Corporate meeting planners, particularly those who manage large meetings abroad, are concerned about the safety and security of their attendees and staff more than ever following terrorist attacks in Paris, Nice, Brussels, Belgium, Barcelona, London and other European cities.
Along with attrition, room rates, transportation headaches and speaker fees, planners organizing meeting and incentive programs have always had to keep attendee safety in mind. But with the increase in domestic and international terrorism incidents over the past decade, security ranks at the top of planners’ concerns, whether the event takes place in the U.S., Europe, Asia, South America or on a tiny Caribbean island.
“International travel raises a complex series of administrative, logistical and safety/security concerns,” says Matthew J. Dumpert, senior director, security risk management at global security firm Kroll. “International threats posed by ideological extremism, unique and varying criminal elements, savvy defrauding schemes, dangerous traffic patterns, potentially unreliable infrastructure, emergency first responder capabilities/willingness, etc., are very real and not as easily recognizable overseas as they are at home.”
Dumpert stresses that for corporate meeting planners, staff and attendees, traveling to an international destination carries its own risks. “Each person possesses a limited bandwidth for dealing with new and emerging situations,” says Dumpert. “When we travel overseas, so many things are unfamiliar to us that a tremendous amount of bandwidth and mental capacity is taken up just living and operating in that environment. Street signs, language, culture, traffic patterns, food, etc., are all very new to us and take away from our capacity to recognize potentially dangerous situations, identify threatening actors and proactively avoid such dangers. Things as simple as misunderstood language, gestures and contact, cultural sensitivities, geopolitical differences and socioeconomic inconsistencies could all serve to aggravate an otherwise innocuous interaction, escalating a situation without our knowledge.”
No matter the international travel destination, Dumpert says that “it’s very important for meeting planners to spend some time seriously researching their destination, the culture, customs, criminal activity and transnational terrorism activity well before booking a trip. Oftentimes this can be overwhelming, but readers should know there are experts who can help in this endeavor. No matter where the destination, it’s important to learn as much as possible beforehand to avoid complications, rather than leaving one’s safety and security to chance.”
As far as determining what destinations are safe or unsafe for international meetings, Dumpert says it is difficult to identify any location as categorically “safe” for organizing a corporate event. “There are a lot of factors that weigh into this equation. The overall threat environment facing the corporate entity will play a large part in this. Meaning, if the corporate entity is one of high profile or recognition, with a significant threat picture, there is a chance (the company) will have to take significant mitigation efforts no matter where they go. Also playing into this equation is the threat level borne by affiliation with one’s industry. An otherwise ‘safe’ city may not be hospitable to an organization or group which may be highly controversial and/or perceived locally as less than desirable,” Dumpert says.
Through Dumpert’s experience advising corporate clients, he has seen with increasing frequency the evolution of organized crime, transnational terrorist groups and local criminal elements to operate in environments all over the world, and certainly in locales that were considered by many to be safe.
“When talking about a corporation’s duty of care responsibilities, it’s important to take each meeting, each trip and location, along with the staff and attendees traveling, and conduct a threat analysis or assessment each and every time. The threats faced by international travelers is greater now than it’s ever been, and each operating environment presents unique difficulties and challenges,” says Dumpert. “I believe it’s far too complicated to identify certain areas as safe (or conversely unsafe) because the number, complexity and dynamic nature of threat actors on the international scene is constantly changing, evolving and adapting.”
That being said, Dumpert also believes that there are some broad factors that may disqualify a corporate event in a given location, provided the business need doesn’t outweigh the inherent risk(s). These disqualifying factors include, but are not limited to:
As recent tragic events in cities such as London, Paris and Barcelona have demonstrated, high-profile, wealthy cities in Europe are also targets for terrorist activities. Yet the rush to use “smart city” technologies also creates vulnerabilities if investments in digital technologies are not commensurate with investments in cybersecurity. Large cities in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and South America are making investments, in varying degrees, but security often comes lower on the list of spending priorities for cities with already stretched finances.
