As health scares, mass shootings and natural disasters continue to saturate the headlines, meeting and event planners are being tasked with preparing for a host of issues to keep attendees safe.
Earlier this year, the effects of what could happen in an extreme situation were on full display during an annual conference held in Atlanta by RIMS – The Risk Management Society, which is located in New York, NY.
As RIMS was set to conclude with its final session of the Riskworld conference, an active shooter involved in a fatal shooting incident forced parts of the city to be placed under lockdown. Though the Georgia World Congress Center where Riskworld was being held was more than 2 miles from the incident, some of the conference hotels and shuttle-bus routes were affected.
RIMS CEO Gary LaBranche issued an emergency video statement on the conference website to let attendees know that everyone at Riskworld was safe and that the RIMS official closing party would be canceled. While the organization was trained in crisis management for an active shooter on-site, according to post-incident interviews for the press, the communication efforts to attendees via emails and the meeting’s app during a citywide incident did not get received by all.
Planners may not be able to foresee all meeting safety risks, but having a plan in place is a vital aspect to meeting preparation. Hospitality and Meetings Industry Consultant and Trainer Joan Eisenstodt, who is based in Washington, D.C., helps association planners prepare for the worst.
“Part of that is helping clients consider what to ask in regards to site selection that would then be put into contracts to ensure the safety of people,” Eisenstodt said. “I also write risk management plans for clients.”
She said that most planners have not encountered safety issues at their meetings so the line of thought is nothing bad will happen, but that line of thinking can lead to trouble if issues arise.
“Looking at the issues of a potential active shooter, or even somebody coming in and threatening someone with a gun, which I had years ago, you have to decide what your line of communication will be,” she said. “How will people be notified? What will you do? How will you work with the facility’s security people? How you work with the local police department?”
Ken Wheatley, a former FBI special agent and founder, principal advisor of Royal Security Group LLC, in Fairview, NC, concurs that the conversations need to be early in the process.
“It’s a controversial issue,” Wheatley said. “Are you injecting trauma into a situation that’s not necessary? But you absolutely have to have a conversation about what the emergency evacuation plan is. Is there a crisis management plan in place? That can be a tabletop exercise where everybody including organizers, convention centers or hotel staff get together to talk through that the what ifs.” Other questions could be if it’s an active shooter situation, are there safe rooms available? Or how are they going to handle the notification? If something’s happening in the lobby or out in the reception area, how is that going to be communicated to the attendees? How are we going to respond? Who’s going to respond? It’s that kind of accountability that has to occur.”
Eisenstodt offers planners a table of contents for risk management preparation so they can ask the right questions during the contract phase.
“The tough part is that many planners and many groups don’t think about safety until they’re ready to go on-site,” she said. “The safety check should start when you start with your destination of site selection. It shouldn’t be an afterthought. It’s the evaluation you do at that time when you’re doing the written checklist. Here’s my RFP, and here are the things I need to know. And then if you do a physical site inspection, it’s things to look for, it’s how you look at the city, how you look at the area around the hotel.”
One option is working with a security company such as American-based Allied Universal, which provides integrated security services that include security personnel and technology. The company, which is the third largest employer in the U.S., offers on-site venue security such as perimeter and safety checks and can offer a canine team for firearms detection.
“It could be an event in New York City for 50 senior level executives and customers,” Ty Richmond, president of Allied Universal, based in Houston, TX, said. “We’ll work with the planner to plan out the whole security and lifesaving process. Or it could be a trip into South America, at a resort in Brazil. We would do the same things. There may be circumstances where we provide the security, infrastructure and the resources, the team and we still provide the same continuity and coordination amongst all those parties. In many instances, we are the consulting group and we provide consultation, guidance, direction and resources as needed.”
Allied Universal starts with discussions with the planner, finding out the type of event, the venue, publicity surrounding the event and the circumstances surrounding it.
“There can be varying degrees of risk or publicity, positively or negatively related to some events,” Richmond said. “It could be an issue. If it’s a pharmaceutical company, or a medical company or a political institution, there could be varying degrees of risk depending on the type of event and the companies involved.”
“Foundationally, you need to need to have the discussion first and foremost around the purpose, intent and objective of the event,” he said. “And then, who’s attending and what’s the geography and geographical location?”
“If you’re talking about having a meeting in a public area versus a private area, there’s all kinds of different dynamics,” Richmond said. “In a public convention center, there are some practices and some protocols that are pretty standard, which include the verification and validation of people entering. If it’s a gun show, or a very controversial meeting of people, then you’re going to have to elevate the kind of controls and the processes that you put in place. Organizations that have events that bring people into their environment, I think it’s a duty of care and responsibility to ensure that you have a safe environment.”
Richmond offers an example of a city like San Francisco, which has been in the news for safety issues around its Moscone Center convention space.
“You need to make sure that you are mitigating the fact that they have criminal activity around there,” he said. “You need to have people in positions on the exterior. You need to have an intelligence apparatus so that you know what kind of crime is happening adjacent to the Moscone. You probably need to have armed personnel to be able to respond to a higher level of risk, exposure and conflict because of the environment around the center. If you don’t take a risk-based approach, you’re just winging it and you’re not really talking about all the venue and event dynamics.”
Aside from urban crime issues, meetings and events can be at risk for the presenters and speakers they have lined up. Wheatley, who is a security management expert and a forensic services liability expert, cites as an example the Salman Rushdie speaking engagement in New York last year when he was stabbed onstage.
