WHEN IT COMES TO TERRORIST THREATS, many planners and vendors maintain what Joan L. Eisenstodt calls a “see no evil” attitude. “If we don't talk about terrorism [or other factors that could disrupt our meetings], we think, ‘It won't happen again,’” says Eisenstodt, chief strategist, Eisenstodt Associates LLC, Conference Consulting, Facilitation & Training, Washington, D.C. And in interviewing dozens of corporate planners about how they are dealing with heightened threat levels within the United States issued by the Department of Homeland Security (see “What the Color Codes Mean,” page 12), we found that few are taking the threats seriously or changing the way that they plan meetings because of them.
Richard Werth, CPP, president, Event & Meeting Security Services, Franklin, Tenn., says that while planners who take meetings outside the United States are better about creating contingency plans, few think about those extra precautions for U.S. meetings. “It's very interesting for our business,” says Werth. “EMS has several clients who retain us only for international events.”
“I am looking at Las Vegas for our '06 event, and I don't think that the heightened security measures would affect my decision to go or not go to a destination,” admits Vickie Kress, director of user conference services, Softbrands, Castle Valley, Utah. “If I were to choose a destination with higher security, I would communicate with my attendees as to what they should expect upon arrival and at departure at the airport.”
As a result of attending a session at Meeting Professionals International's Professional Education Conference in January, taught by Carol Krugman, CMP, CMM, president/CEO, Krugman Group International, St. Petersburg, Fla., Kress says she “will alter my site inspections to include more questions about overall safety and security at the destination. She scared the daylights out of me. And it's just been luck that nothing has happened so far!”
Threat Levels Raised
On December 21, the Department of Homeland Security raised the national threat level from yellow, or “elevated,” to orange, or “high,” because of specific threats and terrorist chatter just prior to the holiday season. During that period, 16 flights headed into the United States were canceled.
On January 9, the DHS lowered the threat level to yellow. “The holidays have passed safely and without incident,” Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said in a statement. “We know from experience that the increased security and vigilance that accompany a raise in the threat level does make a difference in deterring and disrupting a terrorist attack.”
Ridge continued, “Yellow still means that we're at an elevated level of risk. And we will maintain particular vigilance around some critical resources and locales.”
While the DHS never officially announced which cities or airports would remain at the orange level, it was widely reported in the press that eight airports and other unspecified facilities would remain on high alert, including those in Washington, D.C.; New York; Los Angeles; and Las Vegas. However, a spokesperson for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitor Authority said in late January that McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas was not at a heightened level.
In a check of the Web sites of the three New York — area airports, the Los Angeles International Airport, and the two D.C.area airports, none had posted the Code Orange alert. However, Logan International Airport in Boston had a security flash warning on its Web site, stating that visitors' vehicles would be subject to random searches. According to a January 10 report in The Boston Globe, Massachusetts public safety officials said the state would maintain security at or near the orange level at Logan and at energy sector facilities in the state, but decrease attention at other locations.
Do Ask, Do Tell
Is it enough that the nation is taking extra precautions to ensure travelers' safety?
No, according to Eisenstodt, who is a proponent of contingency planning for any meeting, and who teaches courses about risk management at industry conferences. “Since 9/11/01, people said they were more aware and more concerned, yet few have done anything to addlanguage or ask hotels how they are prepared for any act of terrorism or violence. Nor do they create — with the facilities they choose and other vendors — contingency plans or put into place a team to handle them.”
Eisenstodt advocates giving attendees as much information up front as possible, particularly if they are headed to a city with an airport that is on heightened alert.
“People like to be informed. There is more fear of the unknown than of the known. People would prefer knowing what to pack, how to travel, what to say and not say at the airports, what routes might be blocked,” says Eisenstodt. “In Washington, D.C., this is a huge issue and has been since after 9/11,” she adds. “For example, many folks come to D.C. for government-related meetings. Taking a cab to the Hill is not what it used to be. Moreover, to enter any government building, including museums, visitors are searched, and sometimes more stringent measures are in place.”
