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"), 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 add language 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
Sidebar: 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.
Sidebar: 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