No issue is more important to association conventions and trade shows than the safety and security of staff and attendees. Yet, experts say, too many associations are woefully underprepared for catastrophic incidents such as a terrorist attack, violent protest, natural disaster or medical emergency.
Fortunately, they say, the current trend is toward greater awareness and a more serious appreciation of the risks. But there is still a lot of work to be done.
“There are countries in the world that have practiced trade show safety and security diligently and successfully over the years,” says Carol Cambridge, founder and president of Glendale, Arizona-based The Stay Safe Project, which provides safety-and-security consulting services and training to associations. “But in North America, this is really a relatively new topic of discussion, except for weather-related issues. But serious discussion of the broader issues related to event safety and security has really only been going on over the last several years. And that’s because in recent years, the fear of violence at events has really taken over as the significant issue in the discussion.”
The event that most accelerated concerns and led to action was the Las Vegas mass shooting at Mandalay Bay last October during a country music festival. “That was a huge factor in terms of awareness and concern,” Cambridge says.
“Expect the unexpected when you’re planning an event. Hopefully, things are going to go smoothly. But you can never count on that. You have to be prepared.”
Founder And President
The Stay Safe Project
In today’s world, Cambridge counsels planners to “expect the unexpected when you’re planning an event. Hopefully, things are going to go smoothly. But you can never count on that. You have to be prepared. And a big part of that is taking steps to reduce your risk. And today, the risks include terrorism, active shooters, political activism, protests, labor union issues and reactions from religious groups. So the potential for violence at events is much greater than in the past. And that is the first thing association meeting planners must understand.”
Unfortunately, she notes, the typical association CEO or meeting planner is not aware of the extent of the risks his or her organization faces at its major events. “Association CEOs and meeting planners are typically most focused on how to provide the best possible event for their attendees,” she says. “So they focus on things like the best hotel, the best food, the best speakers.”
In other words, they focus on the meeting going well. They often don’t focus enough attention on what will happen if something goes wrong. “So when I talk to associations,” Cambridge says, “the very first thing I talk to them about is how to be proactive in terms of avoiding disruption or violence.”
To her surprise, she says, she often discovers that associations “have given no consideration to this topic whatsoever. They think, ‘Nothing bad could ever happen to us. We’ve never had a problem at our annual convention.’ The other thing I see is the opposite of that. They have put so much stuff into place that you think their trade show is like Fort Knox. And in that example, there is a fear and they are responding to that fear, rather than analyzing their situation and preparing properly.”
A fundamental shortcoming that Cambridge observes at many associations she talks to is their failure to understand that a professional risk assessment is the single most important factor in creating a security plan for a convention or trade show. “That is just one of the things they often do not think enough about,” she says. Too often, she notes, associations either do not realize the need for such a fundamental undertaking, or they lack the resources to do it properly. “The most common problem is simply that they do not recognize the need to do it,” she says. “And even if they do, they are typically in a situation where the people they have making those decisions do not have the expertise to make those decisions.”
Matthew Bradley, regional security director of the Americas for security consultants International SOS in Trevose, Pennsylvania, agrees with Cambridge that the most important and fundamental consideration in event security is a threat assessment. “And that assessment is related to both the venue where they will be and also to what type of association they are and what type of event they are going to hold,” says Bradley, who worked at the CIA for 14 years before moving to the private sector.
Given the critical importance of a competent risk/threat assessment, Cambridge often begins her relationships with association clients by advising them on the basic tools and capabilities they need in order to create one. “And once they understand that,” she says, “they often realize they do not have the capabilities in-house to do it and that they have to go outside to an expert to handle the safety and security functions.”
Cambridge does not offer such support services. When asked by clients for a referral, she recommends Tullis Worldwide Protection.
After a risk/threat assessment is performed, a typical event plan starts with physical security, Bradley says. “For example, today we talk about ‘rings of security’ around a venue,” he says. “You start with an outer ring, and then you harden security
as you reach the inner rings that are closer to the actual event. And the first line of defense is physical security guards. Depending on the extent of the threat, you might also use physical barriers to separate people or to place and control them in particular positions. And then you also use technology to provide surveillance of the venue and the event itself via a capability like closed circuit television. And surveillance cameras are becoming more sophisticated and ‘smarter’ in terms of what they can see and hear. Then you also need the ability to do things like identify suspicious packages or guns.”
Another security technique that is becoming more common today, Bradley says, is social media monitoring. “In the case of a convention center or other venue, what you’re doing is looking at the extent to which your venue is being talked about in social media and what is being said,” Bradley says. “And you’re looking for information such as negative commentary that could indicate a threat to the venue. You also want to determine whether social media activity is increasing around your event and what is being said. That is one of the most effective ways to know if something is going on around your venue or your event that should be of concern. For example, you can see if something is being organized, such as a protest related to your venue or your event. And knowing what might be going on also helps you to build the capability for a response.”
For major conventions and trade shows, associations often augment the security services provided by the convention center. And in a booming marketplace with many options, Cambridge stresses that you get what you pay for. Case in point, a major national or international security consulting firm has access to resources that a smaller enterprise does not, such as high-level sources in law enforcement and the intelligence community. Those kinds of capabilities are increasingly important for major events, Cambridge says, especially when they are being held in a foreign destination.