Werth agrees: “My approach, if you're a ‘professional’ meeting planner, is that you cannot ignore this system. As a planner, you need to ask, ‘What do I need to determine the specific risk for the destination, the venue, the client?’ You need to ask convention centers, hotels, or venues about their contingency plans: ‘What are you going to do if the national threat level goes up?’ You can bet that the executives, the attendees, and their family members all want to know. They are far more sensitive than ever before.
“It is a good thing when a planner is proactive,” continues Werth. “These questions and ‘what if's’ should be part of your emergency plans. For instance, what would you do before, while in the air, or while on-site should something happen? Security doesn't need to be a negative.”
Many meeting planners say that hotels, both here and abroad, are not anxious to share their security or emergency plans. But those plans are, indeed, in place.
Scott A. Blech, CAE, president, Los Angeles Area Hotel & Lodging Association, says his hotel members take security threat levels very seriously, particularly hotel properties that are in or around airports.
“For example, law enforcement agencies gave seminars to our members about dealing with terrorism alerts, drug deals, and the like. We had seminars that covered terrorism, identify theft, and overall security. Both general managers and chiefs of security came. There absolutely is interest, because it's for the protection of the guests. No one wants to be known as not being a safe hotel.”
Blech adds that if the national threat level goes up, airport hotels take the same kinds of precautions as the airports: preventing private vehicles from parking near the hotel, inspecting cars going into the parking garages, and towing unattended cars. “More rooms get inspected, flags go up when people pay in cash, packages and freight are watched more closely,” he says. “Security is geared up a notch, through checking photo I.D.s, particularly if someone loses a key. Shipping and receiving departments, vendors, and suspicious vehicles are checked. There are more automatic door locks and limited access to most hotels, making entries to air intake and water intake systems totally inaccessible, for instance.
“From a meeting planner's point of view,” he adds, “it's a good thing.”
— Betsy Bair
What the Color Codes Mean
The system of color codes developed by the Department of Homeland Security reflects different levels of risk, defined by both the probability of an attack and the potential gravity. At each threat level, federal departments and agencies implement a corresponding set of “protective measures” to further reduce vulnerability or increase response capability during a period of heightened alert.
At right, public works employee Bob Thompson changes the Homeland Security Advisory flag from yellow (significant risk) to orange (high risk) in Country Club Hills, Ill.
What About Your Contract?
What if the national security threat level goes up and has an effect on your meeting or event? Is there a way to protect yourself in your contract if you have to cancel?
“Anyone who hasin place that don't address terrorism should go back and discuss and amend the documents,” says Joan L. Eisenstodt, chief strategist, Eisenstodt Associates LLC, Conference Consulting, Facilitation & Training, Washington, D.C. “When the levels go up, or if there are changes — such as the cancellation of inbound flights — it will be immediate and may be too late to address the issues. It's about contingency planning — having the plan in place ahead of time.
“It's not just about cancellation. It's aboutas well — if people are afraid to travel because of an elevated alert level, then the meeting may go on, but the attendance may be down,” she adds.
Jonathan T. Howe, Esq., president/senior partner, Howe & Hutton Ltd., a law firm with offices in Chicago, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C., says that “it becomes a question of contract.” He cited as an example clauses related to warnings from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention against travel to certain countries in case of disease outbreaks. For example, “I reserve the right to cancel if there is the possibility of an increased terrorism alert level.”
Howe says that anything can be negotiated into a contract, and that a planner should ask up front about the facility's capabilities. He also suggests keeping what you require from a security aspect separate from a sales contract.
“It needs to be on a need-to-know basis,” says Howe. “For example, I don't want George the busboy to know that the third floor of the hotel is blocked off because the president of the company is staying there.”
He suggests including specific language relating to security alerts. “The clause would merely state that if there is information from Homeland Security or the State Department [or any other government agency, including CDC or WHO], that travel is ‘unadvised,’ or there is an orange or above alert, the planner reserves the right to cancel or to adjust the block without liability.”
