Maybe it’s inevitable. At some point, a large group will be meeting in a ballroom somewhere overseas and there will be a terrorist attack at the hotel, with hundreds or even thousands of casualties.
Or you may be sitting peacefully at home and when your big-screen TV suddenly topples onto your head and bam! You’re a goner.
In fact, the second of those two possibilities is the most likely — by far. TVs kill 55 times more U.S. citizens annually than do Islamic terrorists. You also are more likely to blow yourself up with fireworks than be killed by jihadist bombers. You are 35,079 times more likely to die of heart disease and 33,842 more likely to die from cancer than from a terrorist attack. Your chances also are greater of being killed by lightning, guns and cars.
That’s the statistical context, and all of us in the travel industry should keep it in mind as we consider whether we are safe meeting in Europe these days. But it’s not to suggest that planners shouldn’t develop strategic safety and security measures when meeting overseas, or that they shouldn’t ensure that the international hotels, convention bureaus and DMOs they work with also have solid measures in place.
Terri Woodin, CMP, senior director global meeting services, Meeting Sites Resource, based in Irvine, California, puts it this way: “The attacks in Europe have complicated the work of meeting professionals, from the conveniences that have to be sacrificed and security and safety issues to legal issues, insurance on meetings when something happens and contract clauses that protect both sides. We are in a new environment where precautions are necessary.”
“The attacks in Europe have complicated the work of meeting professionals. …We are in a new environment where precautions are necessary.”
— Terri Woodin, CMP
She says the most important piece of advice she can offer others is to be prepared for what can happen, to have contingency plans for knowing where your attendees are and to have communication plans in place — including if technology is or is not working.
Ellie MacPherson, senior vice president with Strategic Meetings + Incentives, based in Toronto, concludes that working methodically in advance to minimize risk and maximize safety and security in a destination is crucial. “Take a structured approach to risk management in advance,” she says. “Identify the risks, assess the impact on events, determine the potential consequences of the risks, establish methods to reduce risks and create an emergency response plan of action.”
While noting that it’s not possible to mitigate all risk, MacPherson says that with proper planning it can be managed.
“Pre-assessment of the destination and all facilities is a must,” she says. “Conduct a ‘risk register’ and create an emergency response plan including clear definitions of responsibilities both abroad and at your home office in the event of an emergency. Depending on the destination, it may be prudent to enlist professional risk management and security professionals as well as corporate security of the company hosting the program.”
In addition to putting procedures in place well ahead of an event, MacPherson notes that security awareness and risk management must continue on arrival overseas. “In the destination, plans should be in place for medical emergencies, weather and natural disasters, government and labor unrest and disruption of transportation,” she says.
Planners also should inspect important physical aspects of each location. “Be aware of proximity to main railway stations, the nearest metro stop, embassies or any area or aspect that may be perceived as a target,” MacPherson says. “Know the exact location of the nearest hospital and trauma center. And know where your country’s embassy is located as well as the embassies of any group members traveling on other foreign passports.”
Having a solid understanding of the safety and security measures of partners and vendors overseas also is critical. “A complete review of all safety and security practices should take place with the head of hotel security during the pre-con,” MacPherson says. “Review of measures for fire and medical emergencies, and assessing if the grounds and premises are patrolled by security 24/7” also are important.
The good news is that European destinations and organizations typically already have solid measures in place, and have for a long time.
Hugo Slimbrouck, director of strategic partnerships, Ovation Global DMC, MCI Group, has a unique perspective on terrorism. He’s based in Brussels, where coordinated terrorist attacks in March left 32 victims dead and hundreds injured. Yet he sees no reason for groups to avoid Belgium, or the rest of Europe for that matter.
“In our company, MCI, and our DMC brand, Ovation, we have been using state-of-the-art standards on health and safety for many years already. The recent events have proved again that we are right in doing so.”
Related specifically to the 2016 attacks in his city, Slimbrouck notes, “Authorities reacted very well with clear communication and up-to-date travel information to the industry, which we shared with clients. The CVB issued updates on a regular basis related to the travel situation and issued FAQ documents to help everyone in the industry cope with questions from clients and guests, especially those who were trapped in the city due to travel restrictions and the airport being closed for two weeks.”
He also points out that while Brussels has been at peace since World War II, other countries, including Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom, have dealt with severe threats for more than 20 years. “These countries have kept on being top-ranking destinations for visitors and tourists,” he notes.
“The chance that this is going to happen again is extremely small when you compare it to people being killed by firearms in any U.S. city. In the U.S., you may want to stay away from certain high-crime neighborhoods. The same applies all over the world. Europe is still a very peaceful destination as a whole.”
Slimbrouck believes strongly that the key to good security lies in excellent communication, working with local authorities and continued vigilance — not moving groups from areas where attacks have occurred. “There is no reason to move an incentive group out of one city and bring it to another. People just need to stay vigilant and keep their eyes open. That’s what we do who live here.”
For MCI and Ovation, vigilance includes a thorough assessment of each destination for risk. MCI relies on professional evaluation from Global Warning System, a security service that provides detailed, real-time data for a city in terms of geopolitical and criminal factors, terrorism and natural disasters. MCI also has developed its own proprietary Event Safety and Sustainability Tool (ESST), mandatory for every event.
The ESST protocol requires that Ovation team members be familiar with security and safety measures in place at hotels and other venues they use. With ESST, an event team produces a report based on 10 comprehensive criteria, from food safety to venue security to issues related to transport. Following evaluation, each event is given a “risk” level from one (negligible) to six (critical), with responses in place to make changes or to cancel a program as required. If situations change during an event due to geopolitical turmoil, the assessment is continually revised in real time, and the company’s global health and safety director works with the team to minimize risk factors.
