Two months ago, a planner “overly concerned” with security issues might have been 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 San Diego — based PRA Destination Management. “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 and conventions are not terrorist targets.
“Let's keep this in perspective,” remarks Rick Werth, president of Event & Meeting Security Services, Franklin, Tenn. “The average 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 who has been terminated, or a theft that would have a major impact on the business.”
That said, Werth recommends that meeting planners conduct a risk assessment before every meeting or 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 about the aftereffects of the events of 9/11 on the meetings industry (at the Motivation Show, held in Chicago on October 10) by Jonathan Howe, president and senior partner of Howe & Hutton Ltd.
“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.”
Carol Krugman, CMP, CMM, president/CEO of Krugman Group International Inc., an independent planning company specializing in international programs, was another panelist. She has been conducting independent risk assessments for her meetings for years, and says, “Still, I can do all the due diligence and none of us can truly identify a random act of terrorism.”
So as not to scare anyone from ever planning another meeting, Howe adds, “A planner is not a guarantor or insurer [of safety.]”
Above all, the panelists recommend, communicate as often as possible with your “client” about your risk assessment at every step of the process. So if you're an independent planner, communicate with your in-house contact; or if you're in-house, communicate with your staff and board regularly.
Considering Steps to Take
Werth, Krugman, and Howe recommend you meet and talk with the chief security personnel at each venue, hotel, and convention center you plan to use. Find out what kinds of plans rescue, emergency, and medical teams they have in place, 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 those companies based in the World Trade Center with building and employee emergency organizations and business continuity plans survived better than those without.”
When hired as a security consultant for a meeting or event, Werth does a standard 18-page security check-list. “It's not a cookie-cutter approach,” he says. “Every client and venue is different.”
Even understanding that it is unlikely that terrorist attacks will occur at a meeting doesn't allay every attendee's fears. “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 the event is very safe and secure, and that proper steps are being taken for the safety of attendees.”
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 attend meetings — and some skittish travelers are taking advantage of that flexibility.
Proper identification is a basic, but with heightened security concerns, organizations can step up their efforts by issuing identification that can't be easily copied — badges laminated with the group's logo or including a photo ID, for example. They can also make sure that security personnel assigned to check attendee badges are being overtly vigilant.
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, mainly because of delayed or canceled flights,” says Barbara McManus, vice president of meeting management for Somerville, N.J. — based Embryon Inc. “After September 11, I am adamant that teams, especially when we send only two people for smaller programs, do not fly together.”
Creating a Safe Space
One warning from Krugman: Every destination has its dangers. Do not advertise or promote a place as being safe.
Meeting location is a key consideration that has taken on heightened importance since 9/11. “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 (www.frac.com) advises companies on travel safety and security.
Moses 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.
“Everyone ought to have alternative destinations identified as they go forward, as part of a contingency process,” says Werth, who suggests that second- and third-tier cities or resorts might be good options. It may be more difficult to get to some of these destinations, but a meeting in Rochester or Tulsa, for example, may draw less attention.
Finally, security experts advise holding meetings as quietly as possible. Keeping a low profile may be counter to a company's desire for publicity, but it may be a necessary trade-off.
Bill Mattman, a former Secret Service agent who offers security advice for company events, says the dilemma was the same when he was guarding the president. “We wanted him in a tank, and they [political advisers] wanted him to walk the street.”
Mattman suggests avoiding big signs and banners at the airport and the hotel, using buses without signage, and discreetly giving attendees directions to meeting venues instead of making public announcements with directions.
“Some groups might want to consider listing their meeting under a different name,” Slepian suggests. “If so, make sure you instruct the hotel to inform their employees [of the actual event taking place]. They're usually the biggest leak.”
While many planners may be assessing their events' security for the first time, planners who manage meetings that attract foreign dignitaries, military personnel, or other high-profile personalities — or that deal with controversial issues such as abortion, AIDS, or global politics — have been focusing on security issues all along.
For example, last spring, PRA Destination Management got first-hand experience with meeting threats. The company was preparing for BIO 2001, a convention of the Biotechnology Industry Organization that attracts 15,000 attendees, when they learned that anarchists were holding a camp to teach protesters how to break police barricades, make bombs, sneak into meetings, and stop motorcoach shuttles.
In response, PRA rolled security into place to cover a range of possible disruptions to the June meeting in San Diego. Plans included evacuation instructions, emergency crisis contingencies, special insurance, multiple briefings, the distribution of booklets with every imaginable emergency contact, and extra permits for outdoor events to create a buffer zone around the event. PRA chairman Roscoe even hired security for her own company, since the anarchists had threatened anyone associated with the event.
“After what happened in Seattle and Québec [during meetings of the World Trade Organization], this city pulled out all the stops,” says Roscoe. “We've hosted Super Bowls and the Republican National Convention, and in 30 years I've never seen security like this.” While BIO 2001 went off without a hitch, 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, and we are changed,” he says. “If anybody thinks we're going back, they're mistaken.”
In Case of Emergency
Before the meeting, assign critical staff functions. Someone should be in control of communications, accountability, logistics (supplies), operations, finance, and planning. Give people the authority to carry out their tasks as needed.
Develop a chain of command among your staff and the hotel staff for emergencies. Only certain people should have decision-making authority. Command-level people should talk only with decision-makers. Know who these people are at the facility, so you don't waste time talking to the staff.
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 cell phones, and make sure there are phones in the meeting rooms in case the roam system goes down.
Take care of your staff. People can handle only 8 to 10 hours of high-stress situations at a time. Work in two- or three-hour shifts, and then take breaks. Have a quiet room for people to rest in between.
Source: Kevin Mellot, president, ERASE Enterprises, Dallas
Some practical, simple tips for safer business travel provided by the National Business Travel Association, Washington, D.C.
Before you go …
Share your travel itinerary with at least one colleague and your family.
Limit carry-ons to purses, briefcases, and absolute essentials.
Have two forms of identification, and carry them in separate locations. Also carry any medical information that may be needed if you are injured or incapacitated.
Carry all documentation and receipts related to your trip.
Allow time for airline personnel and security personnel to do their jobs.
Clearly identify all baggage, including items you carry onto the plane.
During the trip …
Take note of what is happening around you.
Be polite and considerate of airline and security personnel.
Be sure to keep ID, credit cards, and money in separate locations.
Carry a fully charged cell phone at all times. For international travel, know how to make long-distance and emergency calls.
If you are approached and feel that you may be a victim of crime or theft, do not try to be a hero. Respond to demands quickly, and remain calm.
Always carry information with you on any medical conditions, your blood type, and all contact information.