It’s a no-brainer nowadays that for any meeting, effective planning must address security. But in the insurance and financial services sector, the need to protect not only the participants but the information they share often takes matters to a higher level.
“In today’s environment, it’s important to have a key focus on safety and security,” says Michal Brower, a spokesperson for State Farm. “Our meeting planners work with venues to encourage them to openly share their security protocols with us, so that we can prepare an overall security plan that does not interfere with that venue’s internal processes.”
Fortunately, there are select properties practiced at providing security and privacy — if planners know where to look and how to take full advantage of them.
“A major challenge is identifying venues that are off the beaten path but still easily accessible and of the appropriate caliber,” says Sherri K. Lindenberg, senior vice president, marketing communications for Crump Life Insurance Services and FICP board member. In her event planning duties, she has found that it’s best if such facilities offer a full complement of onsite services so attendees don’t need to leave the property but will not end up feeling cooped up for an extended period of time.
Lindenberg recalls a conference where a hotel that was connected to a mass transit station had transient traffic easily walking through the event. Additional security staff were retained to monitor work rooms and meeting rooms, and cameras were staffed to secure technology in all the meeting rooms.
Another event was held in a hotel with a nightclub that brought large crowds and made the destination very popular. However, the setting also brought increased security risks for a variety of criminal activities.
“Extra security personnel were able to address this, along with clear advance communication to company leadership and interaction with the hotel about the experience we wanted for our guests,” Lindenberg says.
Richard Keurajian, vice president of sales and marketing at Virginia’s Kingsmill Resort, says that for any organization needing enhanced security, major challenges include selecting a geographic location that is easily accessible for senior leaders, as well as locating a property within that destination that minimizes their exposure to other organizations, including the public.
Located inside a 2,900-acre gated community in Williamsburg, Kingsmill Resort has a solid track record in hosting secure meetings. The resort is situated on the shores of the James River where the Jamestown settlers first landed. Along with the attractiveness of local history, the resort features a 16,000-sf conference center with soundproof meeting rooms that ensure privacy.
Not only have groups from the financial and insurance sector held successful meetings there, but so have others with a wide range of privacy requirements. In 2012 the resort hosted former President Obama for a three-night stay while he used the resort’s meeting space to prepare for the second of three presidential debates. The Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee also have held meetings at the resort.
For those charged with selecting secure destinations, Keurajian points to the importance of identifying how a given the property offers an exclusive meeting environment and ways in which the property layout lends itself to eliminating public access.
“Properties must also communicate to planners that they have conducted training for their staff regarding guest privacy policies,” he says. “This should include implementation of a celebrity policy should recognizable business or government leaders attend the meeting,” he says. He adds that the property should promote all that can be done to place meetings in rooms that have hard walls for improved soundproofing, and also confirm that no other organizations will be in the same meeting space while they are present.
Barriers to access are an advantage at Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Florida, which has been operating as a private club for nearly 70 years. The club is accessible in just three ways: through the main channel marina, a private airport or a 24-hour manned front gate.
“Destinations that only allow entry to registered or expected guests naturally reduce the number of people wandering around meetings and event spaces,” says Michelle Simpson, Ocean Reef’s executive director of conference sales. “When the meeting planner indicates that a meeting requires the utmost privacy, these types of hotels or resorts can limit access to where the meetings are being held.”
Typically, the name of the meeting will not be publicized, and the doors to the meeting area will be guarded and monitored on a 24-hour basis. Meeting planners routinely meet with the head of security to discuss the group’s privacy or security expectations, and then a plan is set in place for the length of the event.
“There are many variables that will always be out of our control,” Simpson says. “But with experience and planning, we do our best to create the safest environment for meetings and events.”
At Winvian Farm, a gated property in Morris, Connecticut, all employees sign a non-disclosure agreement and are trained to support privacy needs, according to Debbie Lupo, corporate sales manager.
Accommodating smaller groups, it offers a boardroom, which is a standalone building with secure entry, floor to ceiling windows, electric blinds, vaulted post-and-beam ceiling, all of which overlook the gardens.
“All of our corporate meetings are secure and private at all times throughout the property with a complete buyout,” she says. “With our private dining rooms, boardroom, cottages, and 113 acres of land, we insure that even with leisure guests staying with us, it is very unlikely that they will cross paths.”
