Richard Marcus, President of American Woolen Co. in Miami, recently scrapped plans to hold a pair of incentive meetings for about 200 distributors and their spouses in Indonesia this spring. "It would be reckless to go there right now," says Marcus, who has visited Indonesia, but has never brought a group there. "What's more, our company could be held responsible if something happened to people we sent into an unsafe area."
American Woolen has held overseas incentives for several years without incident, including two successful gatherings in Russia--in Moscow and St. Petersburg. This is the first time the firm has been forced to change its plans.
"Event safety is a major factor that no company takes lightly these days," comments Norman Hope, vice president, industry relations/purchasing, for Carlson Marketing Group, of Minneapolis. Hope believes safety considerations are more visible today than a decade ago because of increased concern about international problems and terrorism.
"To assess a situation," he says, "you need to use all the contacts you can get your hands on, but the bottom line comes down to your own good sense and judgment." In Marcus' case, that meant moving his meeting.
Call in the Experts "Security should be a meeting planner's top priority when preparing for an event anywhere, but you need a longer, more detailed checklist when outside your own country. You need to know what to prepare for and be able to react quickly and effectively in a foreign environment," says Carol Krugman, CMP, CMM, a 17-year meeting planning veteran and president of Ft. Lauderdale-based Krugman Group International.
Krugman speaks fluent Spanish, Portuguese, and French, and has a working knowledge of Italian. She has traveled the globe, handling everything from small, high-level board meetings to huge conventions. Yet, she's the first to bring in a professional when a location presents special security concerns. "I'm acutely aware of what I do and do not know," she says.
Firms like Franklin, Tenn.-based Meeting Security Services specialize in assessing sites and security risks for corporate clients. Founded five years ago by Richard Werth, a former meeting executive, the company plans between 10 and 15 meeting and incentive programs per year, three out of four at international sites.
"I'm not in business to advise people to stay locked in their corporate offices," Werth says. "Corporate travelers can see a lot and do a lot at some very exciting locations, as long as they take prudent precautions." By precautions, he means many things: For example, he once brought along a native doctor who thoroughly understood the country's health concerns for one company's incentive trip to Kenya.
Much of Werth's focus is on having a contingency plan if something does go wrong. "Security normally isn't about one overriding issue. It's a combination of many things and requires great attention to detail." Details, for example, like installing portable smoke detectors in hotel rooms. "That may seem extreme," he says, "but in the 1970s, all of a company's top executives except one were killed in a flash fire in a New York hotel. In addition to the personal tragedy for the victims and their families, the company was virtually crippled by the loss of its entire top management."
Lisa Lowman, director, industry and customer events for Murray, Hill, N.J.-based Lucent Technologies, one of Werth's clients, frequently hires his firm not only to provide safety, but for contingency planning and risk-management assignments. "We often invite high-level customers to events," says Lowman, who works out of Lucent's Atlanta office. "Protecting both them and our own people is a top priority. And we also want to protect our investment in the event, which is considerable both in terms of time and money."
Because security standards vary dramatically from one country to another, Werth or a member of his staff usually conducts an on-site evaluation. He also stays closely tuned into world events.
In addition, he works with clients to assess the safety of the attendees' and the company's property--as well as of proprietary information. At one meeting in Geneva, Werth did an electronic sweep of an executive's room and turned up a hidden microphone. "Competitors may try to sneak spies into a company's meeting, hoping to gain information that could give them an edge in the marketplace. Some countries just target U.S. business travelers for whatever information they may be carrying," he says.
Then There's the Weather Weather and natural disasters might play a role in companies' site decisions--but sometimes only as much as the destination's ability to recover from them. For example, "Many firms decided to hold events as scheduled after Hurricane Georges because of the Puerto Ricans' ability and drive to bounce back," says Saul Tanal, president of Group Services, Inc., in Puerto Rico.
One such company was Reynolds and Reynolds, a Dayton, Ohio, information management firm, which held its incentive trip for 700 sales associates and their spouses at the El Conquistador Resort only three weeks after Georges struck. "Because of all we'd heard and seen on TV about how the storm had crippled the island, we questioned whether the resort could get back up to speed in so short a time," says Blake Cole, manager, events/presentation services. So Cole and Bob Forshner, vice president of the Heritage Group, the incentive firm that booked the event, visited the site a week after the hurricane.
"At the time," Cole says, "parts of the resort were without power and the rest of the facility was using standby generators, but it wasn't in bad shape. The rumors we'd heard about the marina being underwater and the ballroom ceiling caving in proved false. We were assured that power would be restored to the entire resort before our group arrived." They also visited the rain forest and golf courses. An informal meeting on site with President and Managing Director Rick Cortese, from the facility's corporate offices in the United States, cemented their decision. "It gave us the confidence we needed," Cole says.
The event was a success. While there were water problems in a few rooms, such inconveniences were dealt with quickly and efficiently. The firm even showed a video, produced by the resort, of the facility before the hurricane, right after Georges hit, and during the restoration. "It showed the power of such a storm and the power of motivated people working together," Cole says.
Perception Problems Not all decisions to move international meetings are a reaction to obvious danger. Sometimes, they're more a matter of perception--attendee perception--than reality. For instance, Alexander Granaada, an independent meeting executive from the Netherlands, had to move a meeting of Renault's top Dutch sales executives from Bali because of the wildfires in Borneo.
There was, of course, no way the fires could get from Borneo to Bali across large expanses of ocean, and Granaada was confident there was no smoke danger, either. After studying prevailing winds, he was ready to guarantee blue skies in Bali. Nevertheless, some potential attendees were nervous.
"Although there was no real danger," Granaada comments, "attendees aren't going to relax and enjoy themselves if they're anxious about a natural disaster nearby." The company ended up moving the meeting to Sri Lanka, but was forced to move it again because of a terrorist bombing to the Dominican Republic.
As Werth points out, companies might change their locations because of security concerns or natural catastrophes, but international meetings continue to grow at an unprecedented rate. "Global gatherings have become such an integral part of doing business that no events, man-made problems, or natural catastrophes, will affect the overall business."
A security firm should provide:
* Security management--Evaluate destinations and facilities to identify risk, as well as develop and implement measures to protect attendees and property.
* Health/emergency planning--Establish an emergency contact procedure and an event contact list for medical, security, police, fire, hotel, airport, embassy/consulate, and weather personnel.
* Staff communications--Select and manage the use of rental radios, cellular telephones, and pagers for staff communication. Develop an event staff contact list.
* Contingency planning--Develop a plan to reduce the impact any incident would have on the event or its attendees.
10 tips to get you started: 1. Identify a security firm with the appropriate experience, knowledge, and credentials to manage your specific needs.The best time to choose a consultant is before you require his or her services.
2. Review the consultant's credentials, experience, education, training, professional affiliations, licenses, and insurance.
3. Obtain references and contact them.
4. Determine if the specific work or investigation should be protected by attorney-client privilege, work product doctrine, or client self-analysis privilege.
5. Obtain a nondisclosure agreement.
6. Identify the security consultant's role/assignment and review all the details of the assignment with him or her.
7. Obtain a written proposal clearly outlining the project's objectives, fees, and deliverables.
8. Ensure that the consultant provides progress/status reports on the assignment.
9. Obtain a final written copy of the report and keep it secure.
10. Work closely with the consultant to implement and manage recommendations.
What do security experts cost? Fees can vary widely. Daily rates may run between $600 and $1,000 per person and $75 to $100 per hour per person.