The world is a volatile and uncertain place. It’s more dangerous in ways unimaginable even 25 years ago, and those dangers exist everywhere — like COVID-19 — including at meetings.
These are the facts with which we live, yet that doesn’t mean we can’t do something about them to protect ourselves, our communities, our private information and the places where we gather. But, we have to make that a priority. “We have very short memories in the meetings industry,” says Tyra Warner, Ph.D., J.D., CMP, department chair of the hospitality, tourism & culinary arts department at the College of Coastal Georgia. “Safety and security as a priority waxes and wanes as crises, disasters and emergencies occur, hit the news cycle and fade from memory. Each occurrence sparks a resurgence of intention to plan and be prepared among planners, only to fade out as life returns to normal — until the next time. It’s quite disheartening for those of us who have spent a good chunk of our professional lives trying to encourage the meetings industry to make emergency preparedness a routine part of how they do business.”
Warner thinks planners must change their mindset. “Don’t think of planning for safety and security as another thing you have to do. It should simply be integrated into every step of what you’re already doing from RFP to event design, to pre-con to show management,” she says.
Ask the Right Questions
Preparedness begins with questions planners should ask of venues before signing contracts. Among them, notes Warner, are the following:
• How many security/loss-prevention personnel are onsite during each shift and what is their role? What is their training/authority level?
• What safety equipment is onsite, such as AEDs, stock epinephrine, first-aid kits, sprinkler systems, fire extinguishers, etc.
• Where are they and who’s authorized to use/administer these?
• Have hotels had any incidents of violent crime inside or on hotel property within the last “X” time frame?
• If a room can be re-keyed for a meeting office, who else will have access to that room, e.g. housekeeping or others with a master key?
Warner says most meeting facilities have security personnel and planners should use them. “Planners should incorporate them into their planning by including them and their services in RFPs, pre-cons, etc. Facility security is there for routine risks faced by hotel guests — slip and fall, health issue, loss of wallet/purse, etc. Anything beyond that requires additional measures.”
She adds, “Planners should assess the risks associated with the meeting and bring in security experts when needed. Best-case scenario: Upfront work by the security experts will ensure nothing bad happens onsite and it will seem like they weren’t needed at all — well worth it.”
Nancy Nachman, CMP, CMM, founder and chief connecting officer of The Meetings Concierge in Scottsdale, Arizona, agrees that groups don’t always make safety and security a high priority. “But, they should,” she says. “As an independent meeting planner, I’m a natural-born worrier. It’s my job to worry about the ‘what ifs’ my clients can and have faced when unexpected trouble arises,” Nachman says. “It’s a tough subject to address, like the elephant in the room. However, being prepared takes it down from an elephant to a little tiny mouse.”
Like Warner, she says it begins with communication and planners determining what safety/security measures venues have in place, what their emergency plans are, whether there’s an emergency doctor on call and requesting the name and address of the nearest full-service hospital. Unfortunately, Nachman says, “Don’t be surprised if venues and hotels don’t have proper emergency plans, especially outside of the United States — all the more reason for planners to arrive at a conference prepared.”
Both Warner and Nachman say planners have to communicate effectively before and during meetings with attendees as well as venue/hotel staff. “Planners should send attendees information about safety and security measures to take prior to the meeting,” Warner advises. For example, for international meetings, planners should tell attendees to make copies of their passport, leaving one at home and the other in their suitcase. They should encourage attendees to register with the U.S. State Department’s STEP program, a free service allowing U.S. citizens to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.
Warner adds that planners should also notify meeting organizers and venue staff about ADA-related special needs, such as how the hotel identifies where special-needs attendees are and how evacuation is handled for them, especially those in wheelchairs, who may need assistance evacuating and special transportation.
Nachman suggests planners have a designated place to meet inside and outside of hotels and the convention center, and to send that information to attendees prior to arrival. “Once onsite,” she says, “always point out exit doors and hand out emergency preparedness information again.”
There are many opportunities to reinforce safety/security information during a meeting. “At each session, make a safety announcement about emergency exits. Don’t just point them out; also know and announce what will happen.” Warner says. “For example, ‘In the unlikely case of an emergency, an alarm will sound. Please stay seated until we’re informed by the public address system which we can hear in this meeting room what we are to do. If we are to evacuate, please note the exit nearest to you and look for volunteers in yellow safety vests to direct you out.’”
Warner also suggests planners type out safety instructions on brightly colored slips of paper to put in the middle of conference tables. “At some point during any meeting, people get bored and are going to read anything that’s on the table. This is better than putting the information in registration booklets, which attendees never seem to read.”
