Industry insider

Tim Willis is Security Director of Northern Europe for International SOS. Based in their London assistance centre, his role is to oversee the team providing 24 hour security information to their clients.


What does International SOS do?

Our role is to support business travellers by firstly helping them both as individuals and organisations. For employers, we help them to understand the risks of the destination they are sending their people to - both on short-term business travel and on long-term assignments.


This could be everything from medical assessments to make sure the person is fit for travel before they set foot on an aeroplane to make sure any medical risks are mitigated in advance, to understanding what the environment is going to be like when you are out there - both from a medical and a security perspective – and advising on appropriate strategies.


We act as an enabler for business travel through helping companies understand what the actual risks are rather than the perceived risks. By doing so, we can allow them to travel with greater confidence and certainty about the environment that they are sending their people to and know that they have the right mitigation measures in place.


What are your sources of information?

We use a very large spectrum; at one end we use social media and look at what is being reported on the news channels such as Reuters. We also have our own in-house network of officers and embedded medical and security staff.


Between International SOS and our partnership with Control Risks, we’ve got nearly 100 officers globally as well as a large number of embedded medical and security staff with clients in various locations –those are also very good sources of information.


Part of what we do in the security team is to go out to the countries that we cover and provide advice on, which involves meeting with embassies. Additionally, we consult with local security and logistics providers as well as our analysts’ own networks.


Bringing all of those strands together to really understand and analyse what is going on and the analysis is the crucial part of what we do. Our analysis of the implications answers the “so what?” questions for our clients, informing them in a timely manner because time is critical in these matters, and crucially advising them about the implications for business travellers and their organisations.


How is technology shaping how you learn about and communicate major alerts?

Something that we’re definitely seeing is an increase in use of social media. It’s something that can provide a lot of value for picking up on incidents, as we saw in the Paris terror attacks. We started to see things on Twitter before it was published on the major news channels. From the perspective of learning about incidents social media is key.


We’re also looking at how best to communicate with our clients in line with technological advances. Historically we’ve used SMS and emails, which are still a core part of what we do, but we now have an assistance app which proactively lets travellers know about alerts. We are also looking at chat functions to broaden the manner in which we interact with our clients on the ground.


What are the best ways for travellers to stay up to date with information which could impact them and their organisations?


It’s crucial to stay in touch with your service provider; making sure you are signed up for email alerts, finding out if your company is using a tracking function, ensuring that you have provided the right contact information so that you do receive those alerts. You can also call our assistance centres.


If you are somewhere and something happens that you are unsure about, having the ability to call in and speak to somebody is a very important part of the equation. Proactive email alerts and SMS messages are extremely useful, but having the facility to call in and speak to a security expert and talk through a situation is also extremely useful. It’s a double-sided coin.


How do you deal with the overwhelming availability of data and information available to your organisation?


We’ve got a clear focus on what our role is. There is a huge amount of data out there, it could be quite easy to drown in the white noise. We are here to provide advice and information to business travellers and long-term assignees abroad, so we need to look for things that may have an impact on that profile of traveller. That helps us to focus within all that data out there and look at various parameters.


We’ve got well developed reporting thresholds that our analysis teams use when they are scanning, which we are doing 24/7 from London, Dubai and Singapore. When they’re scanning, they match it against those thresholds and assess whether this is something that is reportable.


How do you strike a balance between the speed of your response, what level of detail to share publicly and verifying the credibility information you have?


Firstly, we would want to verify an incident. Because we’re doing this day-in-day-out, we know which sources of information are more credible than others. We know which local news channels may have a particular bias.


We then have to balance the potential impact of that with the need to get a report out quickly. Ideally we’ll want confirmation from at least two trusted sources before we report on something because we need to have that confirmation.


There may be times where it may be appropriate to report because if the incident is happening and it’s going to have a significant impact on our clients, it is sometimes appropriate to report based on single source.


If we do that, we will always caveat the report to say that “It’s been reported that there is an incident going on at this location. If this is correct, these are the initial assessments that we have on it.” But we will also send updates, so even if it has been confirmed – taking Brussels as an example – we had our first special advisory out within 30 minutes of the first reports coming out.


We followed that up with four further reports during the day to give updates as the situation unfolds. It is an ongoing process, not just a single snapshot. We do stay on top of things, continue to monitor them, and as things become clearer and the situation evolves, we’ll publish further updates to alert our clients and advise on those developments.


How do you predict International SOS’s communications will change in the next five years, specifically in response to technological advances and user behaviour?


My initial thoughts are that we need to keep abreast of technological changes, particularly with regards to better means of communication, to ensure that we are able to get the information and advice out to our clients and travelling populations in the most effective way using the platforms that they use so that we remain up to date with our client base. Email is not as well used amongst millennials who tend to prefer chat functions, hence we are looking at that as a better means of communication for them to consult with when they’re travelling.