The consequences of neglecting cybersecurity could be dire. For example, if hackers were to shut down the power grid, an entire city would be left in chaos. This prospect is something city officials now need to plan against, and meeting planners need to be aware of cities that are not doing enough to battle cybersecurity.
The 2017 Safe Cities Index not only includes four categories of security —digital, health, infrastructure and physical — but, in a nod to the increase in security threats around the world, has added six new indicators and expanded the index to cover 60 cities, up from 50 in the previous Safe Cities Index of 2015.
The index’s key findings show that Tokyo, although it has a slightly lower score in infrastructure security since 2015, is still the leading world city in terms of safety, with very strong scores in the digital security category and in health security. Overall, however, general security ratings are falling rather than rising. Among large cities, Madrid and Seoul have increased their security scores, while other large cities have seen their scores fall since 2015, including New York, Lima, Johannesburg, Ho Chi Minh City and Jakarta.
While Asian and European cities remain at the top of the Safe Cities list, including Amsterdam, Hong Kong, Osaka, Singapore, Stockholm, and Zurich, unfortunately cities in the Middle East, Africa, and some Asian cities can be found at the bottom of the index, including Cairo, Dhaka, Ho Chi Minh City, Karachi, Manila, Tehran and Yangon.
Although corporate planners may feel more safe and secure holding events in American cities, it’s notable that no U.S. city except San Francisco made it into the top 20 “overall security” category. The U.S., however, performs best in digital security: Of the top 10 cities in this category, four are in the U.S., Chicago, Dallas, New York and San Francisco.
For corporate meeting planners wishing to organize events in the world’s safest countries, the top five, according to the 2017 Global Peace Index, are Austria, Denmark, Iceland, New Zealand and Portugal. The five most dangerous countries are Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen. A good source for current information on possible threats in specific international destinations is the U.S. State Department’s website travel.state.gov.
Organizing and hosting international trade shows with and for the corporate meetings industry is also dependent on good security, and has its own concerns. “Security is one of the largest priorities for our industry as we always want our attendees to have as safe and enriching an experience as possible as they learn, do business and connect with one another in destinations around the world,” says Carina Bauer, CEO and president of the IMEX Group. “With IMEX hosting shows on two continents each year, we consider security not only a must-have as organizers, but also an incredibly important topic area for learning and information sharing.
“First, we always work hand in hand with our venues to create as much safety confidence as possible for our guests and staff, whether it is an international or domestic meeting,” says Bauer. “Messe Frankfurt in Germany and the Sands in Las Vegas both have very strong security policies, technologies and teams. Messe Frankfurt (home again to IMEX Frankfurt 2018, May 15-17) features an innovative Operation and Security Center (OSC), which unites all safety-related functions, services, communications and technical operations under one roof. We also work beyond the venues themselves. For example, last year with IMEX America 2017 happening days after the tragedy in Las Vegas, we worked closely not only with the Sands but with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority and Las Vegas law enforcement personnel as well.”
Bauer continues, “Secondly, we use the strong education platforms at the IMEX shows to get meeting pros talking about security best practices in a very open and constructive way. At IMEX in Frankfurt 2018 for example, Pete Murphy (currently with Priavo Security and Angelique Lecorps, and a former member of the U.K. Special Forces) will lead a session on the planning attentions we must pay in today’s elevated security climate,” says Bauer.
“Finally, at the IMEX shows and beyond, we need to continue to use our incredibly strong sense of community in the meetings industry to stay vigilant, resilient and unified. This certainly shone through strongly in the immediate and caring circle our industry formed around the Las Vegas community and meetings industry with #VegasStrong at IMEX America last year.”
“We also need to rally around pushing globally recognized and agreed-to standards on security through efforts like the EMSSI (Exhibition and Meetings Safety and Security Initiative), launched at IMEX 2016, for example.”
