One of the most stressful challenges for any meeting planner is dealing with safety and security. That might mean spending untold hours worrying about what could go wrong. Or it may involve dealing expeditiously with problems, or even full-fledged crises, once they occur. Considering all the possible scenarios, it’s hard to overstate the importance of solid preparation for safe meetings.
“It’s critical for meeting professionals to take security and risk management issues into consideration for events that they are planning,” says Matthew Marcial, senior director, events for Meeting Professionals International. “No matter how large or small the scale of the event, it is important for planners to communicate plans to their staff and attendees.”
In fact this type of planning may be the most vital of all the many tasks undertaken for any event.
The safety of attendees should be the No. 1 priority for meeting planners, according to Deborah Sexton, president and CEO of the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA). “As meeting planners look ahead to an upcoming conference or event, security concerns and risk management issues must play a major role in the conversations with staff members, venue operators, hoteliers, shuttle bus companies and any other vendor involved in the experience,” she says.
“Planners should always have a plan A, B and C for security and risk management situations. Work closely with your destination and venue partners to ensure close alignment with all of the advance planning.”
— Matthew Marcial
Every event, large or small, should be evaluated and produced with the organization’s risk management and security protocol in mind, notes Sue Heley, national account manager for Experient, a global events management company. “Proactive planning and training are necessary to protect the people, property, financial investment, information and image of the organization,” she says.
Such measures obviously make good business sense, but in a big-picture sense, they also take on an even higher level of importance.
Peter Tarlow, Ph.D., an expert on risk related to tourism and event management and president of Tourism & More based in College Station, Texas, says that taking security risks into account is both a moral and legal obligation.
“Not to take risk into consideration is in and of itself to assume a major risk,” he says.
There seems to be no end to the possible scenarios any planner might face at any given time or in any location. From something as serious as a terrorist attack to less dramatic but very real problems such as mass food poisoning, the commitment to prepare for a wide range of possibilities seems an imperative.
“Many of our members have had experiences where their advance planning has come into action,” Marcial says. “One of the common learnings is that you have to be prepared to quickly react and stay calm in any emergency situation.” He points to medical emergencies, natural disasters and active shooter scenarios as just some of the risks to address.
Sexton recalls a situation faced by colleagues at the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority the day of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. One of the team’s venues, the John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center, is located half a block from where a bomb exploded.
“At the time, one meeting was in the process of moving out while another was moving in,” she recalls. “The MCCA team evacuated the building, brought in bomb-sniffing dogs and swept the entire facility to ensure the safety of everyone involved in both meetings.”
Of course no one could have anticipated this specific event. But given the reality that these and other types of risks do occur, solid contingency planning should be a key part of the overall event planning process.
“Every meeting’s safety relies on mitigating potential physical risks in the surrounding environment,” Sexton says, pointing to the host hotel, the convention center and any other venue involved in the program. “Meeting planners should work with the host city’s DMO and venue operators to understand the security procedures in each of these environments. Before selecting a venue, make sure that the security guidelines align with your organization’s security needs and expectations.”
It’s always better to be proactive rather than reactive when planning risk management for large events such as meetings and conventions, says Lee Mandel, CEO of IntraLogic Solutions, a security solutions firm in Massapequa, New York.
He points to his firm’s recent work with several clients to assist in coordination for the first 2016 presidential debate in New York. “Many surrounding businesses are concerned with security, and many systems have to be coordinated with local law enforcement,” he says. “The quantity of meetings involved concerning coordination of security is significant but is necessary for ensuring a smooth, safe event.”
Mandel cites the most important risks to address in planning and conducting meetings as egress points, communication methods and technology integration. “It’s important to know how to quickly move people in and out of a facility and also how to correctly communicate with local law enforcement,” he says. “It is also critical to make sure all security and communication technology is interoperable.” He notes that use of his company’s custom PSIM (Physical Security Information Management) software has helped clients tie in these many disparate systems on a temporary basis without much cost outlay.
Kerry Bannigan, cofounder of New York-based Nolcha Shows and Nolcha Events, says that planning safe meetings must include attention to access control.
“Sadly, in today’s society we have to account for weapon control,” she says. Pointing to possible situations such as someone not agreeing with topics being addressed or having a grievance with a well-known attendee, she recommends due diligence (and security background checks on attendees where necessary) to identify red flags to be addressed pre-event.
“Screening and inspections are an efficient step once onsite to also tackle any physical elements such as weapons or strange objects being brought onsite,” Bannigan says. “It’s best to eliminate any concerns where possible at the beginning.”
Heley recalls an incident where a conference attendee received a mysterious piece of mail while staying at the hotel. When it turned out the envelope contained white powder, the hotel was promptly locked down. Attendees were all moved to the ballroom, four city blocks surrounding the hotel were evacuated, the FBI was onsite immediately, and the media arrived in droves.
To come to grips with the issue, Heley coordinated a meeting to introduce the organization spokesperson, legal counsel and the authorities to one another. The hotel was instructed to make no mention of the name of her organization. Staff took a head count and security check-in of participants, and made phone calls to attendees not in the ballroom to ascertain their location and safety.
“We were able to resume our conference the next day with an adjusted agenda,” she says. “However, the lost time and distractions did not allow for a productive day.”
Sexton notes that outside of physical risks, meeting planners must address potential cyber security issues.