At the Hilton Chicago, which holds Financial & Insurance Conference Planners (FICP) membership events, meeting attendees benefit from 24-hour high-level security as well as access to 234,000 sf of meeting space. And considering the Hilton Chicago has hosted nearly every U.S. president since the hotel opened in 1927, they’ve got high-level security down to a science. The hotel has more than 1,500 guest rooms, and meeting facilities include rooms ranging from 336 to 39,000 sf.
A number of properties in Columbia, South Carolina, go the extra mile in addressing security needs, according to Sarah Britt, director of sales at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center. The city is home to Colonial Life Insurance, Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina and a division of Aflac, along with several software and technology companies that support these and other insurance companies.
“Venues in the Columbia region are accustomed to hosting their events and providing necessary security,” Britt says.
The convention center’s facilities include more than 535,000 sf of meeting space and a 142,500-sf convention center. Complementing the physical attributes, center staff maintain close contact with law enforcement when top-level security is needed.
For the ultimate in privacy, the range of Pebble Beach Resorts properties in Pebble Beach, California, allows group buyouts.
“We can close off the property to any outside guests so that the group can conduct meetings to discuss highly confidential information or products and know that they are protected,” says Ann McAuliffe, director of sales.
Before setting foot on property at one of the resorts, guests must enter through one of the security gates. Once attendees are onsite, a security team handles privacy requests. For meetings where privacy and security are a top concern, groups are handled with an alias in the resort’s system so that only those who “need to know” are aware of the group’s identity.
“This keeps any line staff from accidentally leaking any information on a group as they are not even aware who the group is,” McAuliffe says. “The property is then closed to the public, and all employees working during the program park offsite and have one access point in and out of the property.”
Laura Hartmann, assistant director of events at the Hilton Orlando, says it’s important for planners to determine who else is in-house during the dates of any meeting and then consider hiring additional security. Her property, which frequently accommodates accounting and tax firms, offers a service where planners can hire additional security through the hotel directly. The property has convention space that is completely separate from the guest room towers to isolate meeting attendees and conference content from other guests.
“Understand that unless you have all of the space within a hotel, it can’t be guaranteed that there will not be other groups in-house during the same time,” Hartmann says. “Take precaution and hire security to check badges, patrol event space and for overnight needs.”
Directly connected to the Orange County Convention Center, the Hilton Orlando offers both indoor and outdoor meeting space. Facilities include three grand ballrooms, nine boardrooms and 42 meeting rooms, with a total of 236,000 sf of meeting and event space. A 1,500-sf meeting planner office and registration area is also available.
Similarly, Karen Shackman of Shackman Associates in New York likes to use evocative venues that are private and “hidden,” but have high-level design elements that inspire collaboration among attendees.
“I am seeing more of them open in downtown Manhattan,” she says. “They provide a townhouse vibe while providing an opportunity to incorporate celebrity chefs for meeting breaks and lunch menus.”
She also suggests considering small theater venues that can be found throughout New York and other major cities if the meeting includes presentations.
“Some of these venues can be found at boutique hotels like the Crosby Street Hotel in Soho and at multiple properties in Brooklyn,” Shackman says. “Overall, smaller venues are the key to holding private meetings and events that are productive, low-profile and memorable.”
Mark Courtney, account director at Westin Mission Hills Golf and Spa Resort in Rancho Mirage, California, says that the ideal location has a building designed just for meeting spaces, separate from the property, that facilitates the flow of the day without distractions and interruptions. That’s the case at Westin Mission Hills, which is able to house meetings in their own private meeting space without walk-through traffic.
“Groups appreciate owning the meeting space or buildings and not having to share this with other groups,” Courtney says. “We feature a stand-alone property in a more secluded area for especially sensitive meetings as well.”
The hotel has in place a security team and emergency procedures for a variety of possible threats, and all hotel staff are rehearsed to respond to incidents.
Courtney recalls a meeting held at his property by Cigna. The company hired security staff to assure its general session did not release any proprietary documents. Attendees were instructed not to remove these documents but rather view them via their internal sources. They also detailed their meeting space usage so it allowed for exclusivity with limited group overlays.
