using a 5 step hiring process an organization can ensure they’ve thoroughly vetted their in-country personnel and program leaders, who will be on the front lines traveling with you and your students. This 5 step hiring process starts with an in-depth written application, which is then reviewed by the hiring team and judged on the strength of the applicants written communication skills as well as the content of their answers. After an applicant passes the written application portion of the process, they will move into the interview portion. Each applicant undergos two extensive interviews facilitated by the hiring team, where they also much demonstrate language the strength of their language skills in the destination country language. Once the applicant has passed the interview portion of the process, the applicant will then undergo a complete background check to ensure the safety of your group before they are hired on as Country Director or Program Leader.
Training is another integral part of creating a strong in-country support team for your group. Without proper extensive and frequent training, the in-country personnel can feel detached from the rest of the organization. A strong training is designed to familiarize the in-country staff with the organization’s safety protocols, as well as the mission and values of the organization. Each in-country staff member should go through an annual training with various components. The first step in training reliable, knowledgable personnel focuses on reinforcing the important ideas of global citizenship, cultural engagement, and an introduction to the mission and philosophy of the travel organization. Once they understand the vision of the overall organization, personnel should then move on to familiarize themselves with the home office staff, other tour leaders, and country directors. This can strengthen communication between the in country staff and the home office staff, making sure the support tem during your travel program are all on the same page. During training, participants should complete a comprehensive review of the program standards and emergency protocols. Finally, training should involve a comprehensive leadership packet review, as well as an overall Q&A to make sure in-country staff are comfortable and confident in their ability to guide students and teachers abroad.
When an organization follows these training components it is sure to not only employ strong in-country personnel, but also build a strong and well-informed team.
2.) Food and Water Safety
When traveling abroad with students food and water safety is of the highest priority. An organization should vet all potential vendors to ensure that proper food preparation standards are followed, especially in underdeveloped areas. Each food vendor or home stay should be able to provide vegetarian, gluten free, and lactose free meal options as well as provide proof that all foods are prepared with potable water. It is also impartive that guides are equipped with safe drinking water for the entire duration of the trip, not just during meal time.
All leaders and in-country staff should have a list of travelers with dietary concerns or special requirements. This is to ensure that the travelers do not consume anything that could be harmful to them. While it is the responsibility of the travelers to inform the organization before trave about these needs or concerns, it is the responsibility of the in-country guide and the traveler to inform vendors of their dietary restrictions.
3.) In Country Partner Quality Standards
It is imperative that all In-Country Activity Partners undergo a rigorous selection process. When choosing an activity that is a good fit for your travelers, it is beneficial to have the organization’s in-country staff research reputable, trustworthy companies that facilitate this activity. In-country staff will seek out consumer reviews, referrals, and existing partnerships to ensure the best selection. It is good form for the in-country staff to participate in all activities with the selected vendors before ever sending student travelers with them.
Hotels, hostels, and other accommodations where travelers stay should also go through a similar vetting process.The in-country staff should seek out referrals and reviews on each hotel, and visit these prospective lodging options to ensure the quality of the hotel and its staff. Accommodations will certainly vary depending on the country and the rustic nature of the program, but should always feel safe and be located within a reasonable distance of medical facilities, should an emergency arise.
Host communities should have a different set of criteria. This is because a community does not perform like a company and should be vetted more intensely. Host communities should be a smaller or rural town that reflects the local culture to ensure the most immersive experience for the traveler. The community should have an overall friendly environment. A perfect host community/organization relationship would have a transactional nature. Where the host community host the travelers and in return the travelers perform a significant community service project for the community.
The potential host families should also be thoroughly vetted to ensure the safety of the travelers. To ensure the best enviroment for the traveler the host family should show genuine interest in hosting a traveler, own a comfortable and clean home and have an individual bed for the traveler. All of these requirements are to ensure the comfort and safety of the traveler during their stay at the host families home.
4.) Water Activity Protocol
Water activity safety should be a main concern for both the guide and for the home office. We recommend breaking the activities down into the following 4 categories based on the popularity of these activities on our programs. We suggest the parent or guardian go over this protocol with their traveler prior to the start of the program.
The ocean can be extremely unpredictable and that is why we suggest implementing these safety precautions. Have you traveler know their swimming ability and limit themself accordingly. Caution your traveler to always be aware of the surf condition, aquatic life, piers, pilling, and diving platforms of any kinds as these can all be dangerous. As always have your traveler stay in the designates swim area and never swim alone.
Lake and River Safety
Lakes and Rivers can be just as dangerous as the ocean so we suggest your traveler assume the same safety precautions as listed above as well as the following. Trust your guides assessment of the water quality and only swim if they give the go-ahead. Always enter the water feet first as water depth can be unclear in lakes and rivers.
Surfing can be both a fun and dangerous activity. Inform your traveler they need follow the safety measures listed in “Ocean Safety” with the addition of the following. Have your traveler always use the buddy system when surfing to ensure their safety in the water. The traveler should make sure to wear their leash at all times in the water. When the traveler is paddling for a wave let the surfer who is closer to the break take it, once on a wave make sure to call out left or right to let their buddy know what direction the traveler is dropping in. Always caution your traveler to be aware of their surroundings and condition of the surf.
Rafting can be an incredibly fun team activity but also requires caution to be safe. Have your traveler follow the safety precautions listed in “Lake and River Safety” as well as the following. Your traveler should always wear their life jacket and helmet. Listen and follow the guides directions such as do not overload the raft and no rafting in heavy rain.
All of these water activity safety precaution are suggested to increase the safety of the traveler.
5.) Emergency Protocol
The emergency protocol should be frequently reviewed by all staff of a traveling organization. We suggest implementing different strategies of an emergency protocol for different types of emergencies. Make sure the organization has a wide array of safety standards and implements incident reports.
As above noted water safety should be of the most important importance. An extensive water safety guide should be distributed to all program guides to ensure strict adherence to mitigate risk when participating in activities involving water.
In case of a political crisis or other emergency during which foreigners in general or U.S. citizen in particular may be at risk we suggest keeping a low profile and staying away from “tourist” attractions. It is impartive that all organizations register their programs with the US State Department’s Safe Traveler Enrollment Program to ensure that international diplomatic agencies are aware of the programs itinerary and location throughout the duration of the program.
It is suggested that depending on the acuteness of the crisis the program guide, country director and home office staff will all consult to determine the course of action to follow. This should be done collaboratively as soon as possible after the initial crisis is contained.
We suggest strong communication between the program guide, home office, and the parents of the travelers throughout the entire programs. This can help decrease travel anxiety for the parent/guardian and the traveler.