“It’s not just big-name presenters,” Wheatley said. “You have to do homework about all speakers. He recalls a medical convention with a doctor who was speaking and unbeknownst to the planners, there were allegations against him of assault. The husband of one of the patients showed up at his talk and then got up on the stage and slapped the crap out of him. They could clearly have killed him. So you know that they didn’t do their homework to understand there’s a problematic speaker with legal issues or allegations pending against him that might bring problems to the event.”
Planners also need to check with the venue if they want to hire extra or their own security team. One planner was set on hiring outside security for an event but hadn’t checked with the venue.
“The meeting planner in that instance thought that they could just hire the security team to show up for this event that they’re doing in San Francisco and with no thought that it might be prohibited,” he said. “Plus, I’ve had instances where venues have said, ‘Wait a minute, if you think there’s going to be a problem, we don’t want your event. We don’t want the liability or concessions that have to be made and costs have to be incurred.’ So that’s why it’s important to have those conversations early on with the venue.”
Darryl A. Diamond, CMP, associate director of meetings and events at Talley in Mount Royal, NJ, said that he worked with a group of research scientists at one point that was picketed by an animal rights organization.
“We connected with local police when we started the planning phase,” Diamond said. “We went down to the first walkthrough and site visit and we stayed in contact with them. Throughout the year, we filled them in on the agenda. I think the more aware you are that your meeting has the potential for controversy, having those contacts with local authorities is super important.”
Still, Diamond considers the biggest safety threat health issues, even post-pandemic.
“Even though we’re post pandemic, I still think that we’re always on the lookout for the next thing,” he said. “And if we forget the lessons that we learned during Covid, I feel like we just let a whole lot of knowledge walk right out the door. Even though there are no masks or vaccine checks anymore, we know how to jump into that space if need be.”
Diamond added that one of the issues regarding health to look out for is whether the venue is following all local and federal guidelines.
“We want to make sure that we have it right for insurance and that both parties are insured for any losses,” he said. “And then we do have business and practicability clauses in the contracts wherever possible, and if something should happen and we can’t get more than 40% of our attendees to the conference or have the conference operate, we have it covered.”
From a health and wellness standpoint, Diamond also noted a need to watch out for issues such as foodborne illness.
“Are the sanitary procedures of the venue being followed?” he asked. “We want to make sure that we don’t get to a situation where somebody gets sick because another employee cut a corner somewhere.”
“You’re looking at the environmental conditions, and the timing of the year and what normally occurs in the area,” Richmond said. “If you’re going to have an event in Miami during hurricane season, then you’re going to have a discussion around these issues, or you’re going to be in Dallas Fort Worth during tornado season. What are the protocols we want to have in place in case we have a tornado, and we need to have people go into a secure area?”
Diamond also focuses on watching weather related forecasts.
“Let’s say that you’ve got a meeting citywide or even a multiple hotel meeting and you decided not to use buses because it’s walking distance to the other hotels,” he said. “But all of a sudden, you’ve got weather that’s over 100 degrees and it could be dangerous for people to walk. What will you do? It’s going to be a newly budgeted item, so there’s some financial risks. It’s a matter of setting priorities and asking the right questions. And doing it upfront and thinking about how and where we’re going might impact our budget and what might impact people.”
Eisenstodt is also seeing more need for precautions due to the changing political landscape in the U.S.
“With states instituting their own regulations on topics such as abortion and transgender bathrooms you may want to consider a meeting let’s say of 1,000 people or 10,000 people,” she said. “Within that population, you’re going to have somebody who might be pregnant, or you might have somebody who might be transgender. In the case of the pregnant woman who is talking about getting an abortion, she could be arrested for going into a restroom and being challenged on using that restroom. I don’t know that these are the extremes, I think we just don’t hear about it.”
The key to a safe event is forward thinking. Eisenstodt recalls one instance at a meeting she helped organize where exhibits were not her responsibility, but the person in charge had not checked carefully whether the carpet was laid down correctly.
“Somebody attending the exhibit caught their toe under a corner of carpeting in the exhibit hall and fell on the concrete floor leading to a concussion,” she said. “Would I have anticipated that? No, but do I do now? Of cours, I do. You can do spot checks at least in an exhibit hall, as an example, or check in a meeting room to make sure that the AV company has carefully taped down any of the cords so that there’s nothing that somebody could trip on. You can check to see that tables are stable. You can check with food and beverage and you can look at how it is served, where it’s served and the temperature of the food.”
Diamond also listed forward thinking as a top priority for safety.
“If I’m doing a cruise ship meeting in the Caribbean, and it’s August, I’m in hurricane season,” Diamond said. “So, I have to make sure that I’ve got cancellation insurance. Have I alerted my attendees? If I’m going to Phoenix next week, I better be sending emails out to my attendees to tell them, ‘Hey, it’s going to be hot. Even though we’re going to be inside in the air conditioning, when you go out at night, it’s going to be hot, and if you go out or take a jog in the morning, please consider bringing extra water.’ Do I have to have first aid and EMTs on-site? I think it’s also knowing your event and if your event is outside. Perhaps in this kind of weather, it may be prudent to maybe serve less alcohol and more cold drinks.”
“We should know how to set up a communication tree,” Diamond said. “Who is getting that call when something goes wrong? And who’s contacting everybody? Is there a mass email or mass texting system? Do we collect on-site attendees emergency contact information? And who is talking? Who’s getting up making a statement on behalf of your organization? Is it the president? Is it the executive director? Is it a member of my staff? Knowing that in advance and funneling all the information to that person is really important as well.” | AC&F |