— Betsy Bair
US-VISIT: WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR YOU?
Fingerprinting and photographing U.S. — bound foreign travelers raises more questions than it answers for meeting professionals.
Will US-VISIT — the new program in which foreign visitors to this country are being fingerprinted — be a minor inconvenience or a major hassle for meeting planners and attendees? So far, it's too early to tell.
“It has huge ramifications,” says Chris Pentz, president, Pentz Group Communications, Levittown, Pa., who plans international meetings. Short-term, she says, attendance could decline at U.S.-based international meetings. Long-term, it could mean fewer international meetings held stateside.
Effective January 5, foreign visitors to the United States are photographed and have their fingerprints scanned at 115 domestic airports and 14 seaports as part of this new program, launched by the Department of Homeland Security. Both index fingers are scanned, and a digital photo is taken to verify their identity at the port of entry. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers review travel documents, such as a visa and passport, and ask questions about the visitor's stay. The enhancements are designed to add about 15 seconds to the entry process for each foreign traveler.
The US-VISIT (US Visitor and Immigrations Status Indicator Technology) program is a continuation of the fingerscans that take place overseas at U.S. consular offices, where visas are issued. The idea is to make sure that the person at the U.S. border is the same person who received the visa.
The program does not apply to 28 countries, including Canada and the 27 nations that are part of the United States' Visa Waiver Program: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the U.K. Travelers from these countries have approximately nine months to obtain a machine-readable passport to enter the country without a visa. If not, a visa is required and passengers would be subject to the fingerscans.
Delays caused by US-VISIT at Los Angeles International Airport range from about 18 seconds to one minute per person, says Joseph McGlynn, manager, planning and programs at Laxtec Corp., which provides support services for 52 airlines that operate out of LAX. “Where the real impact will come is when it [fingerprinting] is mandated for departing passengers,” he says. Currently, security professionals assist passengers at U.S. borders, but when it is implemented for departing passengers, it will be done at self-service kiosks, which may be difficult for non-English speaking travelers to operate.
Challenges for Attendees
US-VISIT could create challenges for meeting attendees from places other than the 28 visa waiver countries and result in airport delays, missed flight connections, and missed meetings, according to Richard Werth, CPP, president, Event & Meeting Security Services, Franklin, Tenn.
Thomas Steinmetz, publisher of Eturbo News, says that the program has received mostly negative reaction from overseas travel groups and professionals. Steinmetz believes that overseas organizations will be more hesitant to hold meetings in the United States and will opt for events in Europe or other destinations where there are fewer obstacles.
Among European planners, attitudes have already begun to change, says Pentz, who adds that “Europeans discovered South America [as a meeting destination].” She says it's perceived by many to be safer and more affordable than the United States, and fears that once groups start avoiding U.S. destinations, it will be hard to win them back.
To the south, there is resentment among organizations in Central and South America, says Margaret Gonzalez, president of the International Association of Hispanic Meeting Professionals. No countries south of the border are in the visa waiver program. Shortly after the US-VISIT program launched, Brazil implemented a policy of fingerprinting inbound U.S. visitors.
On the Canadian border, Sandy Biback, CMM, CMP, president of Toronto-based Imagination+ Meeting Planners Inc., says border cities, such as Windsor and Detroit, may see the effects of the new program immediately. Typically, when there is a conference in one of these cities, groups will cross the border to visit the other city. But that will be more difficult going forward, particularly if a group has attendees from nonwaiver countries.
US-VISIT will also pose a problem for foreign exhibitors, and by extension meeting planners, in bringing materials into the country. Matthew Summy, vice president, Johnson Consulting Inc., Chicago, says that exhibitors often like to arrive in a city several days before the show to coordinate with staff. But with the new screening procedures in place, it may take longer to import supplies and materials.
Pamela Paton, meeting planner at State Street Corp., Boston, has not heard objections to the new regulations so far. With nearly 20,000 employees in 20 different countries, State Street's seasoned travelers know the drill. “Everyone has pretty much come to the conclusion that things have changed,” she says.