While safety measures were already in place in Brussels in March, Slimbrouck says the attacks provided an opportunity to evaluate and update them, something Visit Brussels also has done. In a release titled “Why you should keep organizing your events in Brussels,” the convention bureau noted that controls at airports and public transportation stations have been increased, as have military and police presence on the streets, making Brussels extremely safe yet without impacting “the quality of stay” for foreign visitors.
The Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) also has a risk assessment tool. The GBTA Foundation, focused on education and research, announced in April the launch of its new Travel Risk Management Maturity Model (TRM3) Self Assessment Tool, created in partnership with iJet International.
“The single biggest issue for our members right now is duty of care,” noted Michael W. McCormick, GBTA executive director and COO, in the launch announcement. “A recent lightning poll survey of our global members following the terror attacks in Brussels showed 20 percent of organizations do not have a risk management plan in place and an additional 8 percent are unsure if they have a plan. Clearly there is work that still needs to be done. The new TRM3 tool is designed to help companies evaluate their risk management program and identify opportunities for improvement.”
This self-assessment tool, available to GBTA members, looks at nine categories: policies and procedures, education and training, risk assessment, risk disclosure, risk monitoring, response and recovery, notification, data management and program communication. Based on the answers supplied, it rates a program from Level 1, defined as reactive, up to Level 5, defined as optimized and indicating that the travel risk program is integrated throughout the organization.
While MCI has developed its own proprietary risk management tools, not every organization needs to do that. Host Global Alliance, a worldwide consortium of destination management companies, now offers a standardized Emergency Preparedness Plan for all of its DMC members.
“Emergency preparedness is a serious concern in the present event marketplace, and our job as an alliance is to ensure that our clients and DMCs are having the necessary conversations while planning their programs,” said Marty MacKay, DMCP, president of HGA, in a press release about the plan. “While typically those conversations pertain to décor, tours and event management, they also need to include a preset plan in the event of an emergency. All too often emergencies are not thought of until they happen. As DMCs, an important value we provide our clients is risk avoidance or mitigation, and HGA has taken the lead to ensure that our portfolio of DMCs have a comprehensive plan in the event of an emergency.”
HGA worked for months developing templates related to preparedness. Its strategic initiative creates common language, processes and communications that allow for effective leadership in the event of an emergency. The globally standardized plan includes details on the procedures to follow in the event of a crisis, emergency or incident during a program. Additionally, it outlines how to safeguard against and handle cyber security issues that may arise.
In London, which historically has had its share of terrorist incidents yet remains a generally safe European destination, Spectra, a local DMC represented by Minneapolis-based World Marketing Group, has added heightened security protocols to its already comprehensive basic security plan. At the top of the list: mandating that all attendees wear their badges or other ID at functions and on buses or be denied access. It seems so obvious, but sometimes it’s the basics fallen by the wayside that leave groups vulnerable.
Spectra also requests the full names, passport numbers and home addresses of participants, as well as a contact number and email address of a friend or relative back home who can be contacted in an emergency. All travel staff and guides are asked to keep their mobile phones on at all times, and bus drivers remain in the vehicle at all times with the doors closed prior to loading and while guests are not in the vehicle. Spectra keeps a dedicated mobile phone available and on so attendees can contact someone from the staff at all times. And if any attendees decide to not attend a function or activity, they are asked to tell the Spectra staff where, exactly, they plan to be.
It’s easy to see that all of the experts who offer guidance on security planning and risk management come together on one critical point: communication. It’s imperative. That includes communication between event organizers and hotel security, local authorities and attendees. It includes communication between staff at an overseas event and those in the home office. It includes access for organizers to devices available to keep communication flowing at a conference even in the event of a natural disaster or terrorist act. Perhaps most important, it includes honest, direct communication about the fears and challenges terrorism and other safety and security emergencies present to the meetings industry. If challenges aren’t acknowledged, how can they be overcome?
Soon after the Brussels attacks, David McMillin wrote an eloquent article on pcma.org titled “Confronting the Realities of Travel in the Terrorism Era.” “Mali, Paris, Tunisia, The Ivory Coast, Boston, Istanbul, Brussels — the list of beautiful places around the world marred by horrific violence seems to grow longer each week ….It’s time for us to start having a real dialogue about what the state of international security means for our organizations and our attendees.
“I’m not writing this to play into the fear game. I don’t plan on changing my personal approach to exploring the world because of risks that I can’t control or ideologies that I can’t understand. But there are people who will adjust their travel plans, and there are people who will watch the news and think they need to stay home. As business event professionals, hoteliers, convention centers and destinations, we should be transparent and straightforward in our communications with them. Let them know that safety is the number-one concern. Acknowledge that risks do exist. Make sure they know that your organization is taking every step possible to keep them safe so they can continue to feel the benefits of being a traveler.”
Slimbrouck also sees communication as critical related to travel and meetings in Europe as a whole and especially in Brussels, a city he loves and that remains incredibly safe in spite of the March events.
“The overall message is that the city is safe, and the meetings industry at large employs a lot of people who are passionate about their jobs and whose professional activities are part of not only the wealth of the country and Europe but also part of their happiness. If we stop doing business in Brussels, we will lose jobs and passionate people and then terror and unfairness will have won.”
Amen to that. C&IT