— Carina Bauer
Another security expert says that the differences regarding safety and security planning between European and Asian meeting destinations are the types of risks groups may encounter. “In Asia, natural disasters are more prevalent than in Europe, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones and volcanic activity, which requires pre-thought and purposeful knowledge of the timing of the meeting,” says Paul Frederick, CPP, president of Hospitality Security Advisors LLC.
“There is a season for cyclones in Asia — there is even a predicted rainy season — but earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions are not predictable and require an organization to have a risk tolerance for the possibility of such an event, which requires trained and practiced crisis and emergency planning.
“Terrorist incidents, cyberthreats and local crime can and do happen in any country in Europe and Asia,” says Frederick, a 30-year veteran in hospitality safety and security, who led the global safety and security organizations for both Hilton Worldwide and Starwood Hotels and Resorts. “The differences are how is the venue, your organization and local law enforcement prepared for them. In light of recent times, a meeting planner can no longer assume venues, hotels or countries are safe, based on no previous incidents.
“A risk assessment is necessary for any location and should include the purpose of the meeting, agenda topics, offsite events, where are your attendees traveling from, and an analysis of data from past incidents in the venue, city and country,” says Frederick. “Corporate meeting planners organizing an international event should do a risk assessment first, and then update based on current facts closer to the opening of the event. Situational risks can change from the date that you selected the venue, to the time you will kick off the meeting, e.g., political unrest, government elections, terrorism, pandemic, etc. …Communication to your attendees identifying the risks and recommendations how to mitigate them is crucial.”
Frederick recommends that planners use an excellent resource for assessing hotels overseas, such as the Hotel Security and Safety Assessment Form available on the U.S. State Department OSAC website www.osac.gov.
Data security is no small thing. Be sure to look into your privacy rights — or lack thereof — in the country you’re visiting. More than that, make sure your devices are secure. Ensure that any important documents are double-encrypted, make sure you lock your device when you’re not using it, and use your corporate VPN (virtual private network) whenever possible. Also, use the most secure network option available. It doesn’t hurt to play it safe.
“First and foremost, it’s imperative for meeting planners to understand that all meetings, conferences and conventions are considered targets by cybercriminals,” says Alan Brill, senior managing director, cybersecurity and investigations at Kroll. “It doesn’t matter what the subject matter of your meeting/conference is. Both you as a planner and your corporate attendees are targets. The ‘bad guys’ are generally in a few categories.
“Cybercriminals are looking for anything that can be converted to money. That ranges from information that would help a criminal to steal your identity, to your banking information, to using your contacts list to send out email which will connect your friends to malware sites,” says Brill. “Recent favorites among cybercriminals include ransomware, in which they use malware to encrypt your files and offer to send you a decryption code in return for a payment (often to be made in bitcoin or another virtual currency of the criminal’s choice). Some of these criminals are so sophisticated that they have toll-free phone numbers or online chat boxes so that they can help you to buy and transfer the bitcoins. Unfortunately, paying the ransom doesn’t guarantee that you will actually get a working code to regain access to your files. Another new tactic is to get malware loaded onto your machine that carries out virtual currency mining, the process by which some virtual currencies (such as bitcoin and Monero) are created. This can slow down your machine and can continue to plague you even after you return home!”
Brill says that there are many other types of cybercriminals, and meeting planners need to be aware of these other threats as well. “Electronic espionage criminals are after your company’s information. They are looking for non-public information that they can use to buy or short your stock. Nation-state actors are looking for information that can benefit their nation’s companies, sometimes including your direct competitors.
“Hactivists are another type,” Brill continues. “Depending on the subject matter of your conference, you may find that there are hackers that just don’t like your company or your industry and look to cause disruptions. In all of these cases, I’d suggest that organizers take the lead in reminding meeting attendees that no matter where they are, in cyberspace, it’s a dangerous world.”
