Two months ago, a planner overly concerned with security issues might be branded as paranoid. As of September 11, anyone not focused on those issues risks accusations of negligence. “Our safe cocoon has been broken,” says Patti Roscoe, chairman of PRA Destination Management, headquartered in San Diego. “Now we have to look at everything we do from a security standpoint.”

While the war on terrorism is causing event planners to re-evaluate meeting security, it is important to keep in mind that, realistically, most meetings are not terrorist targets. “Let's keep this in perspective,” says Rick Werth, president of Event & Meeting Security Services, Franklin, Tenn. “The risk of anyone being exposed to a terrorist attack is low. The reality is that we are still probably far more concerned with the threat to proprietary information being stolen, a hostile employee, or a theft that would impact the business.”

That said, Werth recommends that planners conduct a risk assessment before every event, and put it in writing. “You have a moral and legal responsibility to identify the risk. You are going to be held responsible if there is a safety or risk issue,” he says. Werth was joined at a seminar on the effects of 9/11 on the meetings industry at the Motivation Show in Chicago on October 10 by Jonathan Howe, Esq., president/senior partner of Howe & Hutton Ltd, Chicago. “Don't tell me what you think, tell me what you know,” Howe recommends, in reference to written documentation about risk assessment. “I can't blame you for bad news, but I can blame you for not telling me.”

Another panelist, Carol Krugman, CMP, CMM, president/CEO of Krugman Group International Inc., an independent planning company specializing in international programs, has been conducting independent risk assessments for her meetings for years. “Still, I can do all the due diligence and none of us can identify a random act of terrorism.”

Above all, the panelists recommend, communicate as often as possible with your client about your risk assessment and research every step of the way.

Steps to Take

Werth, Krugman, and Howe advise you to meet with chief security personnel at your venue. Find out about the plans in place for rescue, emergency, and medical teams, and make those local resources, including hospitals, known to every attendee.

“Your research into crisis handling then becomes a contingency plan,” says Krugman. “You must have a leader for the plan, and it must be a team effort. And you can't carry out an effective crisis plan if you haven't practiced it beforehand.”

Adds Werth, “It is clear that companies in the World Trade Center with building and employee emergency plans fared better than those without.” When hired as a security consultant for an event, Werth complete an 18-page checklist. “It's not a cookie-cutter approach,” he says. “Every client and venue is different.”

Allaying Fears

If you've assessed all the potential risks for an event and there is a good business reason to hold it, move forward cautiously and alertly, advises Werth.

“Right now, everybody is concerned,” says Gary Moses, an event security consultant in Los Angeles. “What you want to do is present a picture that proper steps are being taken for the safety of anyone attending.”

Creating that aura of safety takes a variety of efforts. Many organizations are offering employees the option to drive or take a bus or train to meetings. Others are stepping up security by issuing identification that can't be easily copied: badges laminated with the group's logo or that include a photo ID, for example. Werth says that paying more for security personnel and demanding competency is a must in this new environment.

Booking travelers from one organization onto multiple flights is another popular security measure, although it is nothing new. “I have always tried to limit the on-site team from flying together,” says Barbara McManus, vice president of meetings management for Somerville, N.J.-based Embryon Inc. “After September 11, I am adamant.”

Safe Space

Meeting location is a consideration that has taken on heightened importance. One warning from Krugman: Every destination has its dangers. Do not promote a place as being safe.

“Convention centers are big targets all over the world because they involve a lot of people, and often they're high-profile groups,” says Charles Slepian, whose Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center advises companies on travel safety and security.

“Everyone ought to have alternative destinations identified as part of a contingency process,” says Werth, who suggests that second- and third-tier cities or resorts might be good options. Access may be more difficult, but your group may draw less attention in Tulsa than in Los Angeles, for example.

Finally, security experts advise holding meetings as quietly as possible. Experts suggests avoiding big signs and banners at the airport and hotel, using busses without signage, and telling attendees where to go rather than indicating that publicly at the venue.

Firsthand Experience

While many events may be assessing their security for the first time, meetings that attract high-profile personalities or that deal with controversial issues have been planning around security issues all along. Last spring, PRA Destination Management got firsthand experience with meeting threats. The company was preparing for BIO 2001, a 15,000-attendee convention of the Bio-technology Industry Organization, when it learned that anarchists were teaching protesters how to break police barricades, make bombs, sneak into meetings, and stop motorcoaches.

In response, PRA rolled security into place to cover a range of possible disruptions to the San Diego meeting. Plans included evacuation instructions, emergency crisis contingencies, special insurance, multiple briefings, and distribution of emergency contact booklets. Roscoe even hired security for her own company. BIO 2001 went off smoothly, but Roscoe isn't resting easy. “When I put security on our building,” she recalls, “I said to one of my colleagues, ‘We're living in a different time.’”

Rick Werth couldn't agree more. “We are in a totally different world,” he says. “If anybody thinks we're going back, they're mistaken.”

In Case of an Emergency

  • Before the meeting, assign critical staff functions. Someone should be in control of communications, accountability, logistics (supplies), operations, finance, and planning. Give people authority to carry out their tasks.

  • Develop a chain of command among your staff and the hotel staff in case of an emergency. Only certain people should have decision-making authority. Command-level people should only talk with decision-makers.

  • Create a disaster supply kit, with a flashlight, extra batteries, AM/FM radio, and basic medical supplies.

  • Establish an emergency cash fund. When computers are down, you can't rely on a credit card to make purchases.

  • Have backup communications. If you use two-way radios, also have cellphones, and make sure there are phones in the meeting rooms.

  • Take care of your staff. People can only handle eight to 10 hours of high-stress situations at a time. Work in two- or three-hour shifts, and then take breaks.
    Source: Kevin Mellot, president, ERASE Enterprises, Dallas