“Most planners who have security concerns are usually looking for meeting space in a smaller, upscale hotel where they can be assured of exclusivity in the space,” says Tracy A. White, CMP, meeting planner, global meeting services for AIG. “For myself, I like to make sure the space is as contained to one area as possible, and it helps if the meeting space is on a floor that no other hotel guests would have reason to go to.”
She adds that obviously this is not always possible, and if there is a situation where she and her team are forced to use a large property with less privacy, they like to make sure the space is as out of the way as possible, or in an area where we they can do their best to create privacy. For high-level meetings, consultations are always held with a security team to ensure that all bases have been covered for safety and security.
White says that for most types of properties that work well for sensitive meetings, staff are accustomed to working with VIP guests, so the property’s expectation that their staff is discreet is key.
“We will always go to a hotel where we have either experienced impeccable service, or if we have not been there, it is recommended with very high service levels,” she says. “We also include confidentiality clauses in contracts.”
According to White, best practices dictate that a site visit be conducted before signing a contract. For meetings and events where security is a priority, this is non-negotiable.
“If there isn’t money in the budget for one, find it,” she says. “Floor plans and brochures can never give the planner a true sense of what privacy and security issues can arise, so it’s better to spend a bit of money to see the property in person than to risk having a bad situation arise onsite.”
Lindenberg advises that the best measures to address for sensitive meetings with property staff start at the contracting stages.
“This includes making sure to exclude other similar organizations and competitors from being in-house at the same time and bringing any potential conflicts or concerns to the company’s attention early on,” she says. Next would be a willingness to work with a company on signage, onsite communications and staffing support to direct guests if signage is limited, which may depend in part on size and nature of the event.
Another step is looking for a variety of onsite venues guests could use that could keep the program interesting while also as discreet or private as needed. Also important is a direct connection to onsite security to address specific security issues, including having regular briefings with the planning team and executives as needed. Ditto for clear communication from the property about likely risks based on past experience and how to mitigate.
“Review the contract to confirm all expected services are going to be available as shown and planned, including hours for F&B establishments, so the group can feel confident that early risers or late-night people will have what’s needed onsite and not be tempted to go out on their own,” Lindenberg says.
She also advises having the ability to permit a company’s own security personnel to work collaboratively in the case of highly sensitive situations. Also needed: confirmation of onsite support for secure meeting rooms with appropriate keys, viewing of access reports, overnight security personnel monitoring meeting rooms and cleaning services, and the ability to view camera footage.
“We encourage folks to work with national account representatives or hotel sales people and to be transparent about the level of confidentiality needed,” Brower says. “A non-disclosure agreement is important, especially when content is highly sensitive.”
Courtney also encourages planning ahead to meet with security to provide the services required or to make arrangements to outsource security when needed. He also recommends obtaining a detailed diagram or map of the entire facility to check that all entrances and exits are secure.
“Having such a diagram makes it easier knowing where to go in case something does arise,” he says.
For optimum security, he advises planners to consider a hotel with limited ability for walk-ins and non-hotel guests. Also desirable are function spaces with no elevator access for extra privacy.
“We also encourage considering a resort with function space isolated from the rest of the hotel,” Courtney says. “Having all of your meeting set in one building makes guests more comfortable and secures privacy, since you don’t have people in that building unless they are a part of the conference.”
Lupo suggests that meeting planners ask to see floor layouts of meeting and boardroom spaces, inquire about private entrances to and from public spaces, and receive a list of private rooms on property.
“Most importantly, send someone to complete a site inspection so they get the full lay of the land to determine whether a space will be secure and private,” she says.
At all stages of planning, good communication with security staff is a must.
“It’s important to have a great working relationship with your security team,” White says. “Once there is a synergy there, you are able to anticipate what they will need or expect, and vice versa.”
Online security is another important consideration, according to Britt.
“Order a private Wi-Fi connection for your event rather than encouraging attendees to use free service the venue offers,” she says. “Free Wi-Fi is less secure, which is why many ports, such as VPN, may not be available through free service.” She notes that a private, high-speed connection, accessible only by user name and password to event attendees, offers much higher levels of cybersecurity. I&FMM