“One of the first things you have to look at is security considerations — not because things aren't going to be safe, but to calm your members' fears,” says Chris Vranas, associate executive director of the American Association of Orthodontists, based in St. Louis. Vranas coordinated a number of international programs at his last job as a meeting director with the American Society of Travel Agents. “You need to make them feel safe — when they're on the ground in particular.”
Vranas suggests setting up advance meetings with key personnel, including security chiefs, at hotels, convention centers, and — depending on the size of the meeting — with government officials. Find out what kinds of plans rescue, emergency, and medical teams have in place, and make those local resources, including hospitals, known to every attendee. Knowing these things can help a meeting planner convince attendees that a destination is safe.
“It's probably not a bad idea for the next year or two, when sending materials to members, to include some information about precautions — considerations that you need to take when traveling to certain countries,” Vranas says. He adds that providing up-front tips — such as areas of a city to avoid or how to handle taxis — shouldn't alarm members, but should assure them that you have checked out likely potential threats.
As Vranas is quick to point out, “petty crime is more of an issue for travelers than terrorism is today.”
Keep a low profile
In uncertain times, splashy events may attract unwanted attention by groups that are anti-American or looking to crash the party for other reasons.
“We refrain from using the organization name or logo in public and on signage, especially at airports, on vehicles transporting attendees around town, and in the hotel,” says Carol Krugman, CMP, president and CEO of Krugman Group International in Miami. Attendees are told not to use their business cards as luggage tags and reminded not to wear their name badges outside the hotel.
Charles Slepian, whose Foreseeable Risk Analysis Center (www.frac.com) advises companies on travel safety and security, suggests that planners with security concerns look for venues that are easy to secure. A building with easy public access, for example, would be a poor choice. Hotels, he says, often put meeting space on upper floors that can be closed to the public if necessary.
Have a backup plan
Just in case, Vranas, of the American Association of Orthodontists, says it's a good time to consider carrying event insurance, although he says few cancellation policies cover acts of terror. (See related article, page 12.)
“But it's something to look at, particularly if you have spent a lot of money promoting an event and havewith a convention center.” Vranas was able to add a rider to one cancellation policy covering a 6,000-person convention in Egypt when unrest in the region threatened to affect the event. Everyone ought to have alternative destinations identified as they go forward, he adds, as part of a contingency process.
“Your research into crisis handling then becomes a contingency plan,” Krugman adds. “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.”
For an unfamiliar destination, some meeting planners like to have local destination management companies or affiliated organizations help with the legwork.
Michael O'Donoghue, global development management for the American Society for Quality in Milwaukee, participates in a world partner program with other quality associations to produce joint educational events. The host country's organization country handles logistics and marketing. In theory, locals are most aware of the best venues and potentially thorny issues.
“You've got to have somebody on the ground,” says O'Donoghue, who once worked for the U.S. State Department, which he says followed the same philosophy. “When you try to do something from a distance, you usually get short-circuited.”
Exhibitors and meeting planners also might consider buying essential materials, booths, and other items at the destination to avoid customs snafus. “Our recommendation prior to 9/11 was to try to use local products, and avoid shipping whenever possible,” says Teresa Larson, senior vice president with Smith Fairfield in Alexandria, Va. “Now I would recommend that even more strongly.”
Build in more time
“Overall, we're encouraging people to build in more lead time,” says Larson That includes time for obtaining passports, since the State Department seems to have a lot on its plate these days.
Professional shipping agents and customs brokers can expedite package delivery, adds Krugman. And these service people are most aware of changing regulations and shipping requirements for various destinations around the world.
Megan Rowe is a contributing editor toand its sister Primedia publications. She is a former editor of Lodging Hospitality magazine.
Be Prepared, Be Calm
The key to preparing for a potential crisis at a meeting — no matter where it is — is to develop strategies for fast, accurate communication, says Nancy L. Elder, CAE, director, meetings and expositions, American Society for Microbiology, Washington, D.C. Here are the lessons she learned from postponing a meeting scheduled in the U.S. in October 2001 to December.
- Calmness Counts: No matter how you feel — stay calm. If you're calm, you'll inspire confidence in your staff, attendees, exhibitors, and meeting partners. Make decisions based on solid research and stick to them.
- Contact Lists: When preparing emergency contact lists for staff and volunteers, keep them short and simple. Elder's contact list for her U.S. conference included only 13 contact numbers. She listed the Centers for Disease Control's phone number, for instance, but not other public health agencies. Additional pages included instructions and contact information for potential emergencies, as well as security tactics. Addendums included more detailed information, such as, transportation procedures, and lists of VIPs who might pose security risks or attract media interest.
- Prepare Templates: Use several modes of communication. Write templates and scripts for blast e-mails, faxes, phone calls, and to post on your Web site.
- Download the Database: Be prepared to communicate from your meeting destination. Before leaving for Chicago, Elder and her team sent the attendees' e-mail addresses to ASM's internal IT department. “If something happened while we were at the meeting, all we had to do was tell the IT department to do an e-mail blast using the prepared text. We didn't have to phone our housing/registration vendor in the middle of the night.”
- Include Your Press Partners: Communicate with your internal media people, Elder says. “They should not operate in a vacuum. Too frequently, we talk about the content of the meeting and make sure they have access to abstracts, but when working on an emergency plan, they are equally as important to keep in the communications loop.”
- Don't Skip the Security Meetings: Hold separate security meetings, rather than tacking them on to the pre-con. “It's just too big of an issue to include in a pre-con,” says Elder. In addition to official security personnel, include your staff and volunteers who are involved with security. For example, Elder included the room monitors because their job was to make sure all attendees left the meeting rooms at the end of each of the sessions.