The same value proposition caution applies to physical security guards. “If you’re going to hire security guards for your event, today you can get people for $15 an hour or you can get people for $75 an hour,” Cambridge says. “A lot of association planners say, ‘What’s the difference?’ Well, there is a huge difference. But a lot of times, associations are making decisions just based on those relative kinds of costs. But if something goes wrong, I can guarantee you that the $75 an hour professional is going to do a better job than the $15 an hour alternative.”
Although threats such as a violent protest or an active shooter are ever-present at events these days, a much more likely crisis scenario is one that originates with a natural disaster, such as a hurricane or earthquake, or a serious medical emergency.
“In considering the risk of those situations, the first thing you have to do as a planner is understand how well prepared your convention center is,” says Bob Mellinger, president of Apache Junction, Arizona-based Attainium Corporation, which provides business continuity and disaster recovery consulting services to associations including ASAE. “And to do that, you ask a lot of questions. For example, if you’re doing a convention in Florida, you ask the venue, ‘What are your hurricane plans? What’s your evacuation protocol? Who’s in charge? Who do I call if something happens? And who gets to make the decision whether we evacuate or shelter in place?’”
Yet another key issue that should be of ongoing concern to all association planners is understanding the capabilities of the venue in a medical emergency, Cambridge says. “Do they have a trained medical staff onsite? Are staff members trained in CPR? What is the facility’s protocol for contacting paramedics? Where is the closest hospital?”
Bradley agrees with Cambridge that too many convention centers are not thoroughly prepared for medical incidents such as a heart attack or stroke. “Most do not have a very robust medical facility onsite,” he says. “And it is often not clear that they have a solid plan for what to do in the event of a medical emergency. So it’s important that meeting planners understand that.”
Mellinger stresses that, again, proper consideration of the possibilities is a matter of addressing key questions. “For example, what happens if somebody has a heart attack at
your convention?” he says. “Do you get on your cellphone and call 911, or do you call the security desk? Well, most people say call 911. The problem is you don’t know how to tell first responders exactly where you are and how to find you. The security desk knows how to get them in the door closest to you and get them to you on the exhibit floor or in a meeting room way faster than you can.”
Bradley routinely talks to his association clients about the importance of creating a formal medical emergency response plan for their venues. “And that plan includes the convention center and your hotel or hotels,” he says. “And for a major event that attracts many thousands of attendees, we might recommend setting up an onsite medical clinic at the venue to be able to make sure their people will be taken care of.”
Perhaps the most surprising, if not shocking, aspect of the issue of event safety and security is that relatively few associations are fully prepared for any eventuality, the experts agree.
“When I speak to association meeting planners,” Mellinger says, “I always ask, ‘How many of you have a good, solid event communications and response plan for everything from your reasonably good-sized meetings on up?’ And I still don’t get as many hands as I’d like to see, but I do get more than I got two years ago. So the trend is heading in the right direction. The thing that’s different now, I think, is that just about everybody in the room understands how important it is to have such a plan. What I’m not convinced of is that they’re all taking the time to create one. And when I go back and talk to someone six months later, I still don’t see as much planning being done as I’d like to see. And the thing that people really need to prepare for, and I don’t generally see them preparing for, is what they need to do before they get onsite so they’ll be fully prepared once they are onsite. That’s really the area where there needs to be a lot of improvement.”
Based on her experience, Cambridge agrees that a relatively large percentage of association meeting planners are not fully prepared for any kind of safety or security issue that could arise at their events. The good news, she says, is that growing concern about emergencies has prompted more planners to question their preparedness for a catastrophic occurrence. “Until very recently, a lot of planners were not certain of who was responsible for what,” Cambridge says. “Now, they’ve begun asking, ‘What role do I play? What am I supposed to do?’”
Mellinger offers a simple answer to those kinds of basic questions. “What you need to know, if you’re running the meeting,” he says, “is who is the point person for life, safety and security issues at your venue? Then you tell your staff, ‘If anything happens related to life, safety or security, call whoever the right person is at a phone number you can provide them.”
Given the gravity of the issues of safety and security at association conventions and trade shows, ASAE has stepped up and met the challenge head-on. As of June 1, ASAE was making its new “Crisis Response and Event Emergency Plan” available to members and creating educational initiatives to support its use.
Mellinger helped develop the plan and said its rollout is very important to the convention industry.
“What I spend time doing in talking to associations with regard to these issues is just having them understand what the right words are, what the nomenclature is, so that everybody is talking about the same thing in the same language,” Mellinger says. “For example, are you doing a crisis response plan, a communications plan or a business continuity plan? All of those can be contained in a single document, but you have to know exactly what it is that you’re planning for.”
The new ASAE master plan template, Mellinger says, will help associations do a better job of more clearly addressing often complex issues.
“ASAE did a good job in developing the plan,” he says. “A lot of associations had meeting and event response plans, but I think the ASAE group really got together and addressed how they could make it a little easier and more comprehensive, rather than all these associations just doing it on their own.”
Such an industry standard for effective planning is an imperative and timely step.
“The most important thing when it comes to safety and security is preparation,” Bradley says. “Risk management is critical to the success of any event. And you have to plan for the right things. And the more you prepare for something, the less likely it is to happen. So the more you prepare, the better off you will be. And that’s especially true if something actually does happen, because it will have less of an impact on you and your attendees. Because of that, preparation is something that should be taken very seriously.”
Cambridge offers an even more succinct observation. “For every major event, do a proper risk assessment,” she says, “because the most important advice I can provide is to expect the unexpected.” AC&F