And, Warner says, “Make sure all staff — hotel, venue, meeting organizers — are well briefed on safety and security issues. Give them Safety First or similar buttons so attendees know who can help in an emergency. In the pre-con, ask front-office managers to have front desk and bell staff assist in getting attendees to take off name badges before leaving the hotel and walking down public streets.”
It’s obviously important to give attendees and clients solid safety and security information but, Nachman notes, it’s not just about the nuts and bolts of a plan. “By giving guests emergency preparedness information, your organization demonstrates you value your attendees and their well-being.”
Brad Langley, CITE, vice president of Channel and Partner Management with Aventri Inc., an event management technology company in Norwalk, Connecticut, doesn’t think people are jaded after all the reports of attacks and mass shootings. “Quite the contrary. Increased media coverage of incidents at events has increased the requirements placed on professional event organizers. It’s now considered imperative to take these requirements into account as part of ‘mainstream event planning.’ The heightened awareness has actually resulted in improved preparation and action plans around event planning. We’ve also seen more professional security resources being involved in high-profile events for the protection of all attendees and staff.”
Not surprisingly, Langley also has a long list of questions planners should ask companies, clients and meeting venues.
“Ask to review the most recent security protocols for handling different scenarios that may surface, such as weather emergencies, labor strikes, pandemics and acts of terrorism. If the company can’t produce a current document, consider conducting your own security audit of the venue. Any site inspection of a hotel or convention center should include a section around security preparedness and protocols.”
The fact is, Langley continues, “Any time you gather a large group of people together in one venue, there are increased risks posed by someone/something inside or outside the group. This places a higher burden on meeting planners to qualify attendees. They must also work to ensure that participants understand the code of conduct and suppliers take appropriate pre-event precautions to keep attendees safe.” He says event professionals have always had to take natural emergencies into account, including earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes. “Nowadays, their list of safeguards has tripled to include everything from active shooters to protesters at the event.”
And cybersecurity is increasingly important — and increasingly vulnerable. “Safety and security extend beyond the actual onsite event dates and location,” Langley says. “Planners must take measures to protect attendee data and privacy. Insurance and financial planners, in particular, must take cyber threats seriously, given the sensitive nature of the information they deal with and the high-profile nature of many of their events.”
Although hotels are improving in this area, Langley says, “Planners need to do their research on how the hotel(s) keep attendee data secure. It’s also a good idea to put clauses into the contract covering damages associated with any breach. Be sure to address data security upfront.”
Among the issues, Langley notes, is that, “Planners must carefully evaluate how event data is encrypted and stored along with who has access to that data before, during and after the event. This has become more important than ever with recently enacted legislation, such as the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). These laws cover contractual obligations between people who have access to data throughout the business flow.”
Turn to the Experts
In spite of all planners do to manage risk, sometimes the best plan is to hire a security expert. “The need to bring in security experts varies by event,” Langley says. “The degree of security protocols around a board of directors meeting differs from those pertaining to an all-employee gathering. Guidelines also vary from a regional, one-day operations meeting to a global, three-day conference that sparked controversy in the past.” He advises planners to pay close attention to a company’s security awareness. “Are they savvy about security? Do they have protocols in place? Do they need to take precautions against protestors at the event? Is the location outside the country? Have there been perceived or real threats there in the days or months leading up to the event?”
This, Langley says, is where external security experts can play a vital role. “They often have access to valuable resources not available to the general public. Security subscription services, such as WorldAware, for example, employ security experts, provide assessment ratings and offer onsite destination-specific safeguards. The question of employing external security experts should be evaluated on a graduated scale based on event type and optics, client security culture, location and political climate surrounding the event.”
Suzanne Sangiovese, commercial and commmunications director at Riskline, a travel risk intelligence company, also weighs in on risk management and points to the top five safety/security issues planners and attendees might likely face.
1. Natural disasters, including major weather systems such as hurricanes, floods, snowstorms, earthquakes and wildfires.
2. Health risks such as outbreaks of illnesses or infectious diseases, such as COVID-19.
3. Opportunistic crime and/or mass forms of theft/scamming.
4. Border/immigration issues including improper visas or documentation.
5. Technology risks from downtime of IT services to cyberattacks, malware, hackers and security vulnerabilities.
Echoing other experts, she emphasizes preparation and education to mitigate possible risks. Among the risks, of course, are those related to increased use of technology, which Sangiovese notes comes with its own set of issues, both positive and negative. “Public security is a growing concern and reality. There’s surveillance technology and numerous tracking apps on the market. These are valuable in order to increase security and promote safety. At the same time, however, they can be exploited by criminals.”
That underscores the need for planners to thoroughly vet vendors, venues and their own company and clients’ cybersafety measures, as well as the need to include language in contracts for protections in case of data breaches. Venues and destinations pose other types of risk as well. “Conventions and conferences don’t happen in a bubble. Meeting planners would be wise to ‘think outside the box’ when it comes to risk and not just consider the inside or perimeter of the building itself,” Sangiovese says. “Items that can help with this are country and city risk assessment reports and maps, predeparture briefings, as well as mass-notification or alert-messaging systems that keep planners and attendees updated on what’s happening around them. Creating mitigation measures is also fundamental so you can reduce the probability of an incident or reduce the impact of it if it occurs.”
Security and risk-management experts can be one solution. “Experts can assess and provide the right information and planning to meeting organizers as they come with years and/or decades of experience. They’re equipped to understand and identify the likely threats that face a convention and, therefore, can best evaluate and assess the threats, and rate the risk associated with them,” Sangiovese says.
While Sangiovese thinks a case can be made that society has become numb to incidents such as terrorist attacks and natural disasters, she doesn’t think that’s why companies aren’t better prepared. “I believe the reason many people have not made safety, security and risk management the priority it should be is a bit more nuanced,” she says. “Many organizations may prepare for the inevitable in theory but rarely in practice. They may be aware of what could be a security or safety risk; however, perhaps due to lack of planning or resources, when the inevitable does happen there’s nothing in place to manage the risk.”
Part of the problem may be the pervasive idea many of us have that “It could never happen here,” she says. But that’s not the whole story. “While many risk management policies have concentrated on big-ticket items, such as terrorism and mass shootings, people are more likely to be affected by smaller security concerns. An individual is more likely to have something happen during the drive to and from a venue than fall victim to a terrorist attack,” Sangiovese says.
As for those more typical safety issues, such as weather and natural disasters, Sangiovese advises a contingency plan created well in advance, with “triggers” predetermined so decisions are not made mid-crisis. “Typically, such a plan would be based on triggers — certain factors that determine when a contingency plan should be activated. These need to be agreed upon before the situation or crisis actually occurs, rather than in the heat of the moment. A planner’s perception of risk during an actual crisis,” Sangiovese notes, “could affect the decision-making process.”
Planners, like everyone else, are probably looking at an uptick in such events due to climate change. “Climate change is a hot-button topic right now and we need to start thinking of extreme weather or climate events — super typhoons, hurricanes, drought and polar vortexes — as real security risks. These serious weather phenomena, and the secondary impacts they have, especially on travel, are expected to become more frequent in the years to come,” she says.
Langley also encourages planners to have a plan ready to deploy in the event of an emergency. “A key element here is the crisis-communications plan to provide up-to-the-minute information. All event participants need to be prepared if there’s any advance indication of a threat. Fortunately,” he adds, “Attendees’ receptiveness to this type of communications has significantly improved over the past few years as their awareness of potential risks has grown.”
That said, Langley reiterates that professional advice has a place in the process, too. “It’s important to use your best judgment as a planner and also to seek professional advice. For example, ask if the venue has reliable weather-tracking radar versus using localized weather apps. What’s more, don’t simply take precautions for lightning or flooding; ‘straight-line winds’ can also do extensive damage to an event and attendees.”
Langley says,“Safety and security are among the most important aspects of being a professional planner today. Companies and clients expect that you’ve evaluated the situation and taken the necessary precautions to mitigate risks associated with gathering their team or clients.”
Sangiovese puts the protocol in direct terms. “Understand and identify what the threats are, assess the threats and then rate the risk.”
Doing so should help meeting organizers create the blueprint for exactly the right emergency and security plan.
Five Steps to Safety & Security Preparedness
Brad Langley, CITE, vice president of Channel and Partner Management, with Aventri Inc., offers these five steps for planners before and during an event:
• Explain to attendees and stakeholders that you’ve incorporated security precautions into your event planning and provide examples, such as conducting a security analysis of the destination, arranging for a security team to accompany the group, soliciting a professional security advisor’s input throughout the planning process and actively monitoring weather during the event.
• Reiterate that all the possible planning can’t replace trusting your intuition and applying common sense if something unexpected occurs. Attendees need to recognize the important role they play in overall event security.
• Remind attendees to accept push notifications for the event mobile app and provide their cell phone numbers during registration so organizers can communicate with them instantly if needed.
• Give attendees contact numbers for all available resources in case of an emergency. Put these numbers in the mobile event app and on the back of badges.
• Finally, let attendees know that event security depends on everyone. Remind them “If you see something, say something” to event staff. | I&FMM |