But things have changed so rapidly for foreign travelers in recent months that many still don't know what to expect, says Cathy Keefe, spokeswoman for the Travel Industry Association. While TIA supports US-VISIT, it believes that the DHS needs to do a better job of informing travelers of the changes. “The area that they've really lacked in is educating the consumer,” says Keefe.
Many international visitors perceive this fortress around America, and perception often outweighs reality, says Keefe. “We need to put out the welcome mat.”
— Dave Kovaleski
AIR TRAVEL: GROUNDING THE HASSLE FACTOR
Advice for meeting travelers on navigating airport security
AIR TRAVEL TODAY IS synonymous with long lines on top of longer lines, luggage checks, and shoe searches. And that's under normal circumstances. When the nation is on high alert, security is even tighter.
What can a meeting planner do to keep attendees informed and prepared?
For one, be aware that security will be tighter when the country is under “orange,” or high alert, so travelers may want to arrive earlier than normal. During orange alerts, more security guards and law enforcement personnel will be at airports, and there may be additional security screens, such as random vehicle inspections or secondary screening checks, says Ron Sokolov, executive director for customer service at the Transportation Security Administration, Washington, D.C.
If air traffic in January was any indication of the effect of orange alerts, then people have grown accustomed to the new reality. American Airlines saw no major decrease in bookings or jump in cancellations because of the December/January code orange, says Tim Wagner, American spokesman. Delta Air Lines experienced an increase compared to January 2003 traffic.
The other good news is that the TSA, airports, and airlines have made enhancements to reduce delays and improve the flow of human traffic.
“We strive for consistency at all the airports we provide security at,” says Sokolov, so that travelers know what to expect at the more than 400 U.S. airports serviced by TSA. For example, TSA is looking to consolidate all security checks to the initial screening area, eliminating additional inspection at the gates.
The “double walk through” is another improvement that's intended to pick up the pace. If a passenger sets off the metal detector at the checkpoint, he or she can remove the objects and walk back through instead of being flagged for secondary screening.
TSA is also planning to introduce a “Trusted Traveler” program that would allow fliers who meet security requirements to pass through screening more promptly. The program would be voluntary, and applicants for a trusted traveler card would go through advance screening. Details have not been worked out yet, says Sokolov.
To speed things up, airlines now offer alternatives to ticket counter check-in lines, allowing customers to get boarding passes and check bags curbside as well as at self-service kiosks. Some airlines permit customers who are not checking bags to skip on-site check-in altogether by getting their boarding passes over the Internet.
Tips for Travelers
Planners can help attendees get to their meetings on time by passing along the following air travel tips, compiled from various sources, including the Airport Transportation Authority, TSA, and Ron Sipes, account development manager at American Airlines, who recently led a session on the subject at the Professional Convention Management Association's meeting in January in Indianapolis.
- Arrive on time
Without baggage, the suggested arrival time for a domestic flight is 60 minutes before takeoff. With checked baggage, it's 90 minutes. Get there two hours early for an international flight. This is flexible depending on the time of day and airport. Generally, security lines are longer during peak travel times — 6:30-9:30 a.m. and 4:30-7 p.m. — so plan accordingly.
- Know how to pack
Passengers are allowed one carry-on bag and one personal item (purse, computer, backpack, etc.). In your carry-on, don't pack prohibited items (see www.tsa.gov for a list). Keep in mind that security agents will break open locks if they need to, and they aren't liable for damages if it's done for security purposes.
- Be ready at security
Passengers should have their boarding passes and identification in hand. Also, wear slip-on shoes and pack all metal objects (keys, change, jewelry, etc.) in your carry-on. Finally, laptops must be taken out of cases and coats must come off (suit jackets and blazers are OK).
— Dave Kovaleski
CAPPS II: Will Your Name Become Their Name?
It won't be long before airlines are required to hand over the names of people riding on their planes.