“We live in a world where data is extremely valuable, and meeting planners deal with private attendee information including email addresses, passwords, credit card numbers and more,” she says. “With this in mind, every meeting planner needs to consider potential cyber theft issues.”
How secure is the network within the host venue and the host hotel? Is the Wi-Fi protected with a password? What steps are they taking to ensure registration kiosks can only be accessed by staff members? Does your organization have cyber insurance coverage in the event of a data breach? These are all questions that should be addressed, Sexton advises.
“Large events, meetings and conferences can be a prime target for hackers seeking to gain access to network security and personal data,” says Carl Herberger, vice president of security solutions at Radware, an international application delivery and cyber security firm with North American headquarters in Mahwah, New Jersey. “However, various precautions can be taken to improve cyber security at large events.”
Herberger says that attendees should opt to use a VPN, or virtual private network, when connecting to public Wi-Fi at conventions to protect their personal data.
“Unless you can verify that a Wi-Fi network is completely secure, you should take into consideration the possibility that software and devices might be installed on a network by hackers to monitor traffic and data transfer,” he says. “A VPN can help prevent this, and will keep your private data and traffic more secure on these networks.” If in planning an event you’re not confident of the integrity of a network, one step he recommends is advising attendees to avoid logging on in favor of alternatives such as online access through cell phone carriers.
Conference attendees also should be advised to keep Wi-Fi and Bluetooth disabled on their phones and other devices unless they are logging on to a trusted and secure network. Another strategy is to use two-factor authentication for online accounts, when available, to add a second layer of protection in preventing access to private information. Participants might also consider resetting and changing passwords after logging on to Wi-Fi at events and conferences.
While of course the safety of people is the main concern, security of equipment and other belongings also merits consideration.
Robert Siciliano, CEO of IDTheftSecurity.com, notes that tablets, laptops and other items are often vulnerable to theft, especially when conference participants leave meeting rooms for breaks. Efforts to hide them under folders or paperwork can prove fruitless.
“Many attendees and planners function under the false belief that the venue is secure and their valuable are, too, Siciliano says. “Despite what the venue staff says, you should always instruct attendees to remove valuables.”
“Planners should always have a plan A, B and C for security and risk management situations,” Marcial says. “Work closely with your destination and venue partners to ensure close alignment with all of the advance planning.”
Should the unexpected occur, it’s important to remain calm and be in control of the situation as much as possible while quickly putting your emergency plans into action, Marcial advises. Also work with your team to prepare and execute a post-crisis communications plan.
Sexton agrees that having a crisis management plan in place is the most critical piece. “It’s impossible to plan for every potential scenario,” she notes. “But meeting planners can make sure that in the event of a serious security issue, each member of their teams understands their responsibilities.”
Depending on the event, it may make sense to consider security measures such as additional monitoring at entrance points similar to TSA-style screening, Sexton says. She points to a recent report from UFI The Global Association of the Exhibition Industry showing that many trade show organizers are adding security measures at their events. “As more meeting planners recognize the need for enhanced physical security, we may see more of this activity at meetings, conventions and business events,” she says.
One approach is to ask yourself: What don’t I know about this location or situation? Tarlow says not knowing what the local risks are can be a major weakness. “Each situation is different, and ignorance or political correctness are the biggest risks,” he says. “The same goes for ignoring a risk and for not understanding if the risk is one of safety or of security. Assuming one locale is like another is another potential weak point.”
Contingency plans always should be developed for the “just-in-case,” Tarlow says. “Trying to develop a plan when it has not been previously considered and ignored is both difficult and dangerous. The best crisis management is good risk management. Think of the unexpected.”
Developing the right relationships can reduce the possibility of conflict, misunderstandings or delays at crucial times. “It’s important to build solid relationships way before the planning starts,” Mandel says. “I always suggest involving local authorities upfront and having continuous meetings with them in advance of the event.”
Mandel says that if a plan is in place and practiced in advance of the main event, most circumstances can be handled with simple communication and/or evacuation protocols. “Staying calm and following a clearly thought-out, mapped-out plan created ahead of time is key,” he says. “You don’t want to think from the hip when time is of the essence.”
Bannigan also advises focusing on relationships. “It’s essential that the events team establish pre-event relationships with the relevant in-house or hired security for the event to discuss accountability and security measures,” she says. That should be supplemented with a list of numbers for external safety contacts such as the police.
Good communication is always a must, Sexton agrees, adding that meeting planners must have an effective plan to ensure that every attendee understands the situation. This might include social media, mobile app updates, email, in-room TV messaging and website updates. “If you find yourself in an unexpected situation, you must be able to spread the word to attendees about what they should do, where they should be and how they can stay safe,” she says.
Heley advises establishing emergency communication systems in advance and publicizing them to event participants and organization leadership, as well as designating an onsite crisis operations center and an alternate location for such operations. It’s also advisable to determine who will serve as the organization spokesperson and provide media training. “Threat assessment measures should be communicated regularly with local law enforcement and destination representatives,” she says. “And participants should be informed about crisis prevention and response plans, including safety check-in procedures.”
If a crisis or unexpected event occurs, some basic steps are called for. “Provide calm leadership and guide participants to a safe location and begin the check-in process,” Heley advises. “Alert crisis operations centers, and follow the crisis plan to the best of your ability. And utilize help wherever it is available.” C&IT