Suzanne Garber, International SOS,
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA
In Case of Emergency
IN TIMES OF CRISIS, chaos often reigns—
which can make a bad situation worse for travelers.
To help manage the health and security risks
to its globally mobile clientele, International SOS
counts on project management.
“Our ability to respond and take care of our clients relies upon our project management structure,”
says Suzanne Garber, COO of the company’s Americas Region in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. “It
gives us the flexibility to make decisions quickly.”
Could you describe a recent project?
After the political unrest in Egypt, we provided
advice and assistance to our clients: expatriates,
business travelers, students, faculty and others in
the country. We helped them get on flights and had
receiving teams on the ground welcoming them.
How does project management help?
In 2009, we managed over 1. 2 million cases and
received 4. 6 million calls for assistance. Our ability
to respond and take care of our clients relies upon
our project management structure.
In the case of the Egypt crisis, it began with an
executive-level meeting. After that, initiatives for the
lead crisis team were set. Those included sending
personnel to Cairo to locate a safe haven for members, establishing contact with our pre-screened
providers, and reaching out to government agencies
and intelligence resources for information and other
We had to give this team the ability to independently manage their time and priorities in a very
challenging situation, but their methods followed a
structured protocol. The key decisions made in the
initial time of a crisis often reflect the overall success
of an operation that, in this case, led to the successful
evacuation of over 1,200 individuals.
Egypt was clearly an unexpected emergency. How
does that affect planning and execution?
We schedule multidisciplinary crisis team meetings
to address the pertinent issues of each situation. At
the height of the Egyptian crisis, we held meetings
twice a day that included experts from security, medical and aviation operations as well as critical departments such as IT, communications, account management, finance, human resources and others. Each person sitting at the table had roles and responsibilities focusing on the value of project management and prioritization. They then went back to their various departments and engaged staff to fulfill those action items. For example, my direc-
tor of marketing communications fed information
from the meeting to her staff so they could come
up with a plan to educate clients on our overall
response and the ways in which we would help keep
their employees healthy, safe and secure.
How do your team members deal with the cultural
diversity of your clientele?
Our employees collectively speak more than 90 languages and dialects so that they can address the communication necessary for the projects to succeed.
Each region, country and city has its own culture, and our team members have to understand
that to help our clients in times of need.
In certain parts of Latin America, for example,
that first interface must be conducted via telephone
and not only be warm and friendly but must also
include some opening pleasantries. Having people
on our staff who know these customs gives us an
ambiance of “local” presence.
Is there anything you’d change about the way Inter-
national SOS manages projects?
After our assistance in Egypt settles down, we’ll hold
a lessons-learned session with the entire team. These
lessons are then incorporated into our overall project
management plan so we’re better prepared for the
next crisis. We do this as a matter of practice for each
of the crises in which we have participated. PM
>> In 2009, we
1. 2 million cases
4. 6 million calls
Our ability to
take care of our
upon our project