The Department of Homeland Security is working on a screening system called the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, or CAPPS II, which is designed to reduce the number of people who are misidentified as potential threats. Airlines will be required to hand over lists of all passengers so that names can be processed through the CAPPS II system, which conducts a risk assessment of each individual by checking names against commercial and government databases. Fliers will be color-coded based on their background checks.
CAPPS II was set to begin testing in the spring, with implementation by summer. That schedule was in question at press time because the Congressional General Accounting Office found that the DHS had failed to achieve seven of eight criteria established by Congress for the program to move forward.
The program also has raised some concerns. The Business Travel Coalition is petitioning Sens. John McCain 3rd, D-Ariz., and Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, D-S.C., chairmen of the Congressional Transportation Committee, to hold a hearing on CAPPS II. Kevin Mitchell, BTC chairman, says the group isn't opposed to CAPPS II, it just feels that there hasn't been sufficient debate on the system or the subject of privacy. “The process seems to be lacking,” says Mitchell.
— Dave Kovaleski
IS VEGAS VULNERABLE?
Despite high security, planners still think the city is safe.
FOR TWO WEEKS around the first of the year, the city of Las Vegas, while certainly not under siege, in many ways seemed to be preparing for one. Helicopters flew overhead, patrolling city streets, and a no-fly zone was in force over the city. More police officers walked the Strip, cars were searched, and National Guardsmen were brought in from other parts of the state to beef up security efforts.
It's not necessarily the kind of publicity that a tourist destination such as Las Vegas likes to see, but if you talk to planners, their perceptions haven't changed — Las Vegas continues to be an attractive, appealing, and safe place to hold a meeting.
“I think it's one of the safest places in the world to stay,” says Bill Boyd, president and CEO of Sunbelt Motivation and Travel, Dallas, whose company does millions of dollars in business in Las Vegas annually.
“I wouldn't pick out Las Vegas as a special target [for terrorists],” says Tony Lorenz, president of ProActive Inc., Chicago, a strategic communications and events company specializing in strategic services, production services, and event management. “No more than any other major metropolitan area, such as Chicago or New York.”
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority has no doubt that Las Vegas remains a secure venue. “Las Vegas continues to enjoy the perception that it's a safe destination,” says spokesman Rob Powers.
No Specific Threat
It all began in late December, when the federal government imposed a high terror alert that included references to Las Vegas as a possible target. During this time, several Air France flights with U.S. destinations were canceled. Press reports included suggestions from some unnamed government officials that terrorists may have intended to hijack a flight from Paris to Los Angeles with the intention of crashing it in Las Vegas.
While law enforcement officials were adamant that there was no specific threat against Las Vegas, the security response was extraordinary. Whether it was restricting air space over the city or stationing National Guardsmen at McCarran International Airport, the authorities did not take chances.
Todd Palmer, spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Las Vegas, says that in cities with scheduled public events that are expected to draw more than 50,000 people, the authorities were urged to take “protective and cooperative” steps to ensure safety and security. “That's just what we did,” he says.
“There were no specific, actionable threats,” says Jerry Bussell, Homeland Security adviser to Nevada Gov. Kenneth Guinn. At the same time, Bussell says, there was a “real potential for terrorism” in Las Vegas that became clear in the period leading up to New Year's Eve.
Sgt. Tim Shalhoob, a spokesman for the Las Vegas Police Department who works in its Tourist Safety Bureau, says that ever since Sept. 11, 2001, law enforcement authorities have worked under the assumption that the city — “the entertainment capital of the world” — is a conspicuous target. As Shalhoob points out, a half-dozen of the terrorists involved in the 9/11 hijackings visited Las Vegas, “and from that day forward, we've wondered what they were doing here.
“We take nothing for chance,” Shalhoob says. “We assume they looked at Las Vegas as a potential target.”
Some of the stepped-up security precautions were tough to miss. Vehicles were routinely searched as they pulled up in front of resorts. Police performed roving checks in the crowds. And there were those helicopter gun ships overhead.