Brill suggests that corporate meeting planners consider the following tips:
“A virtual private network (VPN) is your best friend,” Brill advises. “A VPN is a service that encrypts transmissions to and from your computer to the VPN site. Many companies have internal VPNs. In other cases, there are many organizations that can provide you with the software and accounts to establish a VPN from your laptop, tablet or smartphone to a secure site in your home country, and at very modest cost. A VPN is probably the best cybersecurity investment you can make when you’re organizing international meetings and events.
“If a VPN is your best friend, your worst enemy is generally anything with the words ‘free Wi-Fi.’ All too often, criminals actually set up these sites in order to get you to connect, and if you have weak security, the criminals can watch your transmissions, and if they are not encrypted, they can steal your information, or even change it,” said Brill.
“Fake Wi-Fi sites can look just like the real thing in a hotel or coffee shop. My recommendation is not to connect through sites outside of your hotel that you can’t verify. And even in your hotel, your first move when connecting to the hotel’s guest network is to start up your VPN. You should know that it’s also possible to create a fake cellular tower to gain access to your cellular transmissions.”
Other risk factors when planning international meetings include terrorism. Acts of terrorism are nearly impossible to predict, which is what makes terrorism so frightening. However, some places experience more incidents than others. Be sure to check out the annual report published by the Global Terrorism Index, which ranks countries according to the impact of terrorism. According to the 2016 report, Iraq, Afghanistan and Nigeria were the three most at-risk countries during that year. Civil unrest, natural disasters and diseases are other risk factors, as is medical emergency considerations.
“As U.S. corporate planners work with global customers, whether they be U.S.-based customers welcoming international audiences into the U.S., or coordinating meetings being held throughout the world, their primary focus should always be on the attendee and stakeholder experience, which presents its own set of challenges,” says Linda McNairy, vice president, global operations and shared services, American Express Meetings & Events, American Express Global Business Travel. “This begins with your risk assessment of the destination as well as all paths to get to that destination. Planners want to ensure that attendees have the safest possible travel and meeting experience to eliminate any distractions and risks that may be present at the host destination. These may be ongoing concerns specific to a destination or may be situational, based on other events happening at a destination over the same dates as the meeting. At American Express Meetings & Events, we take a very consultative and fact-based approach to this process as there can be perception issues that may or may not be real. For example, our team recently planned a senior level event in Dubai. Whilst the reality is that Dubai is a very safe country, we realized that there was a perception amongst some of the attendees and their families that due to the location in the world and areas of unrest surrounding, that safety could be a concern. To address this, we utilized the communication process to relay facts and information about Dubai that created excitement and also addressed any concerns around perception that may have existed.”
Before your trip begins, it’s important to establish travel guidelines. Your team needs to be on the same page, having discussed any potential threats you may run into in your travels. Here are a few more key steps you should take in order to ensure maximum safety and security:
Medical Precautions. There are plenty of medical matters to take care of and that can be handled in advance of travel. For one thing, you’ll want to ensure that each traveler receives any necessary vaccinations. You also should encourage travelers in your group to look into whether the prescriptions they use are permitted in the country where they will be traveling. Carry a letter from the prescribing doctor if you have any prescriptions for narcotics, and carry all prescriptions in their original containers. Speaking of original containers, it can be a hassle to refill a prescription while abroad, so advise your team to refill their meds before leaving. Also, be sure that each traveler learns which medical services their health insurance will cover overseas.
Security Risks and Responses. Take the time to inform your group about the area you’ll be visiting. Have there been any security warnings on travel.state.gov? Does the country’s website have any advice for travelers? If there’s any civil unrest in the place you’re visiting it’s better to make everyone aware of it. Also, be sure everyone is aware of some basic safety tips: lock your hotel door, don’t roll down car windows if a stranger knocks, don’t go out alone at night, always tell someone where you will be going so you have someone watching out for you, etc. You’ll also want to discuss responses to potential threats. Ensure that an evacuation plan is in place, and inform your team of meeting places in case people become separated. Tell your group who to contact if they lose their documents. Also, determine the trustworthiness of the police force in your area. Law enforcement in some countries is notoriously corrupt and particularly troublesome to foreigners. C&IT