Yet Bussell says that much of what took place from a security standpoint was not visible to most citizens and tourists, and that law enforcement officials remain sensitive to the fact that Las Vegas is a tourist destination. “We can't put economics ahead of safety,” he says. “But by the same token, we have to be aware of what we are saying … that we are not unduly scaring the public. It's a balancing act.”
“It [the added security] was evident, but it wasn't obtrusive,” says Powers. “Law enforcement here does a very good job of letting people have a good time, and only step in when they need to. They are very sensitive to our industry.”
Ironically, the increased security, instead of creating anxiety, might have actually increased the feeling of well-being within the city. The FBI's Palmer said that in the aftermath of the alert, he constantly heard that residents and citizens appreciated the added security and felt safer because of it.
Added security precautions during peak tourist periods have become a matter of course for the Las Vegas Police Department, according to Shalhoob. Approximately 100 extra officers patrolled the tourist corridor during the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve as a precaution, Shalhoob explains. But the publicity over this past New Year's Eve was “a lot less dramatic for us,” he says. “We've been in that mode for years.”
Privacy vs. Security
There was one other security step taken by authorities that — at first — took place completely out of the sight of the city's residents and guests. Resorts and hotels were asked to supply the FBI with their guest lists — a request with which they complied — but it was not without some less-than-flattering publicity when that news became public.
“Everyone was extremely cooperative,” says Palmer, who added that despite some reports to the contrary, hotels did not supply detailed information about guests, but only names that the FBI used to check against those on terrorist watch lists.
While there have been invasion of privacy concerns over the release of names, Boyd wonders whether it is an issue that will resonate with attendees. “I guess my question is, what's the beef here?” Boyd asks. “So the federal government knows you stayed in Las Vegas. Maybe if you have something to hide it's a problem. Is it an invasion of privacy? Probably. Should that take priority over the issues of safety and security? Probably not.”
Will security concerns have any kind of long-term impact on Las Vegas as a meeting destination?
If so, it's not apparent in the short term, says Michael Uhl, senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Paris Las Vegas Resort. “We heightened our security, but from a business perspective, we are in the middle of one of the best Januarys we've ever had,” Uhl says. “We haven't had any customers express any concerns about coming to Las Vegas.”
The LVCVA's Powers agrees, pointing to January's successful International Consumer and Electronics Show as a sign that Las Vegas has not been affected by the alert. “The CES was amazing. The show floor was as crowded as I've ever seen it.”
Lorenz of ProActive sends five or six groups to Las Vegas a year, and he says that from a security standpoint, nothing would make him rethink Vegas as a destination. And Roxanne Sobanski has not changed her mind about bringing a sales meeting to Las Vegas this spring. Sobanski, a planner for JohnsonDiversy, a Sturtevant, Wis.-based company that produces cleaning and hygiene products, says that she doesn't believe the recent security alert in Las Vegas would bother her attendees at all. In fact, she says, “I hope it [added security] would give them more of a sense of security than the opposite.”
While there appears to be little concern that the added security alert will have a lasting impact on the Las Vegas tourism industry, Bill Thompson is not quite as sanguine about the future. “We don't want to be singled out [for alerts],” says Thompson, a professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas and an expert in the casino industry. “If there is a specific threat, yes. But if it's general, no.” If Las Vegas continues to be pinpointed, he says, it could lose business to cities that aren't alleged terrorist targets.
Should the worst happen, Vegas could be devastated economically. Thompson points to South Florida's experience in the early 1990s, when it was hit by a rash of murders of international tourists, and tourism was cut in half. With that in mind, he says, authorities need to act if Las Vegas is the target of a specific threat. But, he adds, “just don't do it frivolously.”
— Michael Bassett
Know Before You Go
Web sites for security information:
- Department of Homeland Security
- Event & Meeting Security
- Transportation Security Administration
- U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team
- U.S. State Department
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- FAA Airport Status